(originally posted on the Purple Hearts website in 2003 under the pen name Anzio Annie)
October 31 1944
The Siegfried Line
"Hey Sarge! Wait up!"
Under his camo helmet, a thin smile creased Saunders' grimy, weather-beaten face, but he didn't slow his pace. There had been no tone of urgency in Kirby's shout. Sarge had served with the garrulous BAR man long enough to recognize when Kirby was simply tired of his own thoughts and craved some conversation. It was just Saunders' luck (or misfortune, depending on how you looked at it) to be the nearest soldier in their single file march down yet another unmarked road.
He heard the boots behind him break into a trot and then Kirby fell into step beside him, sweeping off his helmet to scratch an itch behind one ear. "Hey Sarge," he repeated, and then waited while a tank rumbled past. He coughed out the dust that clogged his throat and then asked, "Where exactly ARE we, anyway?"
Saunders raised his face to the sky. Gunmetal gray clouds spread unbroken from Holland all the way to Luxembourg, he supposed. The ridges on the horizon were strung across the landscape like an old nun's heavy rosary – clumps of fir trees clustered together like so many beads, then thinning to reveal open pastures of outlying farms, leading up to an occasional village. Then the pattern repeated - more woods, more pastures and then another village. The valleys below were dense with dark, secretive forests.
The terrain here held no clues to political boundaries. The farmers and villagers who had toiled there for generations - what did they care what color their land was painted on somebody's map?
"Sarge?" The private was persistent.
A mess truck roared past, reminding Saunders that he was hungry and his feet hurt. Expecting no trouble yet, his arms were draped laconically over his Thompson, hung centered across his waist. He lifted his left arm to wave away another cloud of dust, and as they crested the hill, he pointed toward the valley far ahead of them. "Look over there," he said simply. "Dragon's teeth."
Rows of concrete pyramids jutted up from the earth in an uneven line, as far as the eye could see. Their jagged edges reminded Saunders of nothing so much as the gaping mouth of a hungry beast, defending its lair. Tanks attempting to breach the line would go belly up, slowing any Allied advance so the Germans could counterattack. As the Americans trudged closer, open gun emplacements loomed before them ominously.
"That's the Siegfried Line," he told Kirby. "The West Wall. We're in Germany now."
The Krauts had pulled back, driven from the hedgerows of Normandy, hunted across the Falaise Gap, chased through Belgium. And now their very homeland was being threatened. Aachen had been the first German city to fall.
He ought to feel triumphant. Or at least encouraged. Some of the new guys talked hopefully of being home by Christmas. But the truth was, Saunders didn't have a good feeling about this at all. There was nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal, threatened, protecting its own. They were entering the dragon's lair. And the Allies' progress had come at a high price; they were exhausted, depleted of men and supplies; not ready to make this push.
That's not how the brass saw it though.
He thrust his hands into his jacket pockets and frowned. Why was he filled with such a pervasive sense of doom? Was it simply a case of battle fatigue - too long on the front lines?
Saunders turned his head to study the soldiers around him. So many were new replacements; he had made no effort to distinguish one from another. He knew them by the energy in their step, by their nervous, hopeful chatter. And he had learned the hard way not to let them get too close. You watch out for them. But you can't count on them to watch out for you. You can only count on yourself. Yourself, and the men who had fought beside you since Normandy.
Littlejohn and Nelson marched silently along the column behind Kirby. Weary and wary. It was an ominous sign when the two of them weren't chatting. Behind them came Caje, ever alert, his darting eyes combing the woods even when they were part of a convoy. Saunders supposed it was simply habit, and what made him such an effective scout. He paid attention to everything.
Sarge was no slouch at being observant either. He had noticed the swarthy Cajun was clean-shaven for a change. There was a hidden side to the soldier that sometimes slipped out on those rare occasions when they were fortunate enough to be billeted in a French or Belgian village, as they had been the night before. In his native French, the stoic, self-reliant private could put down his M1 for a few minutes and became sociable, suave and charming. It seemed symbolic that Caje had taken that last opportunity to enjoy hot water and a close shave. Today they would move from being liberators to being invaders. It was as if he knew they would not be welcome in any villages again.
The squad rounded a curve and found the mess truck set up. "Hot coffee!" Kirby shouted, and abandoning Saunders to his melancholy, he jogged forward to jostle for position in line.
By the time Saunders got his tin cup filled with steaming black sludge, the rest of the squad was hunkered down on the ground against the trees that lined both sides of the road. German mines were heaped in piles an arm's reach away, already disarmed by American engineers. Sarge hoped they hadn't missed any.
Pvt. Dixon, a earnest young fellow whose face perpetually wore the wide-eyed look of someone who'd just walked into a surprise party – and didn't recognize any of the guests, shared the base of a broad tree trunk with Kirby. He seemed glad to have an excuse to hang around one of the veterans of the squad. Reaching into his jacket, he pulled out a well-worn scrap of paper and a pencil nub. "I promised my mom I'd write when I got assigned to a company," he told Kirby. "And I don't even know where we are. Do you have any idea?"
"Me? Of course I know! Don't they teach you new guys anything back in the States?" Kirby finished his coffee and stowed his gear. "Look down that valley where those concrete shapes are…" he started.
Saunders walked away. That sense of foreboding grew stronger. Cold sweat slid down between his shoulder blades and made him shiver. A few minutes later the rest of the platoon climbed to their feet and they all marched forward, into the teeth of the dragon.
"I do not understand, Herr Oberst," Lt. Steiniger protested. "Why are we not joining the battalion massing for the defense of Schmidt?" He looked around the long-abandoned school house where one small squad had been ordered to stay behind. There was Mueller, a brawny blacksmith before the war, who cared more about horses than people. Brandl stood meekly in the corner - older, mousy in size and coloring, slow-witted, superstitious, but generally reliable at following orders. And standing at rigid attention was Ungeheuer, the rabid stammfuhrer just graduated from the Hitler Youth. There was nothing soft about him, despite his years. He had the blond good looks that every German mother-to-be prayed her unborn child would have. With those Nordic features, and chiseled arms and shoulders, Ungeheuer was an athlete who had commanded hundreds of younger boys in his Gefolgschaft. He would be an asset to any army…except that… there was something chilling about those icy blue eyes, something not human.
Steiniger could not voice his reservations. One had to be careful at all times, what one said. To whom one spoke it. In what tones. He wondered if he had been…incautious… in his question to the SS colonel.
"Are you familiar with the American holiday called Halloween?" Col. Drache asked suddenly. He did not sound displeased at being questioned, Steiniger decided. More… preoccupied with his own plans.
The lieutenant shook his head.
"The streets of America are filled with ghosts and witches and monsters on Halloween," Drache explained. His eyes had a far-off look, visions of greedy little evil spirits amusing him. "There, children go to the doors of strangers. Really! They hope to get treats. But sometimes," Drache smiled, his thin lips curled in a line parallel to the scar that ran under his eye toward his sideburns, "they find an unpleasant surprise."
What in heaven's name did this have to do with his question? Steiniger looked at the enlisted men around him. They were equally puzzled by the words of the SS officer, but knew better than to challenge him. The threat of the punishment battalion stifled any questions.
Colonel Drache looked around the room, like a headmaster appraising his students. His smile turned into a smug sneer. "We," he concluded, "are planning an unpleasant surprise for anyone knocking on the fatherland's door."
November 1 1944
The Siegfried Line
First squad and third squad marched intermingled along another muddy road. Dixon was concentrating on keeping ten feet between himself and the soldier in front of him, when he noticed a couple buddies from the replacement depot fall into step, one on either side of him.
"Hey yourself, Harry. Didn't they teach you what "single file" means, back in Basic?"
Harrison was tall and thin, with an aristocratic bearing that made him cocky beyond his years. He shrugged, as though rules didn't really apply to him. "Nothing's gonna happen to you and me. We're in the lucky squad." His eyes shone behind wire-rim glasses, specs he hated because they made him look bookish. He was eager to see some action. "Now, Tommy, here, is in third squad. He might have cause to worry."
"Lucky? What do you mean?" Dixon asked. Tommy just gulped.
"Lucky - sure. Didn't you hear? Sgt. Saunders is charmed."
Dixon lowered his voice. "Charmed? I heard he's got so many purple hearts he'd get a hernia trying to wear them all. That doesn't sound very lucky to me. And he's been captured – more than once – too!" He felt a little smug that he'd been privy to such information, courtesy of tagging along after the voluble Kirby.
Tommy's eyes grew round as his freckled face gleamed with awe.
"That's what I mean," Harrison said. "Saunders walks into situations that would spell the end for any regular GI, and he always comes out alive."
"They don't come any braver than Sarge, that's what I hear," Dixon conceded.
Self-doubt was written all over Tommy's face, but looking around at his fellow replacements, he swallowed his fears, unspoken.
"I'm not afraid," Harrison boasted with a grin. "I figure serving with Saunders is a sure thing for bringing home a medal!"
So intent were the three on their private conversation that they didn't notice Sarge coming up behind them. "Don't bunch up," was all he said, and they quickly dispersed, Tommy nodding his compliance so vigorously that his too-big helmet rattled around his ears.
Saunders shook his head as they fell back in line. He had been lucky so far. But that was the thing about luck - there always came a time when a man's luck simply ran out.
The Americans were deep in the Huertgen forest, near a place called Todten Bruch on the map - Deadman's Moor - when the dragon woke with a roar.
There was no shelter. No foxhole. No one to shoot back at.
All you could do under the hail of artillery was run back the way you had come, or pray.
One of the replacements, wild-eyed, helmet-less and unarmed, ran screaming past Saunders. Sarge opened his mouth to yell at him and realized he didn't know the boy's name. So he lunged at him as the kid whipped past, wrapped his arms around the soldier's knees and brought him down with a well-timed tackle. The kid's hands clawed desperately at the mud, mindless of the man now sitting on his back, clawed until his fingers bled. Saunders rolled off, hauled him to his knees and then dragged him to the nearest tree. He stood the boy up against the trunk of the fir and growled, "Grab this!"
A shell exploded nearby and the boy dove for the ground again, shaking uncontrollably, his eyes screwed shut.
"They're exploding above the trees," Sarge shouted in his ear, grabbing him under the arms and pulling him upright again. "Standing up makes you a smaller target for falling shrapnel. Just keep a helmet on." He looked around; there was no sign of the boy's helmet.
The damn kid was so young, so scared. Even his freckles were pale with fear.
Sarge shook his head, took off his own helmet and put it on the boy's mop of toffee-colored curls.
Another mortar exploded, thirty feet above them.
Then the air was filled with the shrill whine of incoming shells and the deafening roar of German artillery exploding all around them. They were trapped in a maelstrom of shredded tree limbs, broken bodies, blood-curdling screams.
A canopy of razor-sharp splinters fell over them like a sudden downpour. One soldier, sprawled in a ditch, cried out as a severed branch impaled him through his thigh. More cries of "Medic!" floated through the yellow, smoke-filled air between explosions.
"Stay here," Sarge ordered, and scrambled off to help the nearest victim.
He didn't know this kid's name either, just that he was new to second platoon. Replacements had been rotating in faster than he could keep track of them. Saunders knelt in the wet moss and discovered blood spurting from the soldier's leg, a pulsing little geyser that soaked his uniform in seconds. Without waiting for help, Sarge tore off the man's belt and wrapped it high around the injured leg. His knuckles whitened with the strain of making it tight enough… tighter… the gushing ebbed… stopped.
Mud splattered over them as someone skidded to a stop beside them. Doc.
Saunders leaned back on his heels, his hands shaking, and realized the shelling had stopped. No more deafening, concussive blasts. Just thin cries for help. And the acrid smell of burnt powder. Squinting through the smoke, he sought out the men in his squad.
Littlejohn, as usual, was the easiest to identify in any mass of bedraggled soldiers, camouflaged with filth. He stood head and shoulders above the three youngsters he had gathered with him at the base of another fir tree nearby. He had a firm grip on one private's sleeve, making sure the panicked kid wouldn't bolt out into the open.
Kirby had been caught in the open, crossing a bald patch of earth created by an errant artillery shell from an earlier battle. He lay curled in the bottom of the shallow crater now, his tightly coiled body sheltering the Browning as if protecting his best friend. For a moment he lay motionless; then Saunders saw his helmet move. And then Kirby stood up and shrugged off a cloak of scorched pine needles, with all the distaste of an alley cat shaking off the effects of a sudden cloudburst. A cat with nine lives, Saunders thought, as Kirby scrambled nimbly out of the crater and went to check on another soldier who was lying nearby, head buried under his arms, shaking.
It took a little more effort to find Caje. The woods-savvy scout had apparently found a massive fallen tree and melted under it when the shelling started. He emerged now, unfolding himself limb by limb, and suddenly broke into a run as he discovered a fallen comrade.
It was Billy.
Sarge took a step in that direction himself before he saw Billy sit up groggily and wave Caje off with a familiar "I'm all right" gesture. Relieved, Saunders turned back to Doc, and watched the tired medic place a gentle hand across the man's unseeing eyes. The corpsman looked up at Sarge and shook his head.
Saunders stared at the man on the ground, and felt a familiar numbness start to wash over him, a self-defense mechanism that lately seemed to rise without warning, to isolate him and protect him from the threat of incapacitating grief. Sound faded away to nothing. Color leeched away. Doc moved in slow motion, climbing wearily to his feet….
Then Captain Jampel's hoarse voice reverberated through the silence. "Move out!"
Adrenaline banished the numbness. Saunders gripped his Thompson.
The platoon milled together, some men kicking the ground nervously, some standing still rooted in shock. One of the new men, Dixon, was losing his lunch after stumbling over a boot on the trail and discovering that it wasn't empty. No one stepped forward at the command. Sarge looked back, where the captain was tapping his compass and conferring with Lt. Hanley. Hanley caught Saunders' eye, a silent communication honed by months served together, and the sergeant nodded. Without a word, he checked his weapon and started off again. One by one the men in his squad fell in behind him - Caje and Kirby exchanging looks and then setting off in his footsteps. Littlejohn held out his hand and then hauled Billy to his feet; they followed. Harrison was the first of the newbies to fall in, with all the false bravado of a high school football player taking the field again, pumping himself up with a muttered pep talk. "C'mon! Let's go get 'em!" One by one, the other men in second platoon staggered after them. In a minute everyone was on the move again, deeper into Germany.
A minute after that, the mortar barrage began again.
"There are many ways to break a man."
Colonel Josef Drache's mouth curled up in a satisfied smile, like a man remembering the sweet aroma of warm cinnamon strudel, fresh from the oven on a cold winter morning. A hungry man, the lieutenant thought, who wanted that taste again, and soon.
Lt. Franz Steiniger squirmed inside, at having the SS officer attached to his company. Himmler had recently begun inserting many of his men into the regular army troops, to ferret out any hints of Wehrkraftzersetzung - an attitude of weakness that might lead, unchecked, to withdrawal or surrender or desertion. The SS punished such thoughts with swift reprisals. When he was last in Berlin, Steiniger had been appalled to see a soldier – a decorated soldier! - swinging lifeless from a lamppost, a rope around his broken neck. For what indiscretion, Steiniger wondered. A placard had been pinned to the dead man's chest that read "I hang here because I am too cowardly to defend my fatherland".
The SS "black shirts" had no mercy.
"Yes," Drache repeated softly to himself, one long finger absently stroking a scar that ran under his left eye toward his ear. "There are many ways to break a man…."
Steiniger hoped the SS Colonel's enthusiasm for intimidation would be directed at the prospect of new enemy prisoners, and not at the war-weary veterans and sickly old draftees who were awaiting his command.
Saunders groaned. The brass had finally, reluctantly, called a retreat and what was left of the company had collapsed back at the point of departure, beside a weed-choked, abandoned cemetery near Richelskaul, just beyond the Krauts' artillery range. Sarge had lost track of Hanley in the melee, and he wasn't about to go looking for orders now. The lieutenant, he figured, was probably holed up with Capt. Jampel, calculating how many casualties they'd incurred per yard gained or lost. Saunders wanted no part of that kind of meeting. So he had found a nice solid, unshakable hunk of marble - a tombstone in fact – and let himself sink to a position of semi-comfort against it and had just now closed his eyes, shutting out the day's horrors, letting his mind search for that blessed state of numbness again. This time, it was the deep, lightly accented voice of the Cajun soldier interrupting his stupor. But unlike some of the men in the platoon, Caje wasn't one to strike up idle conversation on the front lines. If he had something to say, it was worth listening to. The fact that he seemed out of breath merely confirmed Sarge's judgment.
Saunders raised his head to find the man in front of him bent over, hands on knees, blood on the front of his jacket. "Caje?" He reached a hand out to steady his friend, but it wasn't necessary.
Caje saw the source of his concern and waved it off. "Not my blood. It's Lt. Hanley." He straightened, his breath coming more slowly now, condensing in small puffs of mist in the cold November air. "He took some shrapnel. Doc and I got him back to Battalion Aid. He's gonna be okay. But they want to see you there, right away."
That was a half-mile back. A helluva long way to hike, Sarge thought, when he felt like crap. But he couldn't complain in front of a man who had just helped haul nearly 200 pounds of officer and gear that same distance and then apparently run all the way back. Just once, Saunders mused, he'd like to hear Caje complain. But then again, he supposed Kirby griped enough for the whole squad.
Using his Thompson as a crutch to climb to his feet, Saunders pushed off from the carved headstone. "Have the guys do an ammo check and get re-stocked while we can. Don't want anyone running short tomorrow."
"Right Sarge." The weary soldier slumped down into the spot Sarge had just vacated, deciding it wouldn't hurt to check his own rifle and ammo belt before summoning up the energy to check on the others. As Saunders walked away, Caje noticed that his NCO's sleeve was frayed and streaked with blood. "Hey, Sarge?" Caje started to climb back to his feet, but Saunders just ignored him and trudged off down the darkening road. He appeared steady enough. Caje shook his head, eased himself back down, and thumbed back the magazine on his M1 to check his clip.
Outside Battalion Aid, a couple of litter bearers were hard at work with scrub brushes and a bucket, trying to scour away the dark stains on a vacant stretcher. The redhead looked up when a soldier approached - another walking wounded, he sighed.
"Lieutenant Hanley here?" Saunders asked them, ambling to a stop and weaving slightly. The shorter man nodded and shrugged one shoulder toward the tent. "They're fixin' to send him to the rear," he said. "But he ain't left yet. They took the worst cases out first. So that's a good sign." The corpsman paused. "Leastways, it's a good sign if you like officers."
Saunders dipped his head in a short nod. A lot of the new officers were nothing more than 90 day wonders, who learned what they knew from a book and had no patience to listen to someone fresh from a foxhole. But Hanley wasn't one of those. He was a good officer, respected, and more than that, a friend. All Saunders said aloud though, was "We could use more like this one."
Then he stepped inside the olive drab tent. The canvas walls kept out the worst of the biting wind, but there was no heat. He shivered. Doc materialized at his side. "Let me take a look at that," he said, taking Sarge gently by the left arm.
"Looks like you got those stripes shot right off," Doc answered, with a rueful smile. Saunders looked down and saw it was true; underneath the muck, his left sleeve was torn and bloodstained and the chevrons of rank were dangling by a thread. He shrugged. "It's just a crease. I'm here to see Hanley."
"Well, he can wait two minutes while I patch this up," Doc said. When it came to his patients, Doc didn't care what anyone else said. He was in charge. And with a speed sharpened on body-strewn battlefields, he was as good as his word. In two minutes he had thesarge's jacket peeled off, sulfa powder and a field dressing slapped on, the bandage ends tied into place, and then the field jacket eased back on.
"Now, you can see the Lieutenant," he said.
Gil Hanley was propped up on a cot in the corner, his face pale but his green eyes alert. He held a clipboard on his lap, and set down his pen when Saunders approached. "Your squad all okay?" he asked. It wasn't what he had summoned his platoon sergeant there to say to him, but there are few times in battle for social pleasantries. When an opportunity presented itself, Hanley was one who felt there was value in observing the niceties. He knew just what each man in his command needed to hear – to focus – to forget. Certainly, Saunders seemed to relax a little at the question.
"Yeah, yeah. Live to fight another day," he quipped. "How about you?"
Hanley winced and put his left hand to his side. "Piece of shrapnel had my name on it today," he said. "It won't keep me down long. But they want to do X-rays before they let me back up here."
They both knew he wouldn't be back as soon as he implied.
"Did you know Eddie Dugan?" Hanley asked suddenly.
Saunders looked at him blankly.
"Kid from third squad; just came up from the repple depple last week. Got hit by a tree burst today."
Saunders turned toward Doc. The medic nodded; Dugan was the kid who had bled to death in the road while they were helpless to save him. "No, sir," Saunders turned back to Hanley. "I know which one he was, but I can't say I know anything about him. Why don't you ask Murphy?" Ed Murphy was the tech sergeant who mother-henned the newbies in third squad. Tim MacAllister shepherded second squad, while Saunders led first squad.
"Murphy didn't make it," Hanley said simply. "I'm writing his folks after I finish this letter."
Oh. So that's why the interest. "Well," Saunders scuffed the ground uneasily. "You can tell Dugan's family that Eddie… wasn't afraid. And he didn't suffer."
That was a lie. They were all afraid. But he didn't suffer…long. Saunders wished he could offer more. Some reassurance that Eddie had friends who cared what happened to him. But he didn't even know if Dugan had friends. Getting to know the men more deeply, just cut you more deeply when they fell. You had to stay a little detached, didn't you, to survive?
What would they write his own mother, Saunders suddenly wondered, if it had been him caught in that tree burst?
"Tell them," he said impulsively, "that Eddie wasn't alone when he died." Somehow, it seemed important that his family know that. He blinked, and then looked away, staring out the open tent flap, not wanting anyone to read the thoughts in his eyes. A truck pulled up outside. Soldiers leapt to their feet to help unload the wounded. And then they fell back when they saw that the bodies in the truck were already cold and stiff.
Hanley broke into a coughing fit and Saunders' jerked his head back to offer him a sympathetic look. If there was anything more miserable than a cold, it was a cold when you had a hole in your chest. "Why don't you rest, Lieutenant?" he said. "You don't have to write those letters."
"Yes. I do."
And Saunders knew he would. Whether it was for the grieving family back home, or solace to ease his own conscience, he wasn't sure, but he knew Hanley would write those letters. Saunders was glad he didn't have to.
"A word of advice." Hanley's voice was getting weaker, his eyes starting to look unfocused. "Don't be such a stranger to your men. Especially the new ones. Be patient. Let them …. " he broke off in another coughing fit.
Saunders frowned. He knew he was tired and hurting; knew his brain felt as thick as that sludge they called coffee. But he sensed that Hanley was trying to tell him something more than those words of advice. He just couldn't make out what. Was it possible that the lieutenant knew he had just collapsed, there in the cemetery, without even checking to make sure everyone in the squad was safe first?
When had that started happening? When had he given up hoping that everyone would make it back unscathed? When had he started acting like it didn't matter?
But the lieutenant couldn't read his mind; couldn't know what Saunders was feeling. It had to be something else… but what?
Hanley sagged back against the cot. His fingers lacked the strength to hold the pen any longer, and it rolled out of his hand and onto the floor. Doc quietly picked it up and pocketed it.
"Captain Jampel… wants to see you, right away," Hanley rasped. "We don't have a single officer left. Every one got hit." He coughed, and winced again. "He's going to give you a field promotion to second lieutenant, Saunders. Congratulations."
Sarge rocked back on his heels. "Whoa! I don't know about that, sir." Sending his men off on missions without him. Writing their parents when they didn't make it back. He wasn't sure this was an opportunity he wanted to take.
"Saunders. There isn't anyone else. You don't really think you have a choice about this, do you?" Hanley's words were slurred; his eyelids fluttered shut. Doc took the clipboard from his lax hands and laid it on the floor beside him.
"No sir. I guess I don't," Saunders said softly.
Hanley had the last word, his voice no more than a whisper. "And get yourself a fresh jacket before you go back." There was the ghost of a grin. "That blood tends to scare the new guys."
Saunders ducked his head in a nod. Nothing got past Lieutenant Hanley.
"C'mon," Doc said, "I'll show you where the captain has his CP," and led him out of the tent.
Steiniger listened to the sounds of an artillery barrage off to the north. Peering through the broken window, it looked as though some giant hand had dropped splashes of orange paint on the broad canvas of the lead-gray sky, and then the clouds slowly absorbed the color until the canvas was left bare again. Steiniger knew the 116th Panzers were preparing to face off against the Americans, and his own 89th Infantry Division was there to support them. He still did not understand why the SS officer had ordered this one squad to stay behind in the hamlet of Simonskall.
But Herr Oberst Drache did not seem to like direct questions.
Mueller and Brandt and Ungeheuer had evacuated the handful of civilians who had remained, and the soldiers were now rotating watch over the dirt road that led into the village. Lt. Steiniger and Col. Drache were alone in the one-room schoolhouse; Drache studying his maps in the fire light cast by the wood-burning stove; Steiniger watching the orange fade to the north and rise to the west. The artillery was silent now; the color was the hand of God drawing the curtain on another day. That was what his grandmother used to call sunset. But Steiniger could not share that whimsical thought with the colonel. SS officers renounced all religion.
Drache looked up to see the lieutenant watching him. The young man didn't look young any more, he thought to himself. Steiniger was 22 but looked twice that age now. Drache had a son the same age. Or he would be 22 - if he hadn't fallen on the Russian front two years before. Franz Steiniger reminded him of Erik in some ways. Each was tall and slender, wore glasses, and would have chosen an academic career if the war had not intervened. Because of this resemblance, Drache allowed himself to be more tolerant of the lieutenant's questions than he would have been of any of the enlisted men.
It was perhaps, an out-of-character indulgence.
Drache's swift rise in Himmler's favor had not come about because he was soft, or sympathetic. He had first come to the attention of the SS two years before, when he was a member of Reserve Police Battalion 101, assigned to Poland. Drache had distinguished himself in the Judenjagd, the Jew Hunt, where he had tracked down over 100 of the vermin who had tried to hide in the Parczew forest. He had personally executed dozens of them, coldly - man, woman and child - with a single economical bullet to the back of each head.
Actually, he had nothing in particular against the Jews. They were untermenschen, less than human. There was no challenge to hunting them. Since being recruited into the SS, Drache found it more stimulating to be ruthless against his fellow Germans. After all, in this very part of Germany, he had recently captured and interrogated suspected members of the Red Orchestra, the German resistance. He had not proven their guilt, but suspicion was enough to banish them to the KZ - the konzentrationslager. Before that, he had hanged a teenage civilian caught looting a radio during a bomb raid. The colonel had even ordered one Hitler Youth to the firing squad for voicing concern about a German defeat. No one could say Herr Oberst Drache was not vigilant against Germans.
But Herr Leutnant Steiniger had said and done nothing yet to warrant such retaliation. And he did remind the colonel of Erik. No, if Drache was hungry to administer further punishment, he would have to look forward to turning his special talents on the enemy, instead. He looked down at his watch. Soon. Very soon.
Most new officers, especially anyone who wanted to make a good impression on the man who had recommended him for a promotion, wouldn't contradict that superior on his first briefing. But Saunders wasn't like most men.
"Captain, pushing through the Huertgen Forest right now is suicide," he said. "We've got to get some air support to take out that Kraut artillery on the Brandenberg-Bernstein ridge first."
Jampel rubbed the bandage that swathed his head like a Hindu turban. "Saunders, we can't wait for the weather to break. It could be weeks! Maybe you aren't aware of the strategic value of this territory. It is imperative that VII Corps break through to the Cologne Plains; get our tanks across the Roer River and onto open ground. Do you realize we are less than 40 miles away from the Rhine?" The captain stabbed a finger at the map in front of him.
"Yes sir, I know…." Saunders stared down that the map. The push was east along the Germeter-Huertgen road. To the south of Germeter lay the villages of Vossenack, Kommerscheidt, Schmidt, connected by a dotted line, and then the Roer dams. "Sir, has Battalion considered the possibility that we could be marching into a trap?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, sir, look there. What if the Germans have set demolitions here at the Schwammenauel Dam? They may be just waiting for us to get half our battalion across the Roer River. Then, they blow the dam. The flooding would take out our men and equipment, worse than their artillery does. And it would cut off the forward companies, east of the river, so they couldn't pull back. They'd be lost." Saunders' finger traced the dotted line that represented what was, at best, a dirt road. "If the Krauts could mass a counter-attack from Schmidt, they could box in any of our troops trapped west of the Roer River too."
He looked up then, meeting the captain eye-to-eye. "We would be wiped out, sir."
Jampel didn't answer for a long moment. He frowned as though his head hurt. Then he nodded. "We need to take Schmidt, to protect the right flank. But we aren't pushing off till the day after tomorrow – gives us a day to lick our wounds, and hope the skies clear enough to get finally get some air support. You've got tomorrow, Lieutenant. Send a recon patrol out to see what we're walking into."
The new officer was stunned. It hadn't occurred to him that he'd be given the responsibility for making sure the division wasn't walking into disaster. He didn't want the job. It was force of habit that made him the words leave his lips without thought. "Yes sir. I'll do it."
"Not you," Jampel clarified. "I said send a patrol, not lead a patrol. I can't risk losing any more officers."
Saunders swallowed; his mouth felt dry. He didn't want to go – but even more strongly, he didn't want to order his men to go in his place. Should he feel relieved that he was spared the risk? But there wasn't time to dwell on it – Jampel was explaining exactly what he wanted done.
The sky was black when Saunders finally left the command post. He stopped at the Aid Tent, but Lt. Hanley had already been evacuated to the rear. Leaving the tent, he found a vaguely familiar face, pale and freckled, framed by short ginger-colored colicky hair. The boy looked lost. He was one of the trio of newbies in the platoon that had all arrived on the same day last week – the one who'd been assigned to third squad. Not my problem, not my squad, was Saunders' first reaction. And then he remembered that the entire platoon was his problem now.
"Yes… yes sir?"
"You looking for somebody?"
"Well, for something, anyway." The boy smiled weakly. "Doc told me to come up here to get this looked at." He waved a freshly-bandaged left hand a little proudly. "So I did. But I just realized that I left my helmet there somewhere. Actually … " a look of guilt flashed across his face. "I think I left your helmet there. I lost mine in the barrage this morning, and you gave me yours." He gestured at the helmet that now hung from the bayonet sheathed on his belt, his third helmet in 24 hours. "I picked up another, but, gee, I'm sorry…." He looked positively miserable.
Saunders remembered then – this was the kid from the tree. He hadn't thought anything of it at the time, but suddenly, it seemed a dark omen now. That camo helmet had seen Saunders through all those impossible situations that had made him a legend. was gone now. And if it was pure luck that kept him alive, maybe that was gone now, too.
"Anyway," the boy was saying, "it's so danged dark now, I take two steps away from the tent there and I can't see a thing. I don't have any idea how to get back to my foxhole."
Saunders banished his reverie. "Come here," he said. "What's your name son?" Son? Sheesh, he was even starting to sound like an officer.
The boy shouldered his weapon and stepped forward. "Private T.J. Thomas, sir. Folks call me Tommy," he added a little sheepishly. "Everybody except my Mom."
"I'm your new CO… Lt. Saunders." It sounded strange. He wasn't sure he liked it. "You ever hear of military braille … Tommy?"
"Uh… no sir…?"
Saunders took the soldier's right hand and placed it on the telephone wire that ran along the ground from the command post. Then he picked up the strand and straightened, so that the line was held hip high. "Military braille," he repeated. "Even when you're blind, you can feel your way."
"Wow." The single word from Tommy resonated with unadulterated hero worship, and Saunders shook his head and turned his back on the recruit, to lead the way. A trek that had taken 15 minutes in daylight took four times that now. The deeper they went into the woods, the more Pvt. Thomas slowed. Soon his teeth began chattering like a Kraut schmeisser.
"You cold, Tommy?" Saunders whispered. Who wasn't? But a man who couldn't keep silent when it counted could lead to a lot of good men getting killed.
"No, sir. I…uh…I guess it's nerves, a bit."
Even worse. It was bad enough to have a green recruit or two in the squad. Now he had a whole platoon to worry about, and he didn't have time for molly-coddling. He remembered Hanley preaching patience to him, though, and resisted the impulse to just boot the kid out of his way and leave him behind. It was tempting though. Instead, he reached into a pocket and drew out a pack of gum. "Here."
Thomas couldn't see it. Saunders groped forward along the telephone wire, found the boy's hand, and put the foil wrapped package in his palm. "Chew on some gum," he told him.
The anxious private did as he was ordered, and the taste of spearmint seemed to soothe his nerves, as well as muffle the chattering teeth. "Thanks, Lieutenant!" He paused. "I – uh – " his voice dropped to a shameful murmur. "I don't think I'm cut out for this soldiering business, sir."
"Oh, kid, none of us are," Saunders muttered. Once upon a time Sergeant Saunders might have taken a moment for a much-needed pep talk, but Lieutenant Saunders couldn't remember how. He sensed Tommy stumbling along on his heels like a clumsy puppy and they inched their way forward.
It took nearly an hour before they were back at their line. Tommy was hauled in by a shivering friend who welcomed more body heat in the half-empty dugout. The phone wire led beyond them, to Sgt. Tim MacAllister's foxhole. Saunders staggered there, briefedMacAllister about the new chain of command, and then collapsed, spent, and slept like the dead.
Like the dead that haunted the Huertgen Forest, lifeless bodies hugging the cold damp earth, whose restless spirits were not at peace.
November 2 1944
West of Vossenack
MacAllister woke when the soldier beside him stirred and crawled out of their damp foxhole. He squinted at his watch. 0700. The sun may have risen, but it was hidden behind a cloud blanket, an infinite expanse of blue-gray, as though the whole planet was wrapped in the wool of the German uniform.
Just what Hitler had in mind, he thought with a shudder.
Saunders reappeared, silent as a ghost. "Gather the platoon – what's left of it - have them met me at the south cemetery wall at 0730. We've got a mission," he said, and tersely filled the sergeant in.
"Yes, sir!" MacAllister hadn't served with Saunders long; the lanky Texan had been with a different unit when he'd been wounded in the foot at Melun, just a week before the Allies liberated Paris. That was followed by two months in a hospital in England. He'd been back just a week, re-assigned from the Replacement Depot to K Company. Hanley's platoon.
Saunders's platoon now.
It wasn't a hard mental shift for him to think of the man in front of him as Lt. Saunders. MacAllister lingered, waiting to see if the other man was expecting a salute. But Saunders turned away, checking a stack of short-wave radios. Satisfied, MacAllister scurried out into the dawn, to tell the men about the mission and the new promotion too.
The first foxhole he came to belonged to a pair from first squad. Littlejohn and Nelson. The big man was already awake and working on a small campfire. It seemed to MacAllister that he'd heard Littlejohn was a farmer in Nebraska before the war. Probably used to waking up with the roosters. MacAllister gave him the message, left him to wake up his buddy, and moved on.
Thomas and Dixon shared another man-made ditch. It didn't matter that they weren't in the same squad - the platoon has been decimated to the point where squad distinctions no longer mattered. The new guys had gravitated to each other, dug in, and now they were both sound asleep, although how anyone could look so uncomfortable and remain asleep was more than MacAllister could figure out. The two men were lying in a puddle of cold water, and the foxhole was neither long enough nor deep enough to adequately shelter them. I ought to split the new guys up, the sergeant thought, pair them each up with someone a little more experienced. But he knew that would be hard. When they'd come into K company from the Repple-Depple with Harrison, the old-timers had kept to themselves, and hadn't exactly welcomed them with open arms. They'd nicknamed the newcomers Tom, Dick and Harry - generic names for three more anonymous bodies in GI uniforms. Lumped together, the three teenagers had clung to each other, survived their first battle together, and had already begun that unshakable bond that MacAllister had seen so often develop in combat.
MacAllister squatted beside Thomas and Dixon, shook the nearest shoulder and passed along the order.
He looked for 'Harry' next. Harrison was a cocky kid from a prep school in New England, temporarily billeted with platoon medic. MacAllister hadn't learned the corpsman's name yet, but no one else seemed to either. Everyone just called him Doc. As the sergeant approached, he stumbled a little on the uneven terrain and hissed as his recently healed ankle objected to the sudden strain. Doc was alert in an instant, even in his sleep sensitive to the sounds of men in pain. The sergeant reassured him that he was fine and told him to wake Harrison and meet at the rendezvous.
Then he paused a moment, counting, and decided there were only two more soldiers left from second platoon - the BAR man and the scout. Their dugout made a statement about their experience in the ETO, suggesting an attitude favoring creature comforts and a willingness to exert a little effort in that quest too. The foxhole was deeper than most, and the base was lined thick with pine boughs. Across half the top, fallen tree limbs were woven together to form a makeshift roof. Someone had pilfered some empty flour sacks from the chow truck and positioned them across the top, where they peeked out underneath an insulating layer of dirt and moss. A German canteen was wedged near the opening, with a bit of charred rope peeking out to reveal that it didn't carry water any more, and had been turned into a lantern instead.
Be it ever so humble, MacAllister murmured. Too bad it was obviously built by a pair of small guys; he could never scrunch his own six feet four into it, he thought ruefully. He was able to appreciate it in such minute detail at that moment because it was unoccupied.
Mac looked around, and saw one of the missing men coming toward him from what was, he suddenly recalled, the final tour at the night's scheduled outpost duty. The soldier yawned widely and his BAR hung loosely in one hand. Kirby. MacAllister looked around to discover the other missing soldier - the one who spoke with a slight accent - had already joined Littlejohn and Nelson at the campfire, where he was squatting on his heels and inhaling the aroma that steamed from his tin cup.
Twenty minutes later, they were assembled around Sergeant MacAllister when Saunders strode up, Thompson held in his right hand, helmet with a lieutenant's bar tucked under his left arm, his fingers wrapped around the straps from three portable radios.
"How's Hanley?" Kirby's jaw cracked as he tried to stifle another yawn. "He get hisself a million dollar wound?"
"No, he'll be back," Saunders told them.
Billy Nelson leaned forward. "What's the plan?" he asked. "Battalion's not gonna try it again, are they?"
"Not today." Saunders rubbed the back of his neck. "They're gonna give it a day for the weather to lift and then drop some bombs on those big guns on the ridge first. Soften 'em up."
"Hallelujah!" Dixon whispered under his breath, exchanging a relieved smile with Thomas and Harrison.
"So – then – why'd you get us out here at the crack o'dawn?" Kirby griped. He'd been hoping to crawl back to sleep after his turn on sentry duty.
"Because we don't get a day off," Saunders said. He spread out a map, and the men clustered around, Kirby still muttering. Littlejohn gave him a good-natured cuff on the side of the head to shut him up. MacAllister peered over Saunders' shoulder.
"S2 wants to make sure the division isn't in for any big surprises from the south. So we've got a little recon patrol." Saunders drew his finger down the line to Vossenack. "That's the village just ahead. South of that is the Kall gorge. We need to find out if the terrain there, the road and bridges, would support tanks and heavy equipment."
"Ours? Or theirs?" Billy asked.
"Both," Saunders said. "S2 wants to know whether they're staging a build-up, and they also want to know if we could stage an offensive ourselves, on the dams, here." His finger followed the curving line south on the map to the Rurstausee reservoir.
"Item company and the rest of K company are going to follow behind us, take positions just outside Vossenack. But we'll go on ahead to do a little reconnaissance. We go down the Kall Trail, evaluate the terrain, and set up a base at the sawmill at the bottom of the gorge. We'll leave a couple men there as a radio relay back to division. The rest cross the river and back up the gorge and push on to Schmidt. You can see there's a crossroads there." He looked at Sgt. MacAllister, who nodded.
"I need a squad to check it out, see if the Krauts are using that as a supply route through the Monschau Corridor," Saunders continued. "Stay in radio contact. If the Krauts aren't there yet, hold the road junction. While you're doing that, I want half the men to hightail it over to the reservoir, here. Keep a low profile. Don't let them know we're in the neighborhood. Just check out their defenses; see if you can get any sense of what they're expecting. Any signs of a build-up? Any signs of explosives at the dam?"
"Explosives? You think they'd blow their own dam?" Littlejohn frowned. "Hell, in '43, the RAF tried bombing their dams, and barely made it back. Why would the Krauts blow it for us?"
"Because this time they could catch us in the floodwaters," Saunders said simply.
Littlejohn nodded thoughtfully.
"Time is critical here. We'll drop our packs at the sawmill. It's a lot of territory but we want a quick strike. In and out. Rendezvous back at the mill before dark."
MacAllister studied the men around him. In his week back, he'd made some snap judgments about the caliber of men he'd be fighting with; now he would find out how close he was.
Franz Steiniger was a conscientious soldier. He made sure his men had rations to eat, that the night's watch rotation was fair. Brandl, who was skittish after dark, was assigned the evening shift. Ungeheuer, who was frightened of nothing, stood guard during the blackest hours of night. Mueller, a farmer and a blacksmith before the war, was accustomed to rising before dawn and to him Steiniger assigned the last shift. He knew his men. Satisfied that they understood his expectations in return, he stepped back inside the schoolhouse, the bitter November wind gusting and tossing a flurry of dead leaves in after him. A fallen horse chestnut rolled across the floor and came to a stop beside the desk, while Steiniger latched the door securely shut.
Yes, he thought. The enlisted men knew what to do. But what of his own role in this play? He turned to face his superior. "Herr Oberst," Steiniger began, patiently. "I have received orders to remain here in Simonskall. As long as you require our services. But my orders do not explain our assignment."
Drache put down his book. He was seated behind the schoolteacher's desk; Steiniger faced him, balancing his weight on the lid of a student's desk in the front row, hands folded on his knees, waiting attentively. Perhaps, Drache thought, he will make a good pupil.
"Why do you believe we will win this war, Herr Leutnant?" he asked.
Steiniger's eyes flickered with uneasy surprise. He did not answer. He had no answer.
"The Americans outnumber us, significantly," Drache prompted. "Why do you think we will triumph?"
"Because…" Steiniger's voice came out shakily and he drew a breath to steady it. Because we must have something to believe in, he thought. War gnaws away at our humanity, deadens our hearts. It threatens to turn us into hungry wolves - vicious - mindlessly following the pack. Hope - that is what we feed those last flickering flames, the tiny fire of humanity deep inside that keeps the wolf at bay. We must believe in something. Even in a hopeless cause.
Such thoughts could lead to a placard and a noose. So they remained unspoken. Instead, he answered carefully, "Because the Fuhrer tells us we will succeed," Steiniger said, straightening his posture and trying to sound confident. "The Fuhrer is a great military strategist, he knows of matters I can not know. He says Germany is developing a new weapon that will bring our enemies to their knees."
"Yes. We will see them crawl on their knees.…" the SS officer murmured. Then he looked up at his companion. "We already have the weapon we need," he said, "and it is no rocket. That weapon is discipline. Our soldiers have been training for this moment all our lives. Look at young Ungeheuer out there," Drache added, gesturing toward the window where the ex-Hitler youth was standing watch. "He has known nothing but the Nazi regime. He has been a soldier since he was seven years old." The colonel nodded proudly."But the Americans. They are soft. They do not have discipline. They do not even want to be here. They want to go home. Yes?"
That is all any of us want, Steiniger thought. He said nothing.
Drache continued enthusiastically, "Himmler is interested in my theories, in exploring the most efficient ways to break the spirits of the Americans. I think, with the right encouragement, the Americans would throw down their weapons and run away, without a thought for their orders, for their comrades. Thinking of nothing but their own safety. Can you picture that, Steiniger?" He rose to his feet, and began to pace behind the desk.
The lieutenant frowned. He had seen brave men, and cowards, on every battlefield. On every side. True, the German army was defending their homeland now, they would fight to the last man to protect their families. But he didn't think the Americans would so easily panic. "What do you mean, Herr Oberst?" he asked, not for the first time.
"Our objective," Drache said, turning to face the lieutenant, "is to take some prisoners. And then we will conduct some most scientific experiments. Like experimenting with rats, do you see? We will determine what the most effective methods are to make them turn on their friends; abandon their comrades to save themselves."
He stopped pacing at the edge of the desk and brought his hob-nailed boot down sharply on the chestnut on the floor. With a loud crack, it burst open, the shell still trapped beneath the officer's heel. "You see? Everything spills its secrets, if you just apply the right pressure," Drache said.
Vossenack seemed to be a ghost town of abandoned homes, extending along a narrow strip of road atop a bald ridge, with the steeple of St. Josef's Church the principle landmark. The dark woods and the Kall trail waited, 200 yards of open ground away.
"What if … what if the Krauts are in those trees? Watchin' us?" Tommy couldn't keep the tremor out of his voice. The platoon, barely larger than a squad now, huddled behind the cover of the outermost building, awaiting word to move out.
"We'll be a lot less conspicuous than the whole division," Billy said. "That's why we're goin' out ahead of them."
"Yeah. And we'll send Caje first. If they don't shoot at him, then it'll be safe for the rest of us." Kirby added.
Caje swatted him amiably. "You wanna go first, pal, you go right ahead."
Sgt. MacAllister stepped up, shutting off the banter. "Caje, take the point."
Kirby shook his head ruefully at his foxhole partner. "Sorry – you heard the man. Maybe next time."
With an exasperated look back, Caje took off across the meadow. Tommy held his breath until the nimble scout disappeared into the trees.
The next man took off at a jog.
"Uh …. What if … what if there isn't any bridge over the river when we get to the bottom of the gorge?" Dixon stammered.
Kirby snorted. "Now, what good would a trail be if it came to a dead end? The Krauts ain't that stupid, kid."
Dixon gave the older man a look. "I know that. But they might have knocked out the bridge themselves, huh?"
"Then our engineers will build a new one," Littlejohn said calmly.
"So – we'd go back and report that …"
"We don't go back." Saunders didn't lift his head from the map he was checking. "We radio back. and then you cross the river anyway. And continue to Schmidt."
Fear settled across Dixon's bookish features. "I'm, uh, not much of a swimmer."
Kirby tapped Dixon's helmet. "Worry about that when the time comes. You're up next kid. Go!"
One by one they darted across the open field and then began their descent, single file, down the Kall Trail. Soon the path dropped sharply into the dark gloom of the forest. At times it seemed barely more than a 6-foot-wide ledge between the shale wall of the gorge on their right, and a steep drop-off on their left. At one point a rocky outcropping jutted across the trail, partially blocking their way and forcing them toward the slippery edge of the muddy trail. When they came to a switchback, Caje held up a fist and the soldiers froze. Saunders trotted up and the two conferred a moment.
Harrison, the man next in line behind Caje, joined them. "Want me to go check it out, Lieutenant?"
Caje stared at the gung-ho replacement, then shifted his gaze to Saunders, who met his look with a sigh. "Harrison – is it?"
"That's right sir. Private Benjamin Harrison. Like the president. I came here to fight the Germans, sir. We got our butts kicked yesterday and I'd like to get a Kraut in my sights and get some payback!"
"Our mission isn't to engage the enemy, Private Harrison," Saunders reminded the soldier, making an effort not to let his impatience show. "This is a recon patrol. No firing unless MacAllister or I give the word. With any luck, there won't be any firing at all. You got that?"
The boy glared sullenly for a moment, his fingers tightening on the stock of his M1. Then he nodded.
"Tell MacAllister to have the men take five," Saunders said, and dismissing the boy, he turned back to Caje.
Harrison passed the order along, and while Caje went on ahead, down the hairpin turn and out of sight, the rest of the squad pulled out their canteens and sagged to the ground.
Dixon started to drop down beside Harrison, but his friend was sulking and wouldn't meet his eyes, so Dixon turned to Kirby for some chatter. "Does Caje always take the point?" he asked. "What is it – he's got a better sense of direction than everyone else?"
"Hey – I've been a cab driver in Chicago – you don't get any better at not getting lost than that! I could take the point just as well," Kirby said, easing his BAR strap off his shoulder, "if it weren't for this here weapon." He patted the barrel fondly. "Point men run extra risk. And with this ol' BAR, I'm just too valuable." He grinned.
"So – " Dixon glanced sideways at Harrison and then back to Kirby. "I guess I wouldn't want to be a point man then. I don't want any extra risk of not getting home."
"Then you don't wanna carry the radio either," Kirby added. "Krauts love to make a target out of them."
Dixon looked around nervously. Billy was carrying the radio.
"Tell you what," Kirby added. "I'll ask the LT to make you my Number Two man. Carry the extra ammo. That oughta make you ALMOST as valuable as me."
Dixon grinned. He was starting to feel like he might just fit in. He looked around for his fellow replacements. Thompson was sitting at the feet of their lieutenant, but Dixon knew it wasn't from any desire to be noticed, or in the hope of getting some assignment that would give him a chance to earn medals and impress the folks back home. Not like Harry. Tommy was just a nervous kid, a little in the thrall of hero worship, who clearly felt safer in the circle of their "lucky" leader.
Before their five-minute break was up, Caje had soundlessly returned. "It looks clear all the way down to the river. I could see the mill and an old stone bridge at the foot of the trail."
With a look from Saunders, MacAllister rose to his feet. "Let's go check 'em out," he said.
The "mill" was actually a cluster of three or four empty buildings. The largest, as big as a dance hall back home, had the date 1667 engraved over the heavy door. A water wheel still turned outside one of the smaller buildings. A two-man search of each building revealed that they'd been deserted for a while.
Saunders set up an outpost in the second floor of the main building, where windows on each side of the room gave a view of the trail on both the north and south sides of the gorge.
"Two men stay here," he said. "The rest head up the trail to Schmidt. If it's not occupied, half the patrol hold that position at the crossroads and the others check out the dam as quickly and quietly as you can. Radio the team at Schmidt – they'll relay it back to me. Then, re-group at Schmidt and be back here at the mill before dark. Unless there's a change of plans, the rest of the company will catch up with us here tomorrow."
For a moment there was silence. Who was going where? More important, who was staying? No-one spoke the question but it was on everyone's mind.
MacAllister glanced at Saunders, deferring to his superior. Saunders' eyes swept the veterans from his original squad first. Man for man they met his silent query with a look that conveyed a sense of resignation, but also faith in their leader. They were ready.
But the replacements?
Dixon was looking at the ground, eyes closed, lips moving as if in a silent prayer to find the strength and courage to face his first real test and to not let anyone down. Tommy returned the Saunders's appraising look with a fresh-scrubbed face that gleamed with confidence in his lieutenant. With Saunders in charge, everything was going to turn out all right. Damn him, Saunders thought. He was acting just like the kid brother who used to tag along after him … and he couldn't afford to look at Tommy and be reminded of that. Saunders turned to Harrison, and found the lanky young GI fairly quivering with excitement, bordering on bloodlust. Saunders had seen that before and it usually ended badly.
"Harrison stays here at the mill with me." Before Harry could sputter a protest, Saunders ticked off the names of the men who were the fastest in the squad. "Caje, Kirby, Doc," he paused, sized up the rest of the men and added, "and Dixon, will check out the , Billy, Littlejohn and Thompson hold the crossroads outside Schmidt."
MacAllister noticed the veterans exchanging puzzled looks. It wasn't like Saunders to send his men off into something dangerous ahead of him. But he also knew Jampel had ordered Saunders to stay with the OP. And he knew from the look on Saunders's face when he told MacAllister that, that he wasn't happy about it.
Less than two miles away, Colonel Josef Drache was concluding his own mission briefing. "Time for a little hunting party," he said, smiling. "Move out!"
Dixon held his breath. It was deathly quiet, until the sound of Tommy unwrapping a stick of gum made him jump.
Ahead of them on the trail, Kirby was on his hands and knees, scouring the mud for more mines, like the one that MacAllister had seen that had prompted the halt. Mac sent Caje off into the woods to see if there was a smaller trail that would take them up to the main road that fed Schmidt; and the rest hunkered down in nervous silence to watch Kirby.
Kirby came back, sweat dripping off his brow. He hated being the one sent to look for mines. He knew he was good at it, but it wasn't fair to be punished for being good at something! Then again, Caje was good at scouting, and as a reward, he usually got picked to take the point, equally dangerous. Doc was good at fixing up the wounded, so he got to run out into open fire all the time. It just didn't pay to be in the army, he sighed. The best soldiers always got the worst assignments.
"Yep – they're gonna need the engineers up here," he told MacAllister. "They've laid a bunch of mines along this stretch. Anti-tank mines."
"There's no way we're gonna get tanks up this narrow track," Billy said. "So what's the point of mining it?"
"Maybe they're not meant to stop tanks," Littlejohn said. "Maybe they put them here to stop wild boars from attacking them." He grinned amiably.
"A bore – like you?" Kirby asked, sitting on the ground beside him and giving him an elbow in the ribs.
"Wild boar, Kirby," MacAllister said, gesturing to Billy to hand him the radio. "Like huge furry hogs, bigger than you, and with tusks as long as your arm. They roam in these forests – there's good hunting around here. That's why there's a forester's lodge on the the game keeper."
Caje jogged up then, and overheard the end of the discussion. "I found the lodge. Looks deserted. There's a trail runs parallel to this one a couple hundred yards west. The trail looks like it leads to the main road from Monschau to Schmidt."
"We'll take that then," Mac said. "Leave these mines to the engineers." He reported the update to Saunders and then signaled the men to move out. Tommy gulped, accidentally swallowing his gum. Dixon gave him a nervous smile and they followed the rest of the squad into the woods.
Saunders tried willing the second hand on his watch to stop, but to no avail. Time crept on.
He had already radioed Capt. Jampel about the state of the Kall Trail. It was narrow, uneven, crumbling, and full of muddy switchbacks that could send a tank sliding off into a ravine. The hillside that lined the west side of the trail was studded with rock outcroppings that would have to be blown off before tanks could pass. Even the mobile little weasels would be blocked.
But at the bottom of the Kall gorge, he'd reported, the stone bridge still spanned the river near the mill. If they could get a company of engineers to clear a way, they could get the heavy stuff across the Kall River. Then they'd need to clear the mines before they could get up the other side, to Schmidt.
But was Schmidt already occupied by the Germans?
If only they'd had aerial reconnaissance to report if there had been any enemy movement in that sector. But then, if planes could have flown, he wouldn't have gotten this recon assignment. He wouldn't have had to send his men out without him to check.
And now – nothing.
No contact from MacAllister, in Schmidt. Or from the soldiers who'd plunged even deeper into German territory on his orders.
Saunders looked at his watch again and frowned. There was 'late' and there was 'missing in action', and his squad - no, make that MacAllister's squad - had passed 'late' hours ago.
His men were out there – alone. Lost.
And he'd been ordered to stay behind.
For once in his life, Kirby was struck speechless. Caje frowned and reached for the binoculars that now dangled from Kirby's shaking fingers.
They'd passed the outskirts of Schmidt earlier; Caje remembered the roadside Calvary that held Kirby's attention now. From this distance, he saw nothing different. Caje raised the field glasses to examine the scene in closer detail. And then lowered them without a word. His face was ashen.
Doc crawled forward on his belly, leaving Dixon alone behind the tree to watch their backs. Something was very wrong. He tugged the binoculars from Caje's limp fingers and then saw what they had seen; a soldier - an American soldier – hanging from that cross. Enough of the man's skull was blown away to leave no doubt that he was beyond help.
He looked over his shoulder back at Dixon, wanting to spare the youngster the sight. Dixon was still nervously trying the radio, getting no answer from MacAllister. They knew Saunders was out of range. Doc turned back to the others, and his lips formed the soundless word. Who?
"I don't know. But man, we gotta get outta here," Kirby muttered, climbing to his knees. His brown eyes were wild, darting nervously from tree to tree. His knuckles were white against the stock of his Browning Automatic Rifle. He would have gladly cut a Kraut in two if one had crossed his field of fire just then, but they were alone. It felt creepy, just waiting for something bad to happen.
"Maybe the others got away," Caje said. "We've got to check out the rendezvous." When the squad had split into two teams, MacAllister had said that his group would fall back to the forester's lodge if the Germans showed up in force in Schmidt. Caje rolled to his feet and started off cross-country, avoiding the road. The others exchanged worried glances and then followed him into the woods.
The trees huddled together, their limbs intertwined like a dark canopy that blocked the light. It was like running through a cold, damp cave, Doc thought, but worse. Caves didn't have low branches that reached out like gaunt arms to grab him, knock him off his feet. One whipped at his face; he flinched and staggered to recover his balance, his cheek stinging. He saw Caje come to a fallen tree ahead and vault it like a steeplechase runner, barely breaking stride. He may not say much, or give anything away in his expression, Doc thought, but clearly their point man was anxious to get out of this forest too.
The wooded hills undulated – one moment Doc was skidding downhill, the next his chest was burning with the exertion of jogging uphill at that pace. Behind him, he could hear Kirby cursing under his breath as the carpet of wet leaves made their footing treacherous.
A yell erupted in front of him. Doc looked up to see Dixon hurtling down toward him, tumbling out of control.
He knocked Doc over like a ninepin and then caromed into Kirby to pick up the spare. The two collisions were enough to stop his pall-mall descent, and they lay together in a tangled heap, breathing hard.
Caje stood silhouetted at the top of a rise. His head turned swiftly left then right, and satisfied that they were unnoticed, he glissaded back down the ravine like a skier, arms flailing for balance.
"You okay?" He directed the question at all of them, after skidding to a stop.
Doc nodded, making sure his aid bag was still secure. Kirby hauled Dixon up to his feet and looked around. "Where's your weapon, kid?"
"I – I – I dunno…"
Kirby bit off an oath. It's not like the kid wasn't trying. They scanned the area quickly but there was no sign of the boy's M1. Or canteen. The radio was gone too. With the blanket of wet leaves covering the ground, they could use up the rest of the daylight searching.
"We've gotta move on," Caje said tersely.
Kirby hefted his BAR, ready. "What's over the next hill, Caje?" he asked.
"More trees." The point man moved off.
Doc decided he could use some cheering up. "Look at the bright side," he told the new recruit. "You wouldn't wanna be crossing open fields, would you? In enemy territory, with no weapon?"
"I guess not," Dixon said. "But how do you know we're going the right way, back to our lines, instead of deeper into enemy territory?"
Doc thought a moment. "Faith," he finally answered.
Eventually the trees began to thin. Doc didn't realize it at first, because the afternoon light was fading. He didn't notice that Dixon had slowed until he almost ran into him.
The four soldiers stood at the edge of the woods. Twenty yards away stood a roughhewn log house in a clearing, with a few small outbuildings. On the far side, the woods parted to reveal a narrow gravel lane. Everything seemed deserted.
"Still looks clear," Kirby said, his voice trailing off with a note of uncertainty.
"Someone's been here," Caje answered tersely.
"How do you know?" Dixon asked. There were no signs of life in the house. No smoke curling from the chimney. There were none of the sadly now-familiar signs of battle either - no broken windows, burning rubble, bullet-ventilated walls. Not even rutted wheel tracks in the lane to indicate that anyone had come or gone.
"I know," Caje just affirmed confidently. With a glance at Kirby - no words were necessary - he sprinted for the well, while Kirby covered him. Everything was still. Caje settled into position and readied his rifle for trouble and then Kirby high-tailed it out of the woods after him. Still no reaction. Doc made eye contact with Caje, nodded, clutched his aid bag securely in his right hand, and made a dash for the well too. He belly-flopped beside them, curled up and rolled onto his back, propping himself up on his elbows. A moment later Dixon followed suit. He was breathing hard. He looked longingly at the bucket on the ground beside them, and thought, a cool glass of water would sure go down good right now. Dixon stared at the bucket a moment longer and then he looked over at Caje. The nod was almost imperceptible. When he had come by that morning, the bucket had been hanging inside the well.
Kirby grabbed Caje's sleeve. "Look, Caje," he said, "if they was here, they'd have been watchin' for us. They'd have seen us break out of the woods. So they ain't here now. Let's go!"
The other man's jaw tensed as he thought. "I'm gonna find out," he said finally. "If I'm not back in five minutes, just take off."
Kirby grinned and shook his head. "Are you kiddin? I'm not leavin' without you. You still owe me ten bucks. How'm I ever gonna collect it if I let you get yourself killed?"
Caje gave him a wry look back. "Then how about some cover? You've got a better field of fire if anyone comes down that road from over there."
"Oh, man! That's an outhouse, ain't it?" The soldier didn't sound too happy with the suggestion. Then he brightened. "Come to think of it, I ain't had a proper throne in weeks. Give me a couple minutes before I hafta cover you, okay?" He ducked his head under the strap of his BAR and gave it to Dixon to hold for him.
"Hey! I get a turn after you," Dixon called after him as Kirby loped off.
Caje just shook his head. When Kirby disappeared inside the narrow wooden structure, Dixon picked up the BAR, trotted halfway across the yard to a haystack, and knelt there to wait. Almost as an afterthought, he raised the weapon and nervously held it in looked at his watch. Daylight was running out, and he took off toward the house. A dirt path led from the road to the house, and he saw boot prints there in the mud. Two sets. American GI boots. One pair revealing a long stride; the heels well worn, half-again as long and wide as his own boot marks. Littlejohn's. The other prints were slurred too much to tell anything more than that the owner was unsteady on his feet. The tracks were close enough to Littlejohn's to suggest one man had been helping to support the other. The footprints headed straight for the house.
A dilapidated porch wound around the cabin. Caje eyed it warily; loose wooden planks would give his presence away if they creaked. His rifle ready, he crossed the yard and onto the porch, stealthily as a cat. There was no sound. He glanced back at Dixon, who was watching him intently. Doc was out of sight behind the well, but Caje could see the edge of the canvas medical bag on the ground by the bucket and knew Doc hadn't moved.
Crouched below the window, Caje slowly raised his head and peered inside. He saw a kitchen; uninhabited at the moment, but a kettle sat steaming on the small black stove. Straining to hear, he caught a murmur of voices deep in the house.
When the little German widow bustled into her kitchen, she looked up and froze. An American GI stood in the room, studying her coolly, his weapon steady in his hands and pointing straight at her. He looked thin and dirty and weary and worried. Not much different than her own country's soldiers who had pulled back through this area in recent months, Frau Becker decided. That thought restored a small measure of courage, and with her heart settling in her throat, she held her hands out to show they were empty and hid no threat. The American nodded a fraction.
"Komme Sie hier, bitte," she said, gesturing him toward a small pantry. But instead of following, he stepped away from her, toward the parlor, rifle still ready. "Nein, nein," she begged, reaching for his arm to stop him, but he slipped away.
Her courage fled. The other Americans had shown no interest in the rest of the house; one was too ill and the other too concerned about his friend. Clearly they could go no further and had let her lead them to a safe refuge. But this Ami was different. He was cautious. More ruthless?
What would he do to them?
She ran after him, out of the kitchen. He stood poised in the middle of the parlor, his suspicious eyes raking the room. He glanced only briefly at the cherished photos that lined the mantel, surrounding the bronze Mother's Cross, that the Nazi's had bestowed upon her with honor after the birth of her fifth child. His gaze lingered only on the last picture, young Hans standing so proudly in his Wehrmacht uniform.
Hans was "missing in action" now, somewhere on the Russian Front.
Ever since that awful day when Frau Becker had been brought word, she prayed that her son was alive, and slowly but surely making his way home. Alone in hostile lands, but perhaps receiving some food or shelter from a local peasant woman - a farm wife like herself, who would see in his young face just another mother's son, and not "the enemy". It was with this prayer in her heart that Frau Becker had decided to risk helping the Americans.
It had not been so difficult to decide to help those other soldiers, sick and vulnerable. But this man, he was edgy. Dangerous. Perhaps it had been a mistake. And now her family would pay for her foolishness. In thinking of Hans, had she risked her father and her only remaining son? Her fingers clenched the rosary she always carried in her apron pocket.
The soldier finished inspecting the room, listened a moment at the next door, and then kicked it open. Frau Becker put her hand to her mouth to stifle a scream.
There, in a rickety wooden wheelchair, sat her father, a white crocheted afghan spread across his knees, his frail, translucent hands trembling in his lap. Behind him peered her youngest child Nicholas, a sweet, tow-headed boy of twelve, small for his age, his blue eyes round as saucers.
The American's face softened; he lowered his M1.
Frau Becker sighed, and relaxed her fingers, the rosary beads leaving deep white imprints in her reddened palms. "Bitte," she repeated, drawing the soldier back to the pantry. Her felt slippers made no sound as they crossed the freshly scrubbed floor. There, she bent and turned aside a braided rag rug, revealing a trapdoor.
The soldier crouched at the opening and peered down the ladder. Lantern light danced from below, revealing the shadows of two men, but nothing more. A single word rumbled from the small cellar. "Caje?"
A smile flickered across the American's face, for a moment making him look younger. Then the smile vanished; he cocked his head and waved his hand for silence. In the next heartbeat, Frau Becker heard it too - a vehicle, clattering up the road. The soldier shoved his way past her to the curtained window in the parlor and pushed the muslin aside with the barrel of his rifle. The widow and her son crowded at the other window. As the kübelwagen turned up the long muddy drive to the house, they could make out five occupants - one wearing the distinctive insignia of an SS officer.
Germany was a land of frighteningly grim fairy tales, of magical evil predators. The most frightening to Frau Becker was always Der Tatzlwürm, the fire-breathing dragon that would come swooping down to take the infirm, or the children, away. This was her nightmare, come to life.
Every day they lived with the fear that the SS would come. Would take her father away, because he was feeble. Would take Nicholas away to the Volksturm, because he was 12 now. Old enough to stand and oppose the invaders' tanks - as though spilling his innocent blood would keep Germany's sacred soil free.
Frau Becker's father could not hide. But Nicholas could. She grabbed her son and thrust him toward the GI. "Verstecken Sie ihn! Schnell!" she cried. "Der Dachboden!"
The child tugged the GI toward the back room while his mother ran into the pantry, slammed the trap door shut and spread the rug over it. Nicholas pointed urgently toward ceiling panel that led to the attic. "Auf!" he urged.
The Ami opened it, even as there was a pounding on the door. The boy beat his flattened palm against his own chest and then raised his hands over his head. Moving fast, the soldier slung his M1 over his shoulder and hoisted Nicholas up, and the boy scrambled out of sight into the attic. Right on his heels, the American reached up, grabbed the sides of the opening and hauled himself out of view too.
Footsteps - hobnailed boots - sounded in the kitchen just as they slid the panel back in place.
Nicholas huddled next to the stranger in the tight confines of the crawl space. They heard muffled voices arguing. The woman's voice protested and was cut off. Again the sound of a harsh interrogation, and the wheezing answer of a frail old man.
And then, the ruthless crack of a Walther PK-38.
"Mutti!" Nicholas cried out. "Großvater!" The Ami clapped a hand over his mouth, but it was too late.
There was a moment of stillness. And then the boots pounded closer. They were in the room below.
The GI's left hand brushed his grenades, his bayonet, the barrel of his M1. He looked at the boy, weighed his options, and then reluctantly set his weapon down.
"Raus!" This time the command was followed by a bullet fired through the ceiling, inches away from Nicholas.
"Don't shoot!" the American called. "Nicht Schießen!" Keeping the boy out of sight behind him, he opened the attic panel. Brutal hands reached for him, ripping his weapon out of his grasp, dropping him heavily onto his shoulder on the floor. While one German stripped him of his gear, another checked the attic crawl space and pulled out the squirming, frantic boy. In the kitchen Frau Becker was held upright in the rigid grasp of another German infantryman. An SS colonel holstered his smoking gun, beside the ancient wheelchair where the old man now slumped, a crimson stain blossoming across his narrow chest and seeping down to the frayed afghan.
Steiniger checked the perimeter. Good. His men were in position and alert. His skin crawled with the knowledge that there were more Americans in the vicinity. It was a hard-won sixth sense, born of too many night patrols and ambushes, and it never failed him now.
A commotion from the cottage drew his attention back. Pvt. Brandl pushed the German woman in front of him as they came out of the house. He kept a pistol pressed to the back of her head. She was weeping, silently, clutching a small child to her apron. Mueller followed, hauling the prisoner across the porch by the collar of his field jacket, so that he couldn't get his feet under him and ended up tossed in the cold mud like a rag doll. Colonel Drache came last, alone, his hobnailed boots striking an ominous cadence in the sudden stillness as he strode across the wood planks. He turned to his young adjutant and his lips curled in a feral smile.
"Now, Steiniger," he said, "we will begin."
Begin what? The SS Colonel seemed to his adjutant like a painstaking thief, plotting to rob men not of money, but of their strength and will. His face had the satisfied, eager, and yet tense air of a man listening to the tumblers of a safe clicking into place.
A light drizzle filled the air with a damp mist. The child whimpered and his mother pulled him closer. Drache tossed them a disdainful glance. "Gag them," he said roughly to Brandl. "I need no information from these peasants. They are nothing. It is the American we will force to talk." He walked toward the man on the ground and Mueller stepped back, fearful of his own commander, but kept his weapon trained on the American. "He will betray his friends," Drache continued. "And then we will have more guinea pigs to study."
Steiniger looked doubtfully at their prisoner. The Colonel suddenly crouched forward and snaked his fingers in the soldier's hair, yanking the man's head painfully back and exposing his throat, like a hunter about to finish off his prey.
The American's eyes, though, glared up at his captor, with rigidly contained defiance.
In some men, Steiniger thought, the fear came right away. German, American, British, Russian, it made no difference. Men were men. In a few, though, anger came first. But the fear was always there, hidden, waiting for the SS man to find the key.
Drache relished the challenge.
But it would be dark soon. If this man's squad was in hiding nearby, he would have to be made to betray them quickly if the Germans hoped to catch them yet today. There would be time for more leisurely studies in intimidation later, with the others.
"You will tell me now, where your friends are," Drache snarled in English, bending low so that his face was inches from the American's. He only hoped that the prisoner wouldn't give in TOO easily.
"Paul LeMay. Private first class." The words were tightly controlled, flat, emotionless, revealing neither fear nor aggression. But he couldn't extend that self-control to his eyes. They fairly glittered with hostility. Before he could get out his serial number, Drachereleased his hold and the prisoner fell back into the mud.
A tall, blond private snapped to sharp attention.
"We will give our enemies another example."
The German spared only a moment to relax into a smile, and then he trotted off to the truck. When he returned, he had two beams of lumber balanced with one hand across his broad shoulders, and a pouch of carpentry tools in the other.
Steiniger's eyes unconsciously went to the cross at the top of the hill. His stomach knotted. Fear froze him in his boots, but when the wood was dropped at the colonel's feet, he shivered and forced himself to hold his head high and step forward.
"Herr Oberst," he said. His mouth felt very dry. He licked his lips and began again. "The Geneva Convention…"
Colonel Drache shook his head, like a father chastising a son too young to know better. "This American," he explained, "is far from his lines. Undoubtedly, he has been sent here to attempt some damage to German property." He thought. "Perhaps theSchwammenauel Dam, nein?"
Steiniger looked at the man at their feet. Although they were speaking in German, he HAD reacted to the words "Schwammenauel Dam".
"You are perhaps not familiar with 'The Fuhrer's Top Secret Commando Order'?" Drache continued smoothly. He quoted, "All sabotage troops will be exterminated, without exception. Under no circumstances can they expect to be treated according to the rules of the Geneva Convention. If it should become necessary for reasons of interrogation to initially spare one man or two, then they are to be shot immediately after interrogation." The patient paternal air disappeared, and he turned back to Steiniger, looking every inch the menacing SS officer sworn to extinguish subversive elements.
"These are the Fuhrer's own words," he said. His icy blue eyes bored into Steiniger's. "You swore a holy oath of unconditional obedience to our Fuhrer, did you not?"
Steiniger took a reluctant step backwards. "Yes. Of course, my colonel," he answered, and lowered his eyes.
Drache's head bobbed once in satisfaction. He turned to Ungeheuer and spoke in English, knowing that his henchman needed no further instructions, but wanting the American prisoner to understand his fate if he didn't cooperate. "Crucify him."
Kirby crouched behind the outhouse, helpless. When he'd heard the truck rumble up the road, he'd spilled out of the shack and scrambled behind it, muttering a prayer under his breath that he wouldn't been spotted. Now, he realized he was safe for the moment, but he also realized something else. There was a blind spot. Kirby could see the road leading up to the farm, but he couldn't see the yard in front of the house. He could hear a child crying and then suddenly silenced, and it seemed all too obvious from the Germans' tones that they had a prisoner who wasn't making them very happy.
But Kirby couldn't see any of that. And he could hear only snatches of words, in a language he didn't understand.
Where were Dixon and Doc?
Careful not to expose any part of his anatomy, he peered toward where he had last seen the young replacement. The hay was disturbed, and he could see the sole of a boot sticking out. Damn fool kid! Did he really think the Krauts wouldn't search there? He'd be lucky if the Krauts didn't use the haystack for bayonet practice.
Doc was tucked as small as he could get, still behind the well. There was no way he could move out of his hiding place without being spotted.
On the other hand, Kirby thought… if the Germans are in my blind spot, then I'm in their blind spot too. It's 20 yards to the tree line. If their attention is diverted for just five seconds, so no one hears me, I could make it.
His fingers scrabbled nervously in the dirt. His hands felt empty without the familiar weight of the BAR. What good could he do anyone if he stayed where he was, unarmed?
But it felt wrong, to go. To desert his friends.
If Saunders were here… he would tell Kirby to go. The mission was all-important. Someone had to tell Hanley NOW that the dam was unguarded; that they could take it if they moved now, before the Krauts had time to guess their intentions and blow the dam, drowning the Allies and cutting off those who did make it across.
Kirby didn't fancy going for a swim in sub-freezing temperatures. No sirree.
But…what if it was Caje the Krauts were bullying in that yard?
Well, Caje himself had told him to head back if he wasn't out in five minutes. He wouldn't hold it against him.
Still, Kirby waffled. He drew his feet under him, poised like a racer crouched in the starting block, and couldn't make his feet take that first step. He glanced toward Doc. Seeking, if not an order, then permission. Someone's blessing to abandon them. He willed the medic to look his way.
And slowly, Doc did. From his hiding place, he could see and hear what was going on, and he had an expression of horror on his face that chilled Kirby to the bone. But in a glance, he realized what Kirby had in mind, and he nodded. Urgently. Go, he mouthed silently. And then he turned away and shut his eyes.
Kirby waited then, poised to run as soon as some diversion would present itself.
"Dumkopf! Do you remember nothing from basic training?" Drache shouted at Mueller.
The startled soldier dropped the prisoner's left arm, but remained kneeling on his chest. Ungeheuer stepped forward, delighted at the opportunity to show off in front of the SS colonel. He had aspirations of transferring to the SS himself.
"Always disable the enemy's right hand," he intoned, as though quoting a manual on close-contact knife fighting. While Mueller held the prisoner down, Ungeheuer stepped on the American's right arm, pinning it to the plank. He opened the pouch of carpenter's tools and took out a heavy hammer and a long iron nail.
The prisoner suddenly bucked and thrashed, dislodging Mueller, who landed face-first in the mud. His legs free, the American coiled and kicked Ungeheuer behind the right knee and the German wilted in pain, but landed heavily on the prisoner's shoulder. He was still pinned to the ground.
Brandl tightened his grip on the woman and child, unsure whether to keep his luger pointed at the back of her neck or turn it on the captive soldier.
Kirby rocked back and forth on his heels, not knowing what was happening, hearing only a commotion and wondering if this was all the diversion he was likely to get.
Drache snapped his fingers at his adjutant.
Steiniger knelt beside the American's head and put the cold barrel of his pistol against the man's throat. "Do you want to die now?" he asked. He thumbed the safety catch off, audibly. Briefly, he prayed that the soldier would continue to fight. Then he would have an excuse to execute the man, before he could be tortured. There was no honor in torturing a man.
But the prisoner stopped struggling.
Mueller spat out a mouthful of mud, kicked the soldier in the ribs in retaliation, and held him down again. Ungeheuer grabbed the prisoner's right wrist and spread his fingers open, palm up against the crossbar.
"Watch his eyes," Drache told Steiniger. "He will give away the other Americans' position, without a word."
Steiniger looked. The prisoner's eyes were hazel, he noticed, a changing swirl of green and brown and amber. Anger still flashed there, but fear surfaced now too, as he knew it inevitably would. Drache would win.
"Tell us where your friends are hiding!" the SS Colonel ordered.
The prisoner did not cast a despairing look in any direction. He closed his eyes.
This annoyed the SS colonel. "Now!" he shouted, loud as a rifle shot.
Loud as a starter's pistol. Kirby took off running. One second. Unnoticed. His legs pounded. A second later, there was another sound, the clang of metal against metal. Kirby's heart pounded. Halfway there. The air vibrated with the echo of that metallic blow. No. It wasn't an echo. It was a different sound. A cry.
Kirby reached the trees and fell to his knees, trying to still the hammering in his chest so he could listen.
But it was quiet now.
To see what had happened would mean positioning himself where he might also be seen. He couldn't risk that. He took off running, north, toward what he hoped was the mill and where Saunders and Harrison were armed and waiting.
Doc opened his eyes. And then mentally berated himself. You have seen horrors you will never forget – men burned and eviscerated and missing limbs. And faced it all without flinching. And now, when a simple hammer was raised overhead, you shut your eyes!
Caje was lying motionless on the ground, surrounded by German soldiers. Doc hoped he had passed out. Suddenly he remembered Kirby and turned quickly toward the shack. There was no sign of him. The medic let out his breath in a shaky sigh, not realizing he had been holding it. Kirby had gotten away. Please, let it be true. Then, he heard the Germans talking again. Curling himself into a tighter knot, hidden behind the well, he prayed for invisibility, at least until dark, when he would have a chance to dig out Dixon and take off after Kirby. Muscles cramping with the effort of staying small, he strained to hear what the Germans said.
"You will tell me, now, where are the other Americans hiding?" Drache's words were precise, but in his mind, he was conflicted. This man was exactly the sort of character he hoped to study. Much could be learned by breaking someone such as he. But there was no time for this now. He needed more subjects for his research, and he needed to find them before darkness fell.
Ungeheuer took the prisoner's left arm and stretched it down the other side of the cross bar. The American shuddered and Ungeheuer grinned. His grip tightened on the man's wrist. I wonder, he thought, if I could snap his wrist bones, if I squeezed very very hard? Perhaps Herr Oberst would give me the chance to find out…
"Well?" Drache asked their hostage.
"Paul LeMay," he repeated. Fear made his voice waver, but something stronger than fear pushed the words out without hesitation.
Ungeheuer positioned another nail and raised the hammer.
"Halt!" Drache stroked his chin. This might take too long. And intimidation by breaking someone physically was not new ground. Dr. Sigmund Rascher had already documented the results of such experiments on men in the work camps. It was their psychological limitsDrache wanted to explore.
He turned to Brandl and said, "Bring them here!"
Brandl shoved the woman and her young son, both still gagged, toward his commander. Drache stepped aside so that the prisoner on the cross could see them clearly. "Now," he said in English, "we will change the stakes. You will tell me what I want to know or I will execute them both."
Steiniger had to give his boss credit. He was a creative thinker who had an instinct for finding the jugular. The man on the ground, Private LeMay, appeared even more shaken, if that was possible.
"Shall I count to three?" Drache asked. "One…two…"
Brandl pushed the barrel of his pistol under the woman's chin. She cried into her gag, and tried helplessly to shield her child behind her.
"No!" The prisoner's voice was hoarse. "Don't…" He tried to sit up but moving his right arm, still pinioned to the crossbar, made him blanch and fall back. "Doc," he panted feebly. "Behind the well…"
Doc stared as the German who was called Mueller looked directly at his hiding place. Schmeisser held ready, he advanced slowly.
There was nowhere to run. Out of the corner if his eye, Doc glanced toward the haystack, to see if Dixon was still there, with Kirby's BAR. Would he act?
There was no movement there.
The medic climbed slowly to his feet, hands raised overhead, his muscles creaking and his legs pins and needles as his circulation returned. Mueller prodded him toward the center of the yard. Doc saw the look of triumph on the SS Colonel's face and turned away with disgust. He tried to communicate, even silently, with Caje, but the other soldier wouldn't meet his eyes.
Drache spoke to Steiniger in German again. "You see? We have learned something already, on how to break these Americans. They are not so tough after all, are they?"
"No, Herr Oberst," Steiniger replied. He looked stricken. Next to him, Ungeheuer dropped his hammer and nail, disappointed that he would not be allowed to finish what he started. Mueller kept his automatic weapon trained on Doc, but Brandl lowered his gun on the widow.
"Now, we have no more need of these peasants," Drache said. He turned to Brandl. "Shoot them."
Brandl looked surprised. But one doesn't question an officer. He raised his gun again.
One of the first German words any Allied soldier learns is "schiessen". Shoot. Caje, unguarded, reacted first. He grabbed the fallen hammer with his left hand and threw it at Brandl. It hit him in the shoulder, jerking him around so that he dropped the gun.
The woman fell heavily to the ground.
The child screamed and ran toward the woods behind the house.
Ungeheuer kicked Caje angrily in the ribs.
Mueller raised his gun to shoot the child.
Doc threw himself on Mueller, knocking him to the mud before he could get a shot off.
Brandl retrieved his gun and raised it shakily, uncertain whether to shoot Doc for attacking Mueller, or to shoot the fleeing child. He felt a hand on his arm and looked to find Steiniger pressing him to leave his gun at his side, shaking his head infinitesimally.
Caje lay curled in pain, gasping.
Ungeheuer pulled Doc off Mueller and backhanded the medic across the face.
Drache calmly unholstered his own Walther P38 and shot the woman between the eyes.
The child disappeared in the trees.
"Release him," the Colonel ordered Ungeheuer, stooping to pick up the hammer that had fallen near his feet, and handing it to the eager young ldier who had so recently commanded a regiment of rabid Hitler Youth. "We have what we want from him." Scorn dripped from the German words, oozing like the dark red blood that still spread in a slowly expanding puddle beneath the crossbeam.
Ungeheuer looked down at his prisoner. The American lay curled on his right side, his left arm tucked close to his cracked ribs like the broken wing of a wounded bird. His right arm still stretched out against the rotting wooden plank, as if in supplication, Ungeheuerthought. But it only looked like a pleading gesture. The American had not cowered. Had not begged.
Ungeheuer felt cheated.
Nodding to his commander, he knelt quickly, his left hand clamping against the prisoner's wrist like a vise. With his right hand, Ungeheuer positioned the hammer against the open palm of the Ami, to pry up the rusty nail. He gave it a powerful yank, and the prisoner bucked against the sudden pain, but could not get away. The nail moved a centimeter, and fresh blood spilled out, over the heel of the hand and down the wrist, where it got on Ungeheuer.
He let go of his captive's wrist and scrubbed his wet hand against his leg with a smothered curse. Then he resumed his position and prepared to try again.
The angle must be wrong. Not the same angle that Ungeheuer had driven in the nail, and now it was catching on something. Bone or tendon. Not that it mattered.
This time, he said to himself, I will make the American beg. For more gentle handling, for a friend, for something for the pain. Even a curse would be a triumph.
He closed his hand tighter around the American's wrist and rocked the head of the hammer back and forth against the dirty skin of his open palm. The German's lips thinned in a tight grimace and then he leaned into it with all his weight. The nail shot out like bullet, flying into the air and hitting the nearby car with a soft ping.
The American made no sound.
Ungeheuer turned to look at his prisoner, and saw hate shining in those dark hazel eyes, mirroring his own.
Ungeheuer's left fist closed in an impulsive rage. He held his breath through the effort, and didn't exhale until he heard the crunch of frail wrist bones snapping in his hand.
The American could not keep back the groan. It was a curse, Ungeheuer was certain. Not a phrase he had heard Americans use before, but all the same, it was a curse.
He had won.
November 3, 1944, dawn
deep in the Huertgen forest
Kirby startled, saw nothing, and then tried telling himself that the sound - like a twig snapping - was just his imagination. That's what Caje had said, the last time Kirby thought something was moving nearby in the dark. Several heartbeats of utter stillness had passed then, before Caje had muttered "You're hearing things, pal", and brushed aside Kirby's concerns as if they were no more useful than the spent shell casings that littered their cramped foxhole - and just as conducive to a comfortable night's sleep. But Kirby had known by the subtle shift of the Cajun's M1 that he was taking the warning seriously.
Of course he was hearing things. Because there were real things out there. Hunting them.
Then - and now.
Only now, Kirby was alone, on the run, weaponless, and thoroughly lost. He wished he were back in that foxhole, with Caje there to tell him it was his imagination, even though they both knew he said it just to keep the panic at bay. At least then, Kirby had someone he could count on, watching his back.
He'd been alone since last night, when he'd staggered away from the forester's lodge, deep into the woods, intent only on getting away from the Krauts without being noticed. He'd thought he would go for help, but before he knew it darkness had fallen, fast and with no warning, like the shells of those deadly damned German 88's. The second time he'd blundered blindly into a low tree branch, it knocked him off his feet and he lay there stunned. Finally, Kirby had had to give up – he curled up against the exposed tree roots in a futile attempt to find warmth and rested there, shivering, jumping out of his skin at every noise, until exhaustion finally overcame his nerves and he slept.
At morning, rain filled the sky instead of the sun, and the cold splatters shocked him awake. Now Kirby was on the move again, and hopelessly lost in the Huertgen forest. He stopped and turned slowly in all directions. And all he saw were trees. "Okay – I admit it!" he confessed in frustration to the air around him. "I'm not as good a scout as Caje! I could get a day's head start and he'd probably still find his way back before me!" But that reminded him of just how urgent it was that he get un-lost, and in a hurry. It wasn't just his own need for safety. He had to find Saunders and come up with a plan to get the rest of the squad rescued.
And not get captured, himself, first.
At least the rain had let up. Kirby took that as a sign that things were going to start going right for a change and he picked a direction at random and moved off.
There was that noise again.
Could be a Kraut patrol, looking for a prisoner, he thought, holding his breath, then letting it out slowly. Well, they'd had plenty of chance to pick him up today, all alone like he was. So it probably wasn't that.
Probably was some nasty critter. MacAllister had said he'd seen boar tracks. Kirby had asked the Texan what a boar was, and was told that wild boars roamed the forests around here, weighed more than he did, and had tusks as long as his arm. Kirby's hand shook as he slid out his bayonet, then he picked out a tree with a wide trunk to guard his back, and leaned against it, his heart hammering. He tried to quiet his breathing, so he could listen for the sound of something moving in the forest.
Nothing at first. Then he heard a soft rustling sound.
His stomach growled.
The rustling stopped.
Kirby doubled up in a futile attempt to silence his hollow, cramping middle, and when the spasm passed, he straightened and slowly raised his bayonet. He wondered if he could climb a tree and if he did, would a hungry boar just circle the tree and wait him out. Which one of them would die from hunger first?
There was movement, twenty feet away. Long, low, fir branches were pushed aside, and a flash of brown emerged onto the trail. The creature turned, saw him, and froze.
It wasn't a boar. It was a boy. Wet blond hair clinging to his scalp like a helmet, rain dripping down his nose. His ragged shoes were falling apart; he wore shorts and a threadbare shirt and had no jacket. His pale blue eyes were wide with fear.
Kirby's heart softened. "Hey kid," he ventured, sheathing his bayonet so it posed no threat. "C'm'ere." He took a step forward.
The child turned to flee, but stumbled and fell to the mud. In the moment it took him to regain his footing, Kirby had caught up with him, and wrapped his arms around the struggling boy so he couldn't get away. Finally, the boy quit writhing in his arms and subsided, exhausted.
Kirby dragged him back to the shelter of the big tree and sank down with him. The kid had a long, dirty gash in his calf - maybe it was that bum leg that had tripped him up, Kirby thought. If the kid had been responsible for those noises, that sense that he was being followed, then the kid must've followed him across that stretch of barbed wire by the abandoned pillbox. Triple strand concertina – nasty stuff. Maybe the boy had tried to squeeze through and not quite made it unscathed.
But why would a little German kid be out on his own in the woods?
As Kirby fished out his field dressing kit, he took a closer look at the boy's face. Could be the same kid who had been at the house where Caje and Doc and Dick encountered those Krauts. He remembered hearing a child crying there, kid on the porch. The Germans were scaring the wits out of that family – their own people!
Kirby couldn't be sure, he hadn't stuck around to get a close look, but if it were the same kid, then he must feel like he didn't have a friend in the world - the American GIs were the enemy but the stinkin' Krauts hadn't acted too friendly toward the civilians either. Kirby sprinkled sulfa powder on the boy's wound and placed the padding on it as gently as he could. Usually he was the LAST one in the squad to be sympathetic to orphans of war, but here - well, each of them was all the other one had.
It started to rain again, fat, icy drops that ran down the evergreen boughs in a steady drip down the back of Kirby's neck. "We better get movin' " he said to the boy. "You speak any English?"
The youngster looked at him blankly.
"Figures." Kirby shook his head. Then he pointed to his chest. "Kirby," he said simply.
The boy's face brightened briefly in understanding. He tapped his own chest. "Nicholas."
"Okay. Look, kid," Kirby ventured. "We gotta find my platoon. Or find someplace where they can find us. We need shelter. You understand shelter?" He picked a broken branch off the ground and drew a square with a triangle on top.
The outline of a house - in any language.
He added a cloud above and a zigzag for lightning, and pockmarked the damp earth with dots for falling rain.
The boy took the stick from him, added a door to the square, and a chimney to the triangle roof. "Ya?" he asked.
Kirby nodded. "Yeah. Shelter. Before it starts raining harder. Wait for my guys. Which way do we go?"
The boy pantomimed chopping wood. "Jaegerhaus," he said. He climbed to his feet, tugged on Kirby's right hand and limped back onto the trail, heading north.
"Woodcutter's hut," Kirby said, understanding dawning. Like something out of Little Red Riding Hood. He hoped the kid wasn't taking him to see the wolf. But what choice did he have? He looked around – the trees were crowded so close together that even when the rain stopped, the weak sunlight wouldn't pierce the canopy of evergreen branches. He wasn't even sure of north, south, east or west any more. Clapping the boy on the shoulder, Kirby climbed stiffly to his feet and followed.
November 3, 1944, early morning
In the stillness of the hour just after dawn, it was unnaturally quiet. For the moment, the rain had stopped dripping from the evergreen branches above them; no birds were awake yet to call to each other across the treetops. The only sound was a ragged wheezing six feet back, as Harrison struggled up the steep slope behind him. Saunders crested the hill and held up his left hand, wordlessly granting the new recruit a short break.
Harry dropped to his knees and Saunders sank down beside him, grimacing at the mud that soaked through his clothes and chilled him to the marrow of his bones. The fog was just starting to lift, a gauzy stage curtain rising, the play about to begin. The forested ridge was bald on top, and crowned by the little village of Schmidt ahead, seemingly deep in innocent slumber.
Saunders knew better. He'd sent his squad to Schmidt - and they hadn't come back. Grimly, he raised his field glasses.
"We'll never – get our tanks – up that trail," Harry panted.
Saunders nodded. They'd found the Kall Trail was nothing more than a narrow cart track, one side braced by a wall of rocky outcroppings, the other side a soft shoulder slick with mud, dropping steeply down into the gorge. It was probably impassable for armor evenbefore the Krauts had lain their anti-tank mines. The first Sherman to start across would probably throw a track and leave the rest of the heavy stuff bottled up, where it wouldn't do anybody any good.
An infantry battalion left Vossenack at first light, on the march toward Schmidt, exhausted veterans vastly outnumbered by untried newbies, but they had nothing heavier with them than bazookas. And bazookas wouldn't stop Tiger tanks. Damn, Saunders wished the weather had been more cooperative and they'd gotten some reconnaissance from the air. Life was simpler before he became an officer – back in his enlisted days they didn't tell him that the brass didn't exactly know where the 116 Panzer Division was.
His gaze lingered on the Brandenberg-Bergstein ridge, where the heavy shelling had come from the day before. It was quiet now. Had the Krauts moved? Where?
Would the rest of the division be able to cross that open meadow between Vossenack and the forest unseen?
Saunders turned back toward the village he and his squad had left yesterday. The binoculars swept the horizon, the steeple of St. Josef's church at Vossenack rising out of the mist. The Kall gorge lay in thick blankets of fog, pierced by the tops of 100-foot tall pines. Hidden by the fog, the battalion assembled in the deserted hamlet of Kommerscheidt, near the top of the trail, waiting for the all clear from their scouts - Saunders and Harrison. Turning back toward his objective, Saunders saw the fog thinned into a rain-mist of cold steam. The silhouette of a tall cross, what some called a roadside calvary, loomed at the edge of the village and Saunders adjusted the focus.
Harry frowned at his CO, who lay unmoving, frozen to the hard ground. The division would be making their way up the Kall Trail by now – Harry knew the two of them were supposed to confirm that Schmidt was still deserted, like the scouts had reported yesterday. They needed to move.
"Lieutenant?" he repeated. "Do you see any Krauts?"
There was no answer from his CO, no life in those blue eyes, glazed over and expressionless. Saunders's hand shook as the binoculars slipped from his grasp. If it weren't for that tremor, it was as if he had been turned to stone. Harry scooped up the field glasses and climbed to his feet. Here was a chance to show he wasn't someone to be left behind while others got the glory. He didn't know what had suddenly turned the officer all creepy but at least the lieutenant hadn't said he'd seen any Germans. It was time to take a closer look. "Let's go," Harrison said, and led the way toward the village at a trot. In a moment, he heard his CO stumbling behind him.
The mist of rain soon streaked a film across Harry's glasses. He slowed as he approached the village gates, and swiped a dirty wool sleeve across the lens. That's better. And then, in the early morning gloom, he saw clearly the large wooden cross. Funny, back home the figure on the cross was gaunt, not like this … not wearing a helmet … and boots … and a GI issue dark olive drab uniform.
In that moment of realization, Harry sank to the ground, retching, his stomach heaving but empty.
Saunders had still uttered not a word.
Harry looked up finally to see the lieutenant staring not at the cross but behind them at the base of the Kall trail. More infantrymen of the 112th were making their way toward Schmidt, as inexorably as a sunrise.
Then Saunders spoke, without turning. "Get him down." The words were forced out through clenched teeth, his voice harsh and raw.
Instead, Harry raised his M1 and blindly emptied the clip against the nearest building, his own scream of rage louder than his weapon.
The first soldiers had emerged from the top of the trail. There was no cover across the meadow between the gorge and Schmidt – they seeped across the landscape, hearing the gunshots ahead, fear stiffening their joints, slowing their advance.
"Cut him down," Saunders repeated in a growl. He couldn't bring himself to approach the cross himself – had not even looked closely enough to see who hung there. As long as he didn't know … it was as if it wasn't really someone he knew at all. Even though the only GIs on this side of the river were men he had ordered there. As long as he didn't have to see ….
Somehow, Harry was staggering toward him now, his arms wrapped around a lifeless body. No, Saunders thought, frantic. Leave him there on the ground. Don't ….
It was too late.
Harry set the soldier down at the lieutenant's feet and then simply stood, arms empty, shoulders shaking, as he wept with silent rage.
The dead man was a private, that much could be seen. A bullet had torn most of his face away and blood masked what was left. Saunders looked quickly away. So – maybe he'd been dead before the Krauts had hung him on the cross. There was little comfort in that. Saunders had seen men killed, many in more gruesome ways, but this was different. One of his own. One he had sent out on a mission while he stayed behind, safe.
How did Hanley ever stand it?
Saunders crumpled to his knees in the mud beside the dead man, his eyes shut. He didn't want to look. Didn't want to notice if the man was long-limbed like Littlejohn, or had a beret rolled up under his epaulette like Caje, or had his boots laced wrong, like Billy. He didn't want to notice anything. Let the dead soldier remain a stranger.
Without thinking, he took the man's hand in his own. So cold. Saunders wrapped his own hands around the clenched fist, as if he could warm him, give him some comfort. Couldn't accept that he was helpless. That he was too late.
Saunders felt something then, thin and hard, trapped between the rigid fingers. He brushed it with the pad of his thumb, and realized what it was.
Tommy's battle gum.
And then he knew how Tommy had died. Not in the midst of a furious firefight, finding his courage as he fought alongside other brave men. Saunders knew in his heart that Tommy had probably never even fired his weapon – that the boy had been scared and needed someone he looked up to to lend him some strength, and Saunders hadn't been there. So Tommy's last act had been one of fear, a desperate gesture to follow his lieutenant's well-meant advice. He'd been reaching for a stick of gum to quiet his panic, when a German bullet had shattered his skull.
Saunders's hand started to tremble. Tears welled up, but didn't spill. It seemed as though his own blood froze in his veins. He was so cold. So cold.
He sat unmoving in the mud as the new troops crept past, glancing at him from the corner of their eyes, whispering, skittering away like frightened mice. They each looked so young. And at the same time, forty-eight hours of marching and hunger and sleeping in frozen puddles and cowering from the scream of enemy shells had aged them too, to the point where they were all looking over their shoulder for the grim reaper. And were ready to bolt at the slightest sound.
Somehow, someone came and took Tommy's body away. Around him, green replacements started digging foxholes with careless haste, too shallow to offer any real protection. Saunders got stiffly to his feet and walked past them, without noticing them, without saying anything.
He found himself, with no real idea how he got there, standing in a small building on the eastern edge of the village, one that the US artillery had poked gaping holes into back in October – the first time the army had tried to take Schmidt. The 9th Division had lost 4500 men that time – and hadn't come close to reaching Schmidt. This time – it had been too easy.
Two young GI's were laughing nervously as they tried to position pieces of cardboard in the broken windows to keep out the wind. "Guess the Krauts heard we was comin'!" Ross, the taller one, said to his buddy, "and took off runnin'."
"Jeez, the way those old timers tell it, I thought those Germans were gonna be somethin' fierce," Baker added. "Shoot, this was a piece of cake! I don't think there's been any Krauts around here for a week! I bet they lit out of here days ago. But it don't matter. We're gonna chase their sorry asses across the … hey, Lieutenant, what's the name of that river?"
There was no answer, and first Ross and then Baker turned to look at the silent officer. He glared back at them, not seeing them, his eyes so full of grief and rage and god-knew-what-torments, that it rattled the recruits in their boots.
"C'mon," Baker slapped Ross lightly in the shoulder. "Let's get out of here."
"But – " Ross hated to leave the meager shelter, but the lieutenant made him nervous too.
"We'll find another place. They're not making hardly anybody dig foxholes on the perimeter. We'll find another building."
"Okay." Ross stumbled out behind Baker, with an anxious backward glance.
"You okay, Lieutenant?" Harry asked. He'd never seen the LT like this. Not that he'd known the man long, but what about all those tales of heroics that everyone told about him?
Saunders pulled off his helmet, stared at the single bar on the front of it with a puzzled frown, as if the stripe didn't belong there. Then he raked one hand through his hair. Harry noticed that his hand still trembled. The Lieutenant made his way slowly to a corner of the room, slumped against the wall and sank slowly to a sitting position. Then he set down his rifle and hugged his knees to his chest and dropped his head. Harry thought for a moment that Saunders was rocking back and forth, almost imperceptibly. Were his shoulders shaking?
In the shadows it was hard to tell. Maybe he just needed a solid night's sleep. Didn't they all? Harry sagged against another wall and slid awkwardly down to the floor. When he closed his eyes, he could see Tommy again, hanging grotesquely from the cross. What kind of monster would do that? Harry slowly curled into a fetal position and tried to forget.
Whoever was in charge sent no patrols out to scout the perimeter. Anti-tank mines arrived around midnight on the little weasels that had finally made it up the Kall Trail. Saunders heard the soldiers as they passed his building, heard the whispered concerns that none of their tanks would make it up the trail; they would all struck mines or slide off the treacherous too-narrow ledge. But he didn't care. He just didn't care about the war any more. He lay awake all night, staring through the holes in the roof at a night sky without stars.
November 3, 1944, dusk
deep in the Huertgen forest
While the regiment was making its way, tense with anticipation but nevertheless unchallenged, up the Kall Trail to Schmidt, Kirby and Nicholas had spent an anxious day trying to avoid Krauts and find friendlies.
It was eerily quiet. Quiet as a tomb - except a tomb was something final. This had the feeling of waiting … waiting … the trees seemed to crowd closer and closer, like a gang of bullies slowly stalking and then surrounding their helpless prey. The long needle-sharp limbs reached eagerly for their victims….
Kirby shook off the creepy feeling, putting it down to not enough sleep or food. They had to find some shelter soon - he didn't think he or the boy limping stoically at his side could stand another night in these nightmare woods. It's not like he hadn't been outdoors more nights than not, but there was something haunted about these woods ….
And then the boy gave a shout and lurched ahead. In the fading light, Kirby saw it too. A small wooden structure. Not the woodcutter's hut, but a chapel.
November 4, 1944, dawn
The planet revolved inexorably on its axis, and Germany passed under the cold, dark sky furthest from the sun, and slowly crept back toward the still distant promise of dawn.
Something woke him. Was it a sound? Billy's eyes flew open and he raised his head, but it was still too dark to make out anything more than the shadows of the other men, huddled against each other for warmth as if they were all wedged together in a single foxhole. But they weren't in a foxhole, he remembered, as the last cobwebs of sleep fluttered away. It was a cellar. A cellar with one small window near the ceiling. That window that was guarded by armed soldiers. They were prisoners.
Billy had been unconscious when they were taken. The last clear memory he'd had before that was digging in at the road junction outside Schmidt and then the concussive shock of a grenade blast. Then nothing. A while later, he had a fuzzy memory of Littlejohn half-carrying him, half-dragging him, toward a forester's lodge and then dizziness and darkness again took his senses away.
When he came to, he was locked in a cellar, with Littlejohn and Dixon and Caje and Doc and it was nearly dawn. That was 24 hours ago. Twenty-four hours in which they'd had no food, no water; they hadn't left their prison cell. Adding his pounding headache to the mix, he couldn't remember when he'd felt more miserable.
He should go back to sleep. Why wasn't he asleep? That's right – a noise had wakened him.
There wasn't any sound now in the room, except the soft ragged breathing of exhausted soldiers who slept like the dead. Maybe he'd dreamed it. Billy turned on his side and lowered his head to the cold dirt floor again, careful to avoid bumping the swollen knot behind one ear, and shut his eyes. Maybe, he thought, he could fall back asleep, and escape all this misery, at least for a little while. He'd dream that he was back home in St. Louis, and it was a hot summer day … and he was standing in centerfield, surrounded by the smell of freshly mown grass…. caressing the soft, familiar leather of his favorite baseball glove now … waiting for someone to hit the ball his way…. The sun was beating, hot, on the back of his neck … and someone was moaning.
Moaning? Billy was yanked groggily out of his past and back to the dark, dank cellar. It was quiet again. But he still felt that radiating heat against the exposed skin of his neck. And then he heard another soft groan.
Billy turned his head gingerly in that direction. There was nothing to see but another dark shadow, one that tossed restlessly and rolled away, with an incoherent mutter.
Nelson shifted toward him and reached out a hand. He felt a sleeve, then found a shoulder; his searching fingers felt the soft wool of a rolled-up beret. "Caje?"
There was no answer. The other man was asleep. Which is what you should be, Nelson told himself. Leave him alone….
Sleep pulled at him….
When he woke again, dawn cast thin tendrils of light through the small grimy window, revealing a mass of prisoners in the cellar that looked like a row of dust-covered gray-brown corpses. Billy had seen stacks of dead bodies, collected by Graves Registration, being tossed carelessly into waiting trucks. He never fancied waking up in such a pile, himself. When there was a rustle from the soldier next to him, Billy shook his head in rueful relief. They weren't dead. Dead men don't feel so hungry. He wondered what time it was, and when the Krauts would come, and whether their captors planned simply to starve them to death.
Caje wore a watch. And he must be awake, since he was stirring. Careful not to disturb the others, Billy extended his hand to tap Caje's arm to ask the time.
Caje hissed with pain and tried to jerk away, but Billy had grabbed his wrist. It was swollen and hot.
"Caje?" Billy asked in a loud whisper. "Are you okay?"
Another low groan followed and, even semi-conscious, the other soldier tried to pull away again.
Billy's eyes adjusted to the dim light and he wondered why Caje was shivering, when his skin felt so unnaturally hot, and then he noticed Caje's jaw was damp with sweat. The tumblers clicked in his tired mind and he realized that the other man was burning up with fever. He could see Caje looking at him, his grogginess fading as the injured man struggled to find a thin grasp on lucid thought.
"I'll get Doc," Billy said, reassuringly.
"No." Caje's voice was hoarse, but firm.
Caje wouldn't even look toward the medic. His gaunt cheeks flushed with color that wasn't due solely to fever. "I don't need him. I'm all right. Leave me alone."
November 4, 1944, morning
When the officers at Division HQ had folded up their maps on the night of November 3rd, Vossenack had been captured, one battalion of the 112th infantry was in the hamlet of Kommerscheidt and another had achieved the main objective of Schmidt. The brass werewell-pleased and went to sleep with satisfied smiles.
What they didn't know was that a German division in the Monschau Corridor had been in the process of getting relief troops that day. Two thirds of the Infanterie-Regiment 1055 had passed through Schmidt just minutes before the Americans had arrived and were camped less than a mile to the east. The remaining battalion had reached Schmidt near midnight, found it occupied, and had dug in for the night just west of the village.
Schmidt was surrounded.
The counterattack began at dawn. German shells screamed through the overcast skies. The ground rumbled like the belly of a hungry beast intent on swallowing them up. Cries of "Medic!" were drowned out by the deafening explosions. Blood seeped into the frozen puddles where the wounded and dying lay helpless.
Men scurried from one hiding place to another, like rats. A captain burst through the doorway of a ruined shop on the eastern edge of town and found Harry and Saunders there, ducking below the broken windows, clutching their weapons with white knuckles, watching for an enemy to fire on, seeing only panic in the streets.
"Where's our artillery, Captain?" Harry pleaded. "Can't we stop them?"
"Damn 88's took out our phone lines," the officer panted. Another blast, closer than any of the others so far, sucked out the cardboard that had covered the largest window. When the plaster stopped sifting down on them, the captain raised his head. "Can't take much more of this," he muttered. …
They did though. They took the pounding for another hour, without any sign of an enemy to fight back against. When the silence finally came, some soldiers wept with relief.
And then the silence was broken. The grinding clang of German tanks sent chills through the Americans, still hugging the frozen ground, still paralyzed by the morning's concussive blasts. From the east, the first Mark V Panther emerged from the heavy ground mist clinging to the road. It reached the outskirts of Schmidt and hit a carefully placed anti-tank mine. The ground shuddered; clods of dirt flew. And the tank kept coming.
One intrepid soldier emerged from cover with a bazooka. He fired. The rocket crashed into the Panther with all the stopping power of a water balloon. And the tank kept coming.
Men guarding the road to the east turned and fled.
"Hold your ground!" The captain yelled as the squad streamed past him. Around him, the new recruits, who'd never faced the enemy before, exchanged guilty glances and then they peeled off after the fleeing squad.
"Pull back!" Enlisted men were shouting it to their colleagues as they raced through the still-smoking streets. Now the veterans, gaunt with hunger and cold and fatigue, still trembling with shell-shock, clambered out of their hiding places and joined the retreat.
Panic swelled, spread like a gasoline fire. Thirty German tanks streamed into Schmidt; the German infantry swarmed in from two sides.
The Americans fled. The ones who could made for the trail back to Kommerscheidt. The ones who were cut off melted into the woods southwest of Schmidt. Two hundred disappeared into that forest. A third of them were killed as the Germans hunted them down over the following days. One hundred thirty three were captured. Only a handful ever made it back to the American lines.
Harry ran until his lungs burned. He lost count of the times he had tripped over exposed roots, crashed to the ground, rolled back to his feet, and started running again. He gained ground on the soldiers who'd had a head start; and then he deliberately dropped his M1 so he could run faster. Rifle shots still cracked around them; more GI's fell. Harry passed them too, ignoring their outstretched hands, intent only on an unseen finish line at the end of this 5K cross-country race through hell. He heard the pounding of boots behind him, friend or foe, it didn't matter; he couldn't spare the time to glance over his shoulder. Adrenaline brought a surge of life to his tiring legs. He ran on.
A thinning of trees, what might have been a trail once, beckoned to the north, and impulsively Harry veered off that way. The sounds behind him faded as most of the men continued their pell-mell dash into the bowels of the Huertgen forest.
Finally, Harry caught his boot on something that sent him cart-wheeling into a ditch and he lay there a moment, stunned, his chest heaving. His eyes shut. He didn't know how long he lay there. And then suddenly another body dropped into the ditch beside him. Harry panicked, scrambled for his rifle, and remembered then that he'd left it a mile back. He sagged back against the damp earth, starting to raise his hands in surrender, when he saw who his companion was.
His CO had lost his weapon somehow too. And his helmet. A crease along his temple was caked with drying blood. His eyes looked blank, as though he didn't know where he was, or who he was.
"Lieutenant?" Harry asked. His voice came out barely more than a whisper. And he realized that the woods had grown silent. Wherever the fighting was, they had finally out-run it.
A flicker of awareness darted across Saunders's eyes and then died. He reached slowly into his jacket and pulled out a battered cigarette pack. His hand shook badly and after a moment he tucked it away, unopened.
"Sir? Do you know where we are?"
The lieutenant didn't answer.
"Do you know which way our lines are?"
Nothing, in fact, for 24 hours. It occurred to Harry that Saunders hadn't uttered a word in almost 24 hours. Not since they'd found … him. "Tommy."
He hadn't meant to say the name aloud. But the word seemed to galvanize Saunders – the lieutenant jerked as if shot. Then he scrambled out of the ditch, clawing at the earth with frantic fingers, lurching back onto the trail. Harry followed him, praying that they were heading north or west, and not deeper into the nightmare land of monsters, where friends were found crucified. Nobody had prepared him for that.
November 4, 1944, evening
Dammit! Doc thought. He wasn't trained for this. Stop the bleeding, yes, he was trained for that. Keep the airways open. And get the victim back, fast. That's the medic's job. Not to watch, helplessly, as a soldier… a friend… declined hour by hour, as the infection raged from the wounded hand and Caje shuddered as his fever soared.
Doc watched the injured man from across the cellar. It was hard to avoid someone when you were imprisoned together in the same 12 by 12-foot room, but Caje had been avoiding him all the same. He hadn't looked him in the eye since that moment when he had broken, and told the Krauts where Doc was hiding, behind the well.
And, to be honest, Doc had been just as willing to leave him to his corner of the cellar. He'd told himself the Cajun always had been something of a loner, content with his own company. Didn't need someone talking to him or fussing over him like some he could name. But the truth was, Doc was avoiding Caje too, because it was too frustrating to be needed and be helpless.
And that, thought Doc, is exactly what that Krauts wanted. To play with their minds, destroy the bonds between them, watch their will and hopes disintegrate. Well, he wasn't going to let them win that easily. And he was NOT going to sit here and just watch Caje die.
Just as he was getting to his feet, the cellar door opened. "Well, if it ain't Hansel and Gretel," Doc commented in his most laconic Arkansas drawl.
Brandl's face darkened but Ungeheuer just smiled. "Tonight," he said, "a special treat." He produced a tray and candle, with a flourish. Brandl kept his carbine trained on the group, while Ungeheuer set the tray on the floor and lit the candle. "The soup is quite good," he said. "Worthy of a condemned man's last meal." He laughed.
The squad exchanged looks.
Ungeheuer produced a single spoon with a flourish. "Dinner for one," he announced. "You must decide who goes hungry." He looked at each of the prisoners in turn. The one they called Nelson licked his lips. The big one's stomach growled. But they looked at each other, not at the bowl. That told him something. Colonel Drache would be impressed by his observation skills.
The medic seemed more interested in the injured man in the corner, who seemed interested in nothing. That, too, was revealing. But the youngest soldier, the one called Dixon, had eyes only for the soup. His fingers twitched. He took a slight step forward. He looked at no one. Slowly, he dropped to his knees beside the tray, and reached for the bowl, turning his back on his comrades.
Yes, Dixon would probably be the first to break. There was much to look forward to.
Ungeheuer turned on his heel and motioned Brandl toward the door. The old soldier took a step and then flinched as a large spider scuttled across the step. Brandl pressed himself against the far wall as he carefully maneuvered himself past it. Spiders were omens.
A loud slam echoed as Ungeheuer brought his boot down heavily on the spider. Brandl quaked. "It is bad luck to kill a spider!" he sputtered.
"Old man – there is no place for superstitions in the Third Reich," Ungeheuer said scornfully. He scraped the sole of his boot against the bottom stair and shouldered his way past Brandl and out the door.
In the great room, Drache drummed his fingers on the desk as the gefreiter recounted his impressions of the prisoners' declining state. Hopelessness - and dissension. Very good. "What of the others?" he asked.
"The rest - still resist, together. I think they grow weaker in body. But not yet in spirit." Ungeheuer reported, with some disappointment. Then he brightened. "The one we nailed to the wood – he is not taking strength from the group. He is … isolated. He does not act frightened, like the young one. But he is no longer defiant." Modestly, he refrained from pointing out that he deserved the credit for breaking that one. He was confident that Drache recognized his accomplishment.
Brandl had reasons to resent the ex-Hitler Youth, and thought of a way to downplay Ungeheuer's success. "The American - LeMay. He looks very ill to me. I think perhaps he will not live long enough to be broken. They say," he continued timidly, "that if one has difficulty in dying, he should be lain in the corridor and then he shall have an easy death."
Ungeheuer scoffed. "That is just another old wives' tales, fool! Besides, why should he have an easy death?"
Steiniger had remained impassive as Brandl described the prisoner's condition. What does it mean to be broken? he wondered. Is it an act of surrender? Or just an inability to fight any more?
A thoughtful smile tugged at Drache's ravaged face. "Some men break down in visible ways," he said. "But others - shatter inside. Outside, they become just a shell. They may not run, they may not weep. But they will not fight. They are hopeless, lost. They are already broken." He looked at his men. "Now, who has an idea for breaking one of the others? Herr Oberst Steiniger? You will surprise me, yes? With something clever?"
The lieutenant looked up at his commander. An idea had come to him during his men's report - and he thought Drache would be pleased with him. It would be good to get in his good graces. Slowly, thoughtfully, he nodded. Yes, he had a plan.
November 4, 1944, evening
Deep in the woods
Kirby had no plan. He didn't even have any idea which way was north or west. Nor, he complained bitterly to the rain-swollen clouds, did he have any luck. The boy limping beside him looked up at him blankly, not understanding the words.
"Rotten luck," the soldier repeated. "Every step of the way. Find shelter from the storm? Sure. But you'd think there could be a least one little bottle of communion wine tucked away there? Hell no!" He'd made sure of that. He'd torn the place apart, which had taken but a few minutes.
"And here, I think I've got me a native guide," he continued his rant. "And the kid is lame and slowin' me down." But keeping him from where? "And he don't even know how to get out of these damn woods any better'n I do!" he ended with a frustrated growl.
He looked again at the heavens for some response, and he got one. The sky darkened. Cold, fat rain drops spat right in his face, scattered at first just to get his attention. And then the freezing rain sluiced out of the leaden sky in icy sheets.
It didn't look like he and the kid were going to have shelter this night. He hoped the kid appreciated the skills ol' Kirby had picked up in Better Homes and Foxholes. With a sigh, he swung off his pack and unstrapped his spade. At least, he thought, hunching his shoulders deeper into his jacket and shivering miserably as he dug, Caje and the others were probably inside and warm and dry.
November 5, 1944, pre-dawn
Caje was warm. One hundred and three degrees, to be exact, although he didn't know that. And just because he was hot didn't mean he wasn't shivering too. And too miserable to sleep.
Dawn was still an hour away when there was a sound at the heavy door. Only Littlejohn raised his head – the others lacked the strength. A flashlight's beam preceded the German soldier into the room. Dixon cringed, sure that some new misery had been invented for them. He prayed they wouldn't choose him.
The pale light danced over each of them, lingering over Caje, whose face was the color of chalk, but whose eyes shone with dark resentment. The light moved on, and finally came to a stop on Littlejohn.
"You. Bring that one." The flashlight beam swung over to Caje and then back to Littlejohn. "Come with me."
In the dim light, they could see that it was Steiniger studying them, and that he held his weapon ready, and kept enough distance to prevent any of them from jumping him. Not that any of them had the energy to try. Steiniger backed up the stairs, gesturing to the two Americans to follow him.
Littlejohn stepped over the prone bodies of his fellow prisoners toward Caje. Caje struggled to get up, and Billy reached up for the Cajun's left elbow and shoved him gently to his feet. The sudden movement made Caje hiss through the pain in his cracked rib, suffered when one of the Krauts had kicked him. He tottered unsteadily for a moment, until Littlejohn curled a long arm around his back and pulled him toward the door.
They disappeared into the darkness of the stairwell, and Dixon heard the door lock behind them. He heaved a heavy sigh of relief. Whatever they had in mind for their prisoners today, for the moment he was spared.
Outside, Littlejohn had draped Caje's good arm around his shoulder, forced to stoop to accommodate the difference in their heights. He felt the Cajun shivering in his thin jacket. Steiniger waved them toward the back of the building, where his flashlight picked out a rusted old pump, and a shovel lying on the ground beside it.
Steiniger raised his pistol and aimed it toward Caje.
"Dig," he repeated. His thin face was expressionless.
Caje pushed away from his friend. His left hand found the wall of the building and he let himself lean against it, determined to stay on his feet.
Littlejohn's eyes were frantic with disbelief. Dig? A … grave? Each day the Krauts had come up with some new way to torture them, try to break their spirits. But the cold, the hunger, they had just stiffened his resolve. This though …
He couldn't dig a grave for a friend.
"I won't do it." His voice came out in a low growl.
Steiniger didn't answer. He merely trained the barrel of his gun on Caje and cocked the hammer.
"Do what he says," Caje said hoarsely. His knees shook.
Littlejohn bit his lip. Did Caje realize what Steiniger had in mind for him? Of course he did, Littlejohn could see it in his eyes. They didn't have that dullness of fever that he'd had off and on during the past day. Caje seemed to be studying Steiniger … maybe Caje had a plan?
Littlejohn didn't know what it could be, but he didn't have a lot of options. He'd have to co-operate, see what developed. But, he swore, if that Kraut tried to shoot Caje, he'd swing his shovel right at the bastard's ferret-faced skull. Even if was a suicidal thing to try.
He picked up the heavy shovel in his broad farmer's hands. The ground was thick with frost and his arms trembled with weakness as he drove the blade into the earth and then tried to lift a spadeful. The dirt spilled off the shovel to land at his feet – he lacked the strength to toss it further away. The sky was beginning to lighten more and he looked at the Kraut lieutenant and saw a sense of urgency in the thin face. The other Germans would waken soon.
Why should that matter to Steiniger?
Littlejohn ducked his head and bent to the task at hand. He stomped on the metal blade of the shovel again, leaned into it, worked the frozen soil loose, and pitched it aside. And again. And another.
The sky turned a lighter shade of lead gray and Steiniger shut off his flashlight with a nervous twitch.
The ditch had grown to the size of a foxhole when a sudden movement caught the corner of Littejohn's eye. Caje had lost the battle to remain upright and had slid bonelessly down the wall, to land in an uncomfortable-looking heap on the ground. He blinked; the hard jarring had brought him back to full alertness. He didn't look at Littlejohn though; he stared hard at Steiniger, studying him.
"Enough." The German officer gestured Littlejohn out of the hole and produced a short rope. "Tie him."
For a moment the big American stayed where he was; his brain sluggish. What did he mean?
Steiniger moved over to Caje, hauled him roughly to his feet and shoved him toward the ancient pump. "Drop the shovel," he ordered Littlejohn. "Then tie your friend here."
Littlejohn left the shovel in the hole and climbed out, and then moved slowly towards his captor. His large hands flexed unconsciously into fists. Steiniger watched him intently and before Littlejohn could get within reach, he dropped the rope and stepped back, out of harm's way.
"Do as you have been told."
Caje was cradling his bad arm against his chest, and his thin cheeks shone with a cold sweat. Littlejohn picked up the rope and hesitated, unable to think of a way out of this situation.
"Tie him securely, or you will take his place in this grave," Steiniger said.
Caje flashed their enemy a hostile look and then extended his arms toward the pump. Littlejohn looped the rope around Caje's wrists, leaving some slack until he saw Steiniger's small shake of his head, and tightening of his finger on the trigger. So he tightened the rope, tight enough to wring a cry of pain from Caje, and then he fastened the ends in an inescapable cinch.
Steiniger waved Littlejohn back, and inspected the bindings. He nodded, once, and said curtly, "I will be back to deal with you." Then he waved his pistol to direct Littlejohn back to the cellar door.
Littlejohn stood as if rooted. It couldn't be over.
He had to do something.
He didn't know what to do.
Soldiers didn't have time to share parting words, but this wasn't a battlefield. It was another kind of hell entirely. If he couldn't do anything, at least he could say something to Caje.
He looked over his shoulder, where the dark, gaunt Cajun, who had fought at his side for months, sagged against the rusted pump, his will for defiance not matched by his strength. He was fading fast, and they both knew it.
His eyes met Littlejohn's. His jaw clenched. And in the end, neither of them said anything to each other.
Steiniger shrugged toward the door and Littlejohn opened it and descended the dark stairs. He heard Steiniger turn the key in the lock behind him.
"What happened?" Billy asked anxiously, pushing himself off the floor.
"You were gone a long time," Dixon observed. He studied the big man for signs of abuse, but noted the haunted look in his eyes rather than any fresh bruises.
Doc sat up, a worried look settling across his nose. "Where's Caje?"
Before Littlejohn could answer, a shot rang out.
Sunday November 5, 1944, afternoon
Deep in the Huertgen forest
Does he have any idea where we're going? Harry wondered as he crept along the trail behind his stoic commanding officer. His legs ached with fatigue. The lieutenant had not spoken a word in two days, even in answer to a direct question, like - What happened to your Thompson? Or – most recently - Where the hell are we? Saunders had shut him out – reacting to nothing – lost in his own thoughts.
The silence was eerie. Harry missed the camaraderie of the other men in the squad, especially Kirby, who always had a story to tell. And he thought about his buddies from the Replacement Depot, Tommy and Dix. Tommy had lasted less than a week – no real surprise. That kid belonged in the Boy Scouts, not the Army. Harry wondered where Dixon was and if he'd ever see him again. He missed having an attentive audience.
Meanwhile, all he had for company was the silent Saunders, who moved like a sleepwalker.
Still, the LT did keep marching on. He was human yet – he still stopped to sleep, to eat. At least while they'd still had rations, Harry thought morosely. Those were gone now. He had enlisted with visions of showing off his medals back home – but he didn't think you'd get even a Purple Heart for just starving to death.
Sunday November 5, 1944, late afternoon
Dixon huddled in his corner of the root cellar, hugging his knees to his chest, cocooned by his shame.
He'd taken the soup.
He had drunk it all - without a thought for the others - aware only of the gnawing pain in his belly. He'd thought that it was hunger, but the hollow feeling remained. His gut clenched with fear.
Caje had been sick. Billy had been recovering from a head wound. Both of them had needed the nourishment more than he did. But he hadn't given them a second thought – he'd just reacted. And now there was no way to make it up to Caje – the filthy Krauts had executed him in cold blood.
They'd all seen the grave. Today the Krauts had let them out of their cellar – only to force them to march in the cold without their jackets – countless circuits around the house hour after hour – while the guards in their warm overcoats smirked and smoked cigarettes and watched.
Littlejohn stiffened each time they passed the grave and turned to glare at the German lieutenant, with an almost palpable hate. The German seemed unperturbed.
Dixon hadn't even realized that Littlejohn and Caje were particularly close, during the week he'd been with the squad. He guessed that didn't matter. The guys in the squad were loyal to the guys in the squad.
Except for him. He'd betrayed that loyalty. He wondered if he would ever get a chance to earn it back.
Sunday November 5, 1944, evening
Elsewhere in the Huertgen forest
Three nights had passed since Kirby had escaped from the Krauts at the forester's lodge, and still there was no sign of the American lines. Worried didn't begin to describe how he felt. Thursday night he'd spent alone deep in the forest, huddled under a tree, never sleeping longer than a half-hour stretch before some forest noise brought him awake with a jerk. His back still ached from that night. He never thought a foxhole could be called comfortable until compared to that alternative! Friday he had discovered he was being tracked – but it turned out to be nothin' but a scrawny local kid. Together they'd found an isolated chapel in the woods to provide shelter from the rain and cold. That's when the food ran out. All day Saturday they'd crept through the trees along winding trails, heading north Kirby hoped, toward the sawmill where they had planned to rendezvous with Saunders. Finally they'd collapsed, near exhaustion, to sleep under the trees again.
Today was Sunday – but Kirby hoped the good Lord didn't choose to rest that day. They could use some help! He slowed his pace to give the gimpy kid a chance to catch up and wondered again how he ended up stuck with the orphan. Had to be an orphan or the boy wouldn't have been wandering on his own like he was. Usually the little beggars could tell that he was wise to them, and they'd find someone else in the squad to sucker out of his last chocolate bar. PFC William G Kirby was a BAR man, not a babysitter!
Besides, Kirby thought, kicking the dirt on the trail in disgust, he's a Kraut kid and if the war keeps goin', one day he'll be lookin' at me through his rifle's sights. I oughta ditch the kid, instead of helpin' him.
A murmur of voices brought him up short. Looking about in a near panic, he grabbed the boy and shoved him off the trail and under the low branches of an evergreen tree; then he crawled into cover behind him. It was dark in their coniferous cave and as footsteps approached, he hoped it was dark enough to hide them.
German boots marched passed – two, four, six, eight. A patrol?
No. The Krauts dropped their heavy equipment and began to set up a machine gun nest. Kirby's heart was in his throat, wondering if the kid would step boldly out of their cover and announce their presence to his fellow countrymen.
Nicholas took one look at the blue-gray uniforms and started shaking so badly Kirby was afraid the evergreen branches under which they'd hidden would be jostled into betraying them. Shoot – he didn't know how to handle kids – how to make them quiet or to make them feel safe. In desperation, he clutched the boy to his chest, holding him tight until the shuddering finally stopped. Still, they crouched in their pine needle tent for more than an hour while the Germans made themselves comfortable. Kirby's fingers itched for his missing BAR. And he wondered why the kid was so terrified of his own people.
Finally, as dusk settled in, Kirby decided it was safe enough to try to slip away unnoticed, though their legs trembled with cramps. "Shhh … like a mouse," he whispered to Nicholas, wiggling his nose and twitching a pair of fingers on each hand like tiny footsteps. One by one they slithered out from the far side of the tree, careful not to jar the branches. Then, keeping low, they moved furtively in a direction perpendicular from the trail.
A few hundred yards away from the machine gun nest, Kirby heaved a large sigh. And then he realized that he had no idea which direction led north any more. Going cross country, without the trail to guide them, dodging fallen trees, stopping to fashion the limping boy with a crutch from a broken tree limb - he knew they hadn't traveled in a straight line.
Now the sky was growing darker with every passing minute as they marched aimlessly forward.
And then, finally, there was a small clearing in front of them. Kirby's heart rose and then fell in a single beat, as hope swept over him and was just as quickly crushed.
It was the damn chapel. Again.
Somewhere along the way, he'd guessed wrong. They'd traveled all day in a circle.
Why? Kirby demanded, skyward. What did I do to deserve this? He squeezed his eyes shut in frustration. His legs felt too wooden to move. Beside him, he felt the boy start to limp across the clearing.
"Wait!" Kirby opened his eyes and reached out to grab the kid's shoulder and pull him back. Even in his misery, he couldn't let them run into what might be an enemy position. Together they crept along the edge of the woods until they faced the windowless back wall of the building. Then Kirby scuttled across the open ground, exposed in the light of the rising moon, and skidded to a stop just before he hit the log wall. For a moment he listened intently. It seemed quiet. Kirby raised an arm and waved the boy toward him.
Nicholas at his elbow, the soldier led the way slowly around to the front. At the first window, he craned his neck to peer carefully in but saw nothing but shadows. It was still quiet though - it had to be as deserted as when they left, he told himself. Still, the tiny hairs on the back of his neck wouldn't be convinced. Stealthily, he reached forward to push the door open and then froze.
There was blood on the door. Still damp.
He grabbed Nicholas's arm to get his attention, pointed silently to the stain, and then tugged the boy behind him and pushed him to the ground, his right hand gesturing for silence, while his left tightened on the bayonet.
Taking a deep breath, he gave the door a quiet push and guided it slowly open with the toe of his boot.
Nothing moved inside. No bullets fired. No one challenged him. Just as he turned to tell the boy it was safe to enter, he heard a sound. A moan came from the shadows in a dark corner, where Kirby and the boy had sat on a pew and eaten the last of the food the day before. The moan faded and then turned into mutterings.
The words weren't English.
Kirby took the boy's tree-limb "crutch" in his right hand and his bayonet in his left, and stepped inside. "You! Get up!" Kirby waved the stick. "Raus!" he added, figuring "Out!" was about all the German he knew but it would get his meaning across all the same.
The man in the shadows only tossed restlessly, faced the wall and moaned again.
It could be a ploy, Kirby thought. Maybe it was just a local woodcutter, sleeping off a drunk before heading home to a shrewish hausfrau. But - maybe it was a Kraut soldier who was out of ammo too, and it was all a ruse, to get him in close and then whip out a bayonet. It was too dark now inside the chapel to be sure. So Kirby gestured to Nicholas to stay back while he crept forward gingerly, approaching only close enough to poke the stranger with his stick. And just as he got close enough, several things happened at once. Kirby jabbed him in the ribs and the man gasped and mumbled something again, and Kirby realized the words were French, not German – at the same moment his eyes adjusted to the darkness enough that he could see that the man on the bunk was not wearing a German uniform, nor peasant clothes either. And in the midst of the fevered French mutterings were names that Kirby recognized, like Doc. And Sarge.
"Caje?" Kirby dropped to his knees beside the pew, took the sick man's shoulder and rolled him onto his back. The face that met his was pale as the moonlight outside. The moonlight that could guide their steps, if Caje could walk. And if Caje knew the way to Saunders and the mill. Kirby had every confidence in the scout's ability to find his way. Walking, he realized with a sinking heart as Caje slipped deeper into unconsciousness, would be another matter entirely.
Sunday November 5, 1944, evening
Deep in the Huertgen forest
A trail had to lead somewhere. Didn't it? Harry was a city boy – what did he know about the woods? Where were those annoyingly earnest Boy Scouts when you needed one?
Harry wondered if they should have taken a different turn the last time there had been a place where trails had crossed. Maybe they should go back. He tugged at Saunders's sleeve to stop him and then looked up toward the sky, hoping for any clues that would point them west and north – that's where the American lines were. He hoped. Suddenly Harry spotted a thin plume of smoke curling upward from around the next bend. His faced flushed with excitement and he raised a hand to point it out. There was no acknowledging nod, no flicker of interest. But Saunders trudged on in that direction and Harry followed.
Around the curve, they discovered a small cabin and beyond that, the gurgle of the cold Kall River. There was no sign of anyone, civilian or soldier, but there were cords of chopped wood piled against the wall and a rusting axe was lodged in a thick trunk. The smoke was rising from a chimney on the west side of the house. Harry felt a rush of adrenaline – this might be his chance. Schmidt didn't count – they were simply overrun there. He had yet to look a German in the eye. Or to register his first kill. Would this be the test?
His hands were slick with sweat as he worked to rock the axe free. Then he circled the building carefully, without comment. Saunders followed, his face expressionless. Together they approached the door of the woodcutter's hut and taking a deep breath, Harry nudged the door open. An old woman turned from the hearth where she'd been tending a heavy iron pot. Her hand flew to her mouth and she dropped the spoon in the kettle with a short scream.
Harry's glance swept the room – a fireplace, a large oak table, chairs, a long low table against a wall; bins underneath it on the well-swept wooden floor. "Have you seen any soldiers?" he shouted at her. "Soldiers? Soldaten?"
The woman quaked. "Nein, nein! Keine Soldaten hier," she sobbed, shaking her head. But her eyes betrayed her – they darted to a closed door.
Harrison handed the axe to Saunders and unclipped their sole grenade from his belt. Cradling it in his right palm, the other hand ready to pull the pin, Harry dropped into a crouch and shouldered the door open with a violent heave.
Inside were two men in German uniforms.
Harry pulled the pin without thought – and then grimaced with frustration as he caught himself and almost reluctantly replaced the pin.
The man on the bed didn't move. Bloodstains covered his stomach. Beside him knelt another German soldier, wearing the white bib with a red cross that marked him as a medic. He looked up, never taking his fingers off the wrist of the wounded man as he continued checking his pulse. "We are not armed," he said, his voice rough with barely concealed resentment.
A rifle stood propped against a wall across the room. Harry stared.
The medic shrugged. "It has no ammunition. I could not persuade Haas to leave it behind."
"You speak English. Good." Harrison had studied German in his Catholic school, but their practice dialogues had always involved restaurants and churches and other innocuous topics. The nuns had never taught him the vocabulary for the sort of things he wanted to say to this Kraut. He grabbed the medic's pouch and the empty rifle and used the latter to point in the direction of the kitchen. "Move."
For a moment the command hung in the air like a challenge, the silence in the room interrupted only by the harsh rasping breaths of the unconscious youth on the bed. The medic looked down at his patient, then closed his eyes and breathed deeply, getting his own hostile feelings under control. Now was not the time to rebel. He opened his eyes and then calmly rose to his feet and did as he was told.
The woman still stood by the hearth, weeping quietly. "Bitte," she pleaded. She reached for the silver crucifix that hung from a thin chain around her neck and held the cross toward the less threatening enemy soldier in mute appeal for mercy.
For a frozen moment, Saunders stared at her. His eyes glittered at the sight of the gaunt figure hanging on the cross. Anguish flashed across his face and faster than Harrison had ever seen the lieutenant move, his hand flew out and grabbed the crucifix and yanked it from her neck. In a rage, he hurled it into the fire.
Sunday November 5, 1944, near midnight
Deep in the Huertgen forest
"C'mon Caje. Stay with me." Kirby felt the wounded man start to sink to the ground, so he pulled on the arm that was draped over his left shoulder and shifted his weight so they were both upright again, tightening his grip around Caje's chest.
Caje flinched and grunted in pain, and Kirby wondered what other injuries his friend had, besides the right hand and wrist that Caje kept cradled against his ribs. He wondered about a lot of things, but Caje was mostly too out of it to answer tough questions.
For the moment, Caje sounded coherent. Kirby's face lit up with a weak smile of relief. "Yeah, buddy," he said. "You need a break? Some water?" He could feel the heat of fever radiating off Caje.
Caje stopped. "We've got to go back," he said. "Doc – and Littlejohn – and Billy - "
"It's all right," Kirby said. "We're going to get help. We don't have our weapons. We'll get help and then we'll go back for them." He pulled out his canteen and offered Caje the last of the water.
Caje's hand shook as he brought it to his lips and let the cool water slide down his parched throat. Then he suddenly dropped to his knees and retched, his head hanging when it was over. He didn't have the strength to stand.
Kirby tried not to hurt Caje more when he hauled him upright. He looked around. The firebreak they'd been following was at an end. Two trails led away from the firebreak – in opposite directions. Kirby turned back to Nicholas, who was still with them although following behind, nearly out of sight. The boy looked as lost as Kirby felt. The GI turned back to his friend. "Any idea which way?"
Caje straightened painfully and then took a staggering step toward the trail on the left.
"How do you know?" Kirby asked, looking puzzled. Not that he doubted the soldier who always took the point.
"Downhill," Caje answered.
"The mill. It's on the river." Caje lacked the breath for longer sentences. "The river is always downhill."
"I get it!" Kirby grinned, feeling more confident than he had in days. "We find the river – we can follow it to the mill." His grin faded. "I just hope our team still has possession."
Monday November 6, 1944, 1 am
Lengfeld woke with a start. A short squat candle sputtered weakly in the corner of the room. His wrists were still tied together, and then tied to the bed where Haas lay suffering. He didn't need his hands free to help the poor boy – there had been nothing he could do for him.
When he'd first reached Haas lying at the edge of the river outside Simonskall, he knew that the abdominal wound would be fatal. But he couldn't tell the boy that. Couldn't tell him that there was no hope. And he didn't have any morphine left, to send him gently to a sleep from which he would never waken.
So Lengfeld had put the boy on his back and promised to carry him to safety. He promised he wouldn't leave him. They'd crossed the river on a narrow wooden bridge, and then followed it upstream, away from the fighting, until he found the woodcutter's hut and a frightened widow who had nowhere else to go.
And now, he saw, his obligation to Haas was over. The boy had sighed his last breath during the night. The promise was fulfilled. But Lengfeld wasn't free to leave.
He passed his hand over the dead boy's face, shutting his eyes, though the gentleness of his action belied the tightly suppressed fury he felt toward his captors. The silence in the room was broken by a commotion at the entrance to the cottage. Voices raised – more voices than before. Unfortunately the voices were all speaking English. Then Harrison came in and untied him and shoved him toward the now-crowded kitchen. Lengfeld noticed that the American's pockets bulged with the few silver items he had found in his search of the house.
In the kitchen, the old woman cowered in the corner, clasping a wide-eyed young boy to her bosom. The boy was filthy and had a blood-stained bandage around one leg. At the sight of civilians being harassed and hurt, Lengfeld felt his anger towards the Americans grow, but for the moment he was powerless, and wise enough to know that the safety of the woman and child might depend on his actions.
So he carefully studied the group of Americans before him in the light of the oil lantern. One of the new arrivals lay collapsed on the floor, awake but clearly too weak to pose any threat. The other new soldier, a private the others called Kirby, told Saunders that the injured man had escaped from the Germans. Lengfeld wondered why the soldier directed his story to Saunders as if he were in charge. Saunders's face remained impassive. He acted like no officer. He had the shell-shocked gaze of a man who had endured too much, who had to shut down his senses in self-defense. Sometimes, Lengfeld knew, such men were never whole again.
He had seen soldiers broken, weeping like children. Some shook uncontrollably. Some, like this man, simply withdrew into themselves – no answers, no decisions, their eyes as unseeing as a blind man's. No, not a blind man. Like a corpse. Lengfeld had seen it too much in his own countrymen to have pity for the shattered American. He couldn't help him.
But the man lying on the ground, shivering with fever. Him, he could treat, he thought distastefully. Perhaps. If it were not already too late for him. He had little desire to help an enemy whose soldiers would loot and attack innocent people. But clearly they had untied him for precisely this purpose. Glancing again at the woman and boy, he stifled his instinct to refuse and knelt beside the injured American.
Lengfeld took Caje's right arm and turned it palm up and began to push up the sleeve. The injured man's breath whistled through his teeth as he inhaled sharply. His wrist was badly swollen and discolored. The corpsman explored it with sensitive fingers, tracing the fragile bones, stopping when he felt the fracture. But more serious was the wound in the middle of the hand. The skin around the puncture mark was hot, puffy and bright red, with a cloudy fluid seeping past the crusted blood. Red tendrils snaked up the palm toward the wrist.
Lengfeld frowned. "How long ago?" he asked in lightly-accented English.
Caje's eyes glittered with distrust. "Three - four days."
The infection had grown worse quickly, Lengfeld thought. But he had seen it so before. He turned to the hausfrau and spoke quickly in German. She nodded, filled a kettle with water and set it over the fire in the hearth.
The corpsman stepped away from his patient, toward the dark corner where Saunders sat listlessly. The two enlisted men gathered around their lieutenant, as though he would tell them what to do. Lengfeld doubted that very much. Nevertheless, he directed his diagnosis to their leader.
"It is very bad," he told them simply. "If he is to survive, we must stop the infection from spreading. I don't think the hand can be saved." His eyes darted about the room and settled on the woodcutter's ax that Harrison had brought into the house.
"You don't mean - -" Kirby sputtered. He grabbed the medic's sleeve, eyes wide with horror. "What are you, a medic or a butcher?"
Lengfeld looked down his nose at the offending fist and Kirby yanked his arm back, as if the medic were a surgeon wielding a bone saw while contemplating Kirby's hand.
"I was a medical student before the war," Lengfeld answered. "And if you do not want him to die, I think it must be done." He looked at Saunders - detected a narrowing of the eyes, perhaps a tightening of the jaw? Or perhaps, the medic thought, he was only seeing things - simply weary of too many nights trying to comfort his own wounded with no medicines left to ease their pain. Perhaps he was imagining the reaction of the American lieutenant.
Kirby made the decision for them. "You just patch him up till we can get back to our own docs," he said brusquely. Then he went and took his position at the window, keeping watch over the dirt track that led to the house.
"I have no medicines. Not even for my own wounded." Lengfeld spread his hands. "You have seen my supplies."
"You wear a medic's insignia," Harry snarled, poking at the red cross embroidered on the other man's white arm band. "That means we aren't allowed to hurt you. If you really are a medic, that is. So let's see ya prove it. Otherwise… ." The snarl turned into a feral grin and he left the rest of the threat unspoken.
Lengfeld looked at the man who, in rank if not behavior, seemed to be their leader. The man's face was blank, neither threatening nor objecting to his countryman's threats. Lengfeld shrugged and turned back to the wounded American and directed his words to the others. "Put him on the table. I will do what I can. I do not think it will be enough."
He took his medic's bag from Harrison, knowing full well that it held little of use. Then he spoke again to the German woman. She poured the now-boiling water into a basin, brought it and a small towel to Lengfeld and then filled the kettle again and returned it to hearth. Harry followed her, his eyes narrowed with suspicion, as she moved about the kitchen, selecting other items the medic had requested. From a small cupboard of what appeared to be cleaning supplies she selected a dark glass bottle. Then she stooped and picked up a wicker basket by a rocking chair that was near the fireplace. She straightened, her stiff joints creaking, but Harry held up one hand and made her wait while he sifted through the contents.
It contained only her mending. He waved her on and she set the materials on a small table behind the medic, and then stood at his side to hold the oil lantern close.
Lengfeld draped the wet towel on his patient's arm to serve as a hot compress. Then he turned to the other Americans. "I will need something for a splint."
Kirby looked around; his glance settled on a stack of kindling by the hearth. With two strides he was there, and he pulled out a thin, foot-long piece of wood, flat on one side and about three inches wide. "This do?"
Lengfeld's head bobbed with satisfaction and he reached into the mending basket, pulled out a pair of small embroidery scissors and a faded white blouse. He snipped through the hem and then tore the worn fabric into strips with his hands. Making no effort to be gentle, he slid the splint under the injured arm. But when Lengfeld attempted to straighten his patient's slightly curled fingers and open the hand flat, Caje flinched violently, his shoulders rising off the table in an automatic reflex. Lengfeld paused, waiting until Cajesagged back against the table in utter weariness.
Again the medic tried to slowly straighten Caje's hand. This time, although the muscles in his neck stood out with the strain, the wounded soldier remained still. Swiftly, the corpsman wound a strip of fabric around splint, securing the long fingers in place against the wood.
Caje started trembling then, his eyes wild, the reaction something more than pain. There was fear there. Lengfeld backed off and looked at his patient thoughtfully. The bruising on the man's wrist had revealed a pattern like finger marks - as though someone had forcibly restrained him recently with brute strength, the American struggling desperately enough that the hand pinning him down had broken the bone in the wrist. Lengfeld muttered a question to himself and was surprised when a young voice answered in German.
It was the child with the gash in his leg. The boy was watching them, full of a child's curiosity and ghoulish attraction to horror. He had seen how the soldier had gotten hurt, he said.
"Erzählen Sie mich," the medic asked, as he reached for the delicate scissors. "Was ist geschehen?"
"Sie kruezigten ihn."
Lengfeld dropped the scissors on the floor. He had heard rumors of an SS officer who had done such things to prisoners. He glanced at the Americans to see if any of them had understood the German words.
One had. "They crucified him," Harry translated, in a stark whisper.
The word galvanized Saunders. He was on his feet, shock turning his face gray.
The German medic took a deep breath, then looked up from his patient to the other Americans. "It is necessary to restrain him so I may clean the wound."
For a moment no one moved. Having one's arm physically restrained against a piece of wood - it had to feel like being crucified all over again. No one wanted to be the one to put Caje through that.
It was the injured man who broke the silence. "Sarge?" he called weakly.
There was a sound from the corner of the room. Lengfeld turned in surprise to see Saunders step forward. The American came up alongside the table, and leaned close. "Easy, Caje. Take it easy." The words came out in a low murmur, his voice hoarse from disuse. "I'm here."
"Keep him still," Lengfeld directed. "Hold his arm there – below the elbow. But be careful of the wrist, it is broken."
Saunders took a deep breath, then did as instructed.
Then Kirby came forward too, tapping Harry's chest as he said, "You keep watch." He took his place at the head of the table, placed his hands on his friend's shoulders, and winced as he watched the German begin.
Kirby strained for something clever to say, something to take Caje's mind off what the medic was doing. For once, though, as the German began snipping away at dead tissue, Kirby was at a loss for words. He felt Caje jerk suddenly and he glanced down to seeLengfeld had picked up his tweezers and begun poking in the infected wound. Fresh blood welled onto the palm of Caje's hand and dribbled down between his fingers.
Kirby looked away, his stomach churning, and tightened his grip on Caje's shoulders as Lengfeld then untied the hand and turned it over to debride the exit wound.
"Hang on Caje," he heard Saunders say. "Almost there."
In the silence of the room, Kirby became aware of the ticking of a clock and nearly jumped when it chimed for two o'clock. How much longer could it take?
Finally the medic leaned back, with a heavy sigh and a slight shake of his head. He had done what he could. Kirby's arms fell to his sides as he stood weaving with exhaustion. Slowly, Caje unclenched his jaw. His free hand fluttered, grabbed Saunders's sleeve. "Sarge," he said. "We gotta go back."
'Sarge', Lengfeld thought. The others called him Lieutenant. No matter. He shrugged and reached for the dark bottle.
"Don't worry," Saunders told Caje. He gave one shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "We'll get you back to our lines."
Lengfeld began filling his syringe with a thick red liquid. Kirby wrinkled his nose. "Smells like carbolic acid. Like my ma uses when she's cleanin'…." The thought trailed off and he exchanged looks with his CO. They steadied Caje against the table again.
"Sarge," Caje repeated, his voice weak but urgent. "That's not what I mean. We gotta go back - "
Then he had no breath to speak, as Lengfeld began squirting the acid solution into the wound to disinfect it. Caje shook violently, tears running from the corners of his eyes down toward his ears.
Finally, Lengfeld stopped. He used hot water to wipe away the fresh blood and then packed a wad of soft cloth loosely over Caje's palm and another against the back of his hand and secured both with another strip of cotton wound around the splint. Then he reached for the other wrist to take a pulse and found it rapid and thready. Lengfeld had nothing to treat shock. Time alone would tell. He looked into his patient's eyes – saw that they were unfocused now. Caje was fighting hard to stay conscious but losing the battle.
"Sarge?" Caje tried one more time. It came out in a whisper. "The Krauts have 'em," he said. "Littlejohn and Billy and Dixon. And Doc. They're still there. They didn't move us."
Saunders straightened. Thoughts and emotions raced across his face like a crack spreading through ice, and his eyes flickered with determination and renewed purpose. "Where, Caje? Where did they hold you?" It couldn't be far. Caje couldn't have traveled far in his condition.
But Caje was in no condition to answer. "I'm sorry, Sarge … ." The words were faltering now. "I –" Grief made the words catch in his throat.
"Shhh. Don't talk," Saunders said. The urge to act was overwhelming but he pushed it back.
Saunders always knew when his men had reached their limits, and Caje had been pushed to the breaking point. He needed to rest. And to rest, he needed some reassurance from Sarge. Saunders didn't know what had happened yet, but he knew something was tearingCaje up inside – something that was causing him more suffering than the meatball surgery he'd just endured.
"You can't change the past," Saunders said softly. "Put it behind you. Sleep now."
He didn't need to add the last. Caje was already out.
Monday November 6, 1944, 6 am
Saunders rubbed the grittiness from his eyes as he stared out the window, watching the night's black hues soften to gray as morning approached. The old woman and the boy had been sent to a small back room for the night and had had the sense to stay put. Kirby had dropped from exhaustion on the floor near the front door, and Harrison was asleep nearby in a chair. The German medic occupied another chair, but he wasn't permitted to sleep. His safety depended on the life of the American who still lay motionless on the makeshift operating table. Lengfeld had spent what remained of the night applying cold compresses to his patient's brow to reduce the fever and hot compresses to his wrist to draw out the infection.
At 0600 he looked wearily up at his captor. "The fever is broken."
The lieutenant rose stiffly and came to check. The injured man's chest rose and fell in the rhythm of deep healing sleep. Saunders let the back of his fingers brush against Caje's gaunt cheek and found the skin cool to the touch. Without thinking, he said softly, "Thank you."
"I would like to go now," Lengfeld said. He tilted his head toward the south. "Let me go back to my lines."
"Think you know where they are?" Saunders asked. "It's awful easy to get lost out there." He'd have given a lot to know where either side was located exactly, but he was pretty sure those grease-pencil lines on the maps had been drawn and erased and re-drawn several times already. He doubted Lengfeld knew any more than he did.
The medic shrugged. "I will hear the sounds of battle soon enough. That is where I am needed."
Between them, they agreed on one delay. Saunders followed his prisoner and kept him under guard while Lengfeld carried his fallen comrade outside, dug a shallow grave, and marked it with a short branch stuck in the ground, balancing the German's helmet on top. When he finished, he looked down at his handiwork and remembered the boy whose life he had watched drain away. Then he turned back to his guard and saw the American's eyes that had been lifeless the day before now shone with resolve, brought back to life. So it was, with war. Without a word, he turned and walked away.
The woman and boy stayed hidden in the back room, waiting for the Americans to leave.
The shelling started at mid-morning.
Caje woke with a fitful start. His arm throbbed, an incessant drumbeat that seemed to echo the brutal cadence of the mortars. He grimaced and rolled over to rise up on one elbow, surprised to discover the other encased in a white sling. Raising his eyes, he saw Saunders standing by the east window, keeping watch over the dirt track.
"Sounds like they're hitting Kommerscheidt pretty hard," Saunders said. As bad as things were, at least they weren't in the middle of that. "Think you can travel today?"
Caje felt like crap. But it was worlds better than he'd felt lately, so he figured if he could make it from the lodge where they'd been captured to this woodcutter's hut yesterday, he could make the same journey back today. He didn't let himself dwell on the fact that he'd been dragged semi-conscious part of the way. He nodded.
Kirby stirred on the floor, stretched, and unthinkingly kicked Harry, who came awake with a muttered curse. Kirby scrambled to his feet and reached automatically for his BAR, before remembering he'd left it with Dixon. "I thought you were gonna wake me when it was my turn to keep watch," he said to Saunders.
Saunders shook his head. "You needed the sleep more'n I did. Besides, I had some figuring out to do." The words he had used to reassure Caje last night had echoed in his head until he finally surrendered to them and applied them to himself. You can't change the past. Put it behind you. Even if he never forgave himself for what happened to Tommy, he had to forget it, for now. And get on with getting the rest of his guys safely back. Focus on what you can do.
Kirby wondered whether Saunders had spent the night trying to figure out whatever had made him go all catatonic, or whether he'd spent it figuring out what they were going to do next. Either way, Kirby was just relieved to have his CO seemingly back to his old self. "I'm not complainin', mind you," Kirby said. "You know, carryin' ol' Caje here plumb wore me out yesterday!" He grinned at his friend.
"Hey!" Harry looked around the room anxiously. "Where's that Kraut medic?"
Saunders nodded. "Time for us to be movin' out too." He turned to Caje, who was now standing by the table, although with one hand pressed against it for support. "You said you wanted to go back for the others. You still think you're up for it?"
Caje's face hardened. "Yeah."
Saunders held up a hand before Caje could take a step. "First, sit down." He turned to the others. "Kirby, take all the canteens down to the river and refill them. Harry, see what food you can rummage up."
The two silently slipped away to their tasks.
Saunders turned back toward Caje and said, "I need to know exactly what we'll be walking into. I need you to tell me everything that happened."
The request was so simple. Spoken softly, almost casually. But Caje looked up into the hard gaze of his CO and saw the urgency there.
Only, Caje couldn't sort through the maelstrom of what had happened over the last few days, couldn't find the details Saunders needed, without re-living the events that he couldn't bring himself to face again. Nervously, he licked his lips.
Saunders reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a cigarette, lit it, took a drag and then passed it over. Caje leaned forward to take it in his good hand, nodded gratefully, and then sagged back wearily.
Harry came in, silently depositing some bread and raw potatoes on the table. He noticed Saunders' hands didn't shake any more.
"Kirby told us what happened until the Krauts showed up at the forester's lodge and he slipped away," Saunders said to Caje. "What happened then?"
How to explain the cold ruthlessness of Colonel Drache? The sadistic gleam in Ungeheuer's eyes – the bone-crunching vise of his grip pinning Caje to the cross – the arc of the hammer's swing ….Frantically, Caje's eyes darted away, but they no longer focused on the safe room where the Americans were sheltered. Instead, he saw again the family on the porch, cowering in fear; he heard the awful crack of the bullet, saw the dark red blood so vivid against the white apron. Caje closed his eyes to shut out the memories, but it didn't help. He saw Doc's pale face - the shock in his eyes as he realized his friend had given him up to the Germans. One hot tear clung to Caje's eyelashes for a moment before it was blinked away.
He should have thought of something – some way for the squad to get away. Dazed with pain, all he could think was to say anything to stop the Germans from shooting anyone else. He had to say something; give them something. And Doc was there. Surely the Krauts would treat a medic, someone who didn't carry a weapon, honorably.
But he couldn't give up one of his friends! He'd rather die … but then the Krauts turned their guns on the kid. And without making a conscious decision, the word was blurted out. "Doc - - "
Caje's eyes flew open. Had he said it aloud? He must have - Saunders was staring down at him, waiting for him to finish his sentence. There was no accusation in his eyes, but how could there be? He wasn't there; didn't know what Caje had done; didn't see the stunned look on Doc's face.
Caje swallowed. His throat ached all the way into his chest. "I was in the house. When the Krauts came. They took me. I … I … " He started trembling. Saunders placed a hand on his good arm, and the trembling eased, although Caje seemed unaware of the gesture. "I turned in Doc."
"Go on." The hand tightened on his arm.
Caje couldn't meet his eyes. "The Krauts shot the family…." His voice trailed away, the "anyway" inaudible.
"What happened to the rest of the squad?" Saunders's voice was carefully neutral.
The minutes that followed the execution of the innocent family were lost in a haze of agony. Four days later and he still remembered nothing from those minutes but the excruciating pain. And the stunned look in Doc's eyes that haunted him still.
Saunders's face swam into view, his blue eyes soft with concern, not blame. Didn't matter. Caje couldn't look to Saunders for forgiveness.
"The others?" Saunders repeated.
Caje shuddered, trying to forget the image that haunted him, trying to remember what came before. "Tommy -" he began.
The guilt that ravaged Caje's face over his betrayal of Doc was now mirrored in Saunders's grim features. The CO nodded. "I know about Tommy."
Caje struggled to find some details that he could share, details that wouldn't make his throat ache and swell shut. "Littlejohn said MacAllister got it at Schmidt. Kraut grenade. Billy was knocked out by it; hurt pretty bad, but Littlejohn got him away. They're alive." He named each of the survivors then, as if saying their names aloud would bind them to an oath – that they would all still be there, still alive, holding out for a rescue. "Littlejohn and Billy. Doc and Dixon. They're still there, in the root cellar."
"How many guards?"
Now they were on safer ground. Talking strategy – starting a plan. From the corner of his eye Caje saw Kirby had returned – was standing by the door with three canteens hanging from his hand. Had he heard the whole thing?
"I saw four or five, I think," Kirby offered helpfully. "Is that right, Caje?"
The injured man nodded. "There's a colonel. Two – three goons. And a lieutenant. Named Steiniger." Funny that he should remember his name, Caje thought. Or maybe not so odd. "Steiniger let me go."
"He just let you go?" Kirby's tone was incredulous.
"I thought he was going to shoot me," Caje answered. "Took me out of the cellar." He shifted his bandaged arm in the sling. "Then he said I would die if I stayed there. Told me there was a road a mile south; the Germans were moving reinforcements on that road. They would have doctors. If I could walk a mile I would live." He smiled thinly. "I don't think he thought I could. But he gave me a chance."
"Guess your sense of direction kinda deserted you too, huh?" Kirby chuckled. "I hate to break it to ya, pal, but you took a wrong turn north."
"I knew where I was goin'." Caje's voice was rough with weariness.
Saunders pushed food in their direction. "Eat. We move out in 20 minutes. And now I need to know everything you can tell me about the layout of that place."
"We got a plan?" Kirby asked eagerly.
"We got a plan."
Monday November 6, 1944, evening
Brandl circled the perimeter of the clearing warily. He didn't like the twilight shift. At all. Twilight was when restless spirits rose from their graves.
Shadows lengthened as his shift wore on, until he could make out only varying shades of darkness. Each rustle from the woods made him jumpy, made his skin crawl, though he told himself the sounds were only those made by nocturnal animals, not anything supernatural. He squinted into the blackness, trying to place himself with respect to the kubelwagen parked at the end of the road, veering closer to the vehicle so that his path didn't take him too close to the grave.
Ungeheuer could scoff at my "superstitions", Brandl thought, but he was just a city boy raised in the Hitler Youth – he hadn't heard the old stories passed down from generation to generation. There was a reason why bodies were moved to cemeteries. Only those who had died of natural causes should be laid to rest on the homestead. There was no rest for those whose deaths were violent and unnatural - their spirits would haunt the fatal site unless the bodies were moved away.
Brandl's steps slowed as he approached the mound of loose dirt that marked the place where the American was buried. As he had done on each circuit, he took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and quick-marched the dozen paces that took him what he hoped was safe distance, glad that Ungeheuer wasn't there to notice and mock him.
Brandl opened his eyes when he judged the grave was behind him and made himself focus on his duties, watching the perimeter, and not dwelling on his own shaky nerves. To his shock and dismay, he saw movement to his right – a flash of white – coming out of the woods. Toward him!
He raised his rifle, though his hands shook. The white, he realized, was a sling, supporting a heavily bandaged hand. It was a man in a uniform – an American uniform! The man staggered toward him, his left hand raised in surrender.
It was LeMay!
But - he was dead!?
Brandl's voice caught in his throat – he couldn't force as much as a squeak. It was the prisoner's ghost! Come back to haunt them!
The apparition continued to move toward him, weaving slightly.
Brandl knew there was no point in firing – it would just make the spirit angry. He wanted to run, but his legs were paralyzed.
The figure came within a dozen feet and stopped there, swaying. Its face was as white as the thick bandage wrapped around its right hand.
An owl hooted in the trees.
And then the ghost crumpled bonelessly to the ground.
Brandl glanced around frantically. He saw nothing but the dark forbidding woods. Timorously, he knelt beside the body and, taking a deep breath, he poked it with the barrel of his gun.
The body felt solid.
Brandl gave it a slight push – the figure didn't react but rolled limply onto his back. In the moonlight, Brandl saw the man's gaunt features plainly. It really was LeMay.
How could it be? Brandl looked again at the grave. Even in the growing darkness the dirt seemed undisturbed. What should he do? Wake up the Colonel and report this? Colonel Drache frightened him nearly as much as his superstitions. Nor did he feel safe turning his back on the body lying motionless on the ground. What if he reported it, and when his comrades came to check, the ghost was gone?
He looked back at the farmhouse and then at the root cellar, mere yards away. Making up his mind, he quickly searched the American for weapons. Finding nothing, he grabbed him by the collar and dragged him roughly to the cellar. There, Brandl fumbled with the key, unlocked the door, pulled it open and dropped the body down the stairs.
Then he slammed the door shut again, locked it securely and marched to the farmhouse, his heart still thundering in his chest. He would report to Lt. Steiniger and let Steiniger face Colonel Drache if needed.
Harrison scowled from his prone position at the edge of the woods. "I knew it wouldn't work. Kirby had to practically carry him the last hour or so. We were crazy to think that Caje could overpower the guard. You should have let me go."
Saunders shook his head. Harry was still bucking for his chance to kill some Krauts. "If you'd gone, the guard would have either shot you on sight or raised the alarm. Caje was our best chance to shock him into silence."
"So – what do we do now…. hey!" Harrison swiveled his head in both directions. "Where'd Kirby go?"
Saunders almost smiled. "None of us really expected Caje could take the guard. Not in his condition. But it worked as a diversion." He shrugged in the direction of the house. A shadow moved on the roof. "Kirby's up there, putting our real plan into play."
Harrison frowned. "But the goon could have just shot Caje and alerted the others."
Saunders nodded. "True. But Caje remembered this guard, thought he might be easily spooked. He was willing to take that chance. Kirby took a chance that the guard would be too occupied with Caje to notice him climbing up on the roof. And now it's our turn to take a chance." He slapped Harrison on the shoulder as the German guard disappeared inside the house. Sliding the rifle he had picked up at the woodcutter's hut off his shoulder, he gripped it tightly and sprinted across the open ground, to crouch below the house's front window.
In the cellar, Doc woke to the thudding of something tumbling down the stairs and then a weight crashed against his outstretched legs and went still. A hoarse voice groaned, and then swore briefly in French.
"Who is it?" Doc called softly. He reached one hand for the motionless figure that was curled up across his boots. The body grunted and then sat up and answered. "Doc?"
There was a rustling sound as the others stirred awake. Then the sound of a snap followed and a flame sputtered to life as Caje shakily held out a lighter. In the flickering gloom he could see the rest of the squad – Doc's concerned face - Littlejohn's shocked stare - Billy's mouth hanging open in wonder - Dixon hanging back in the shadows, fearful.
Littlejohn inched forward, overcome by an urge to clasp Caje around the shoulders and feel for himself that his friend was really there, really alive. But the light wavered as Caje swayed, and Littlejohn pulled back, struck by the impression that Caje might break if handled too roughly. So instead he simply leaned forward and took the lighter from Caje's trembling hand.
"Doc – check the bandage," Caje said, awkwardly drawing his arm out of the sling.
The medic looked puzzled, but suppressed the questions he had and carefully untied the ends of the cloth wrapped thickly round Caje's lower arm. The light caught the glint of metal and he caught his breath, then unwound the bandage faster.
Between the outer cloth bandages and a thick pad of gauze he found a thin scrap of wood used as a splint, and lying on top of the splint was - a pair of knitting needles! "Sarge thought – you could use them – to pick the lock," Caje said, breathing hard.
"Sarge? He's here?"
Caje nodded. "Kirby and Harry too."
A grin slowly spread across Doc's face, easing the tension and erasing the furrows in his brow as he passed the needles to Littlejohn. Then Caje watched Doc's eyes harden again as the medic stared at the dark red bloodstains on the bandage that still covered the wound. In that moment, Caje felt certain that Doc had to be remembering when Caje had gotten that injury, and what Caje had done in a futile effort to keep the Krauts from carrying out their threats. Unable to meet Doc's eyes, he looked away as the medic carefully rewound the cloth bandage, and saw Dixon cowering in the corner of the cellar.
"We can't try to escape," Dixon said softly, hugging his arms to his chest and rocking back and forth. "What if we get caught? Maybe it's a trap! What will the Krauts do to us then?"
Kirby's feet were cold. He had taken his boots off and strung them by their laces around his neck, to move more quietly as he made his way like a cat burglar across the roof. Reaching the peak, he shrugged off his jacket and spread it across the chimney, placing his boots on opposite corners of the chimney to weight it down. He wrinkled his nose at the acrid smell that clung now to his jacket and he placed his hand on the fabric that was blocking the smoke's escape. It was warm.
He wondered how long it would take for the Germans inside to react to the smoke that would be billowing back into the house. It had been quiet as he'd made his way precariously across the roof but now he could hear voices below him. The guard had wakened someone and was chattering away nervously. If Harrison had been the one on the roof, they might have known what was being said – at least Harry had some basic knowledge of German.
More voices were heard. And coughing too. Surely they had noticed the smoke. He hoped they would hurry – he was freezing up there. Would they all come out at once, or send someone outside first to check? Kirby peered down at the ground and saw Saunders and Harrison crouched and ready, backs to the wall by the front door. He inched down to the edge of the roof to play his part.
Littlejohn worked anxiously on the lock with no success. He just knew Kirby would have had them out of here by now – and would be giving him grief for being so fumble-fingered if he were here. His hands were getting sweaty; he scrubbed his palms on his pants and started again. One needle should apply just the right amount of torque to the plug; the other should find and lift the key pins.
He realized that he would have to do this by touch and sound alone so he let his glance wander around the cellar while he manipulated the knitting needles. As usual, he sought out Billy first. The young soldier sagged weakly on the floor against a near wall. Littlejohn had been so relieved when Billy had first regained consciousness – but as the days passed Billy continued to suffer from dizziness and his headaches were getting worse. It seemed to be one of their captors' ploys – to observe the effect of withholding medical treatment, as they were subjected to cold and hunger too. Littlejohn had worried that the Krauts would shoot Billy if they thought he was getting too sick to play their games anymore, like they had executed Caje.
But they hadn't. Hadn't executed Caje that is, he thought. Why the ruse? Littlejohn grimaced as the pin he was working on struck the hull of the lock and wouldn't move. He would need to apply more force – but not too much.
Trial and error.
This lock-picking exercise reminded him of the Krauts – who seemed to be trying to unlock some mystery within their prisoners.
Which pins to push – what kind of pressure to exert – to get the prisoners to react?
His thoughts turned back to Caje – the first of them to be captured and interrogated. Why was he alive now? Where had he been the last 24 hours? Had the Krauts taken him aside – offered him food and shelter and medical care in exchange for information? HadCaje betrayed them?
Littlejohn's hands froze. Was Dixon right? Was this another Kraut game, sending Caje back to test them, to study their reactions before punishing them some more?
He turned and looked back to watch Caje and Doc in the flickering light from the cigarette lighter. Exhaustion, pain and – yes guilt – were etched in wounded man's face as Doc settled his arm back in his sling.
Caje looked guilty?
Littlejohn's head was fuzzy from lack of food and sleep. He couldn't trust impressions; he needed to look back on the facts. He and Billy had been hiding inside the house when the Krauts came and they'd heard someone shot – later they discovered it was the old grandfather. Next they'd heard the Krauts discover Caje and a young boy and drag them outside. What had happened then Littlejohn didn't see or hear, but they'd gotten the story from a shattered Dixon, on one of the forced marches around the camp.
Dixon told them he'd been hiding and watching from behind a haystack when the Kraut colonel had demanded that Caje tell them where the rest of the Americans were hiding. Caje had defied them at first, even when they threatened to crucify him. When Dixon described the nail being hammered through Caje's hand, he had started to shake and Littlejohn thought the boy was going to be sick. But Caje still didn't tell them anything more than name, rank, and serial number. Then the Krauts had threatened to shoot the civilians, Dixon said. And that's when Caje gave away Doc's position.
No wonder he looked guilty when Doc was treating him.
Dixon had panicked and when the shooting started he had tried to run away but froze when the Germans shouted Halt! And fired in his direction. He guessed Kirby had gotten away in the confusion. The Germans had then searched the house and discovered Littlejohn and Billy.
The Krauts had seemed surprised. So no one had told them that more Americans were hiding in the house.
Caje had known they were there. But he hadn't given them up to the Krauts. Littlejohn looked back at the scout now and found his gaze met squarely, without fear or remorse. And Littlejohn knew with certainty that Caje hadn't betrayed them – then or now. He turned his attention back to his lock picking and applied a little more pressure. The driver pin caught on the edge of the plug. The lock opened.
Littlejohn scuttled down the steps, dropped the knitting needles beside Caje, and gave Doc a triumphant nod. Doc hauled Caje to his feet and Littlejohn helped Billy to stand. Dixon shrank back into the corner, his fingers scrabbling nervously against the dirt wall.
"Saunders and Kirby and Harry are outside," Caje said. "They'll keep the Krauts occupied. We're supposed to break out – head for the vehicle." He stopped there. Talking was more of an effort than he'd hoped it would be. In fact, keeping conscious was more of an effort than he'd hoped.
"Then what?" Billy asked, one hand to his head as though that action could keep the room from spinning.
"If there are weapons there, we can join the fight. If not .…" he paused, taking another shaky breath that made his battered ribs ache. "If not, take the car if we can get it running. Otherwise, disappear on foot into the woods."
One by one, they crept out of their prison. Once in the night air, Littlejohn helped support Billy, who was still unsteady. Doc draped Caje's good arm around his own shoulder and together they faded into the night behind the other pair.
Dixon hung back. His legs felt leaden – he couldn't make himself follow. If their escape attempt was unsuccessful, he didn't dare face whatever new tortures Col. Drache's wrath would impose. Better, he thought, to do nothing. If Saunders and his men succeeded in overpowering the Germans, then he could leave with the Americans in safety, without risking his own skin. And if the Germans prevailed – well – he wouldn't have risked injury or death and surely they wouldn't punish him for the actions of the others. They wouldn't!
He found himself completely alone. Shadows moved around him. In the dark he couldn't tell friend from foe. Best not to move at all, he told himself.
And then a shot rang out.
Steiniger coughed as he led the others out into the fresh autumn air. Brandl followed, waving his arm in front of his face to dissipate the smoke. It was hard to see. Mueller came through next, but stopped in his tracks so quickly that Colonel Drache bumped into him, cursing.
"Why have you stopped? Idiot!"
Mueller just stared into the shadows, where an American sergeant stood motionless, rifle trained on the small group. Steiniger reacted first, instinctively drawing his pistol.
Saunders didn't fire.
Steiniger's gun went off – the bullet stirring Saunders's hair as it whistled a centimeter wide of its mark when Kirby dropped from the roof onto the German's back, knocking them both to the ground. They rolled in the dirt, each desperately struggling to gain sole control of the pistol.
Saunders stepped forward and jammed the barrel of the Mauser against the throat of the SS Colonel. "Don't make a move," Saunders ordered. Even the soldiers who didn't speak English understood the threat. Brandl's arms shot up stiffly in the air in instant surrender. Mueller looked doubtfully at his commanding officer.
Drache stared with livid hostility at the GI before him. He saw the dried blood crusting over a week-old gash on the man's brow; stubble that had not seen a razor in even longer. Dirty. Unkempt. Clearly an inferior breed. He resented having to submit to this soldier's authority and looked around at his men. They were not in a position to resist. For now. Drache reluctantly nodded his head and raised his hands shoulder high.
"Kirby, quit messing around and get that gun," Saunders said in a tired voice.
The two soldiers struggled to their knees. Steiniger's finger tightened on the trigger; Kirby had the barrel in his left hand and his muscles strained with the effort of redirecting it toward the cluster of dejected Krauts. But Steiniger had slept well and eaten in the last few days - Kirby had not and he felt his strength waning as the pistol slowly was turned to point back at Saunders.
"Kirby?" Saunders repeated, watching the battle on the ground but not moving his rifle from Drache's jaw.
The pistol's sights lined up … and in desperation, Kirby found an opening and kneed his opponent in the groin. Steiniger promptly collapsed, dropping to the ground like a coiled snake. His finger loosened and Kirby wrestled the gun free and rolled to his feet.
"Kirby, gather up their weapons." Saunders ordered. "Harry – check the root cellar. Make sure everyone got out."
And that's how Harrison discovered Dixon, cowering in his tracks, beside the open door to his prison. "C'mon," he said. "We've got 'em!"
Dixon stumbled behind Harry as they walked back toward the house, quaking with relief that he'd been rescued. Rescued! Kirby had stacked the German's weapons in a pile out of their reach and was busy tying their prisoners' hands behind their backs.
"Dix – you okay?" Saunders called. "The others get out?"
Dixon nodded, his mouth too dry to speak.
Saunders gestured him closer. "Pick me out one of those rifles from the pile and bring it here," Saunders said, more quietly, never taking his eyes from the German soldiers. "Make sure it's loaded."
Dixon's brow furrowed in puzzlement but he did as he was told. Saunders took the Kar 43 from him and nodded, and handed Dix the rifle he'd used in the ambush.
"I don't get it," Dix said. "What's wrong with the one you had?"
"Wasn't loaded," Saunders said.
"What?" The query came out in a squawk, and Kirby shushed him with one hand as he shoved the last prisoner to the ground.
"You mean – " Dixon's voice lowered. "You mean you attacked a Kraut position when you didn't have any ammo?"
"I told you Saunders was the company to be in! We'll probably get medals," Harrison said gleefully.
"Knock it off, Harry," Saunders said grimly. "Go lock the prisoners in their own root cellar."
"My pleasure, Lieutenant," Harry said, and prodded them to their feet.
Dixon counted them as they went past. Brandl, Mueller, Steiniger, Drache…. "Where's the other one?"
"What?" Saunders and Kirby spoke at the same time.
"There were five of them."
They looked back at the house. With the door open, the smoke had dissipated – the missing Kraut wasn't missing because he'd been overcome by smoke. There was no sign of him.
They still had an armed enemy to deal with.
Saunders and Kirby didn't need words exchanged to know how to clear a building. They approached the door together, bracing themselves against the wall on either side of the door. "Dix," Saunders said. "You go find the rest of the squad – try the vehicle first." Then he gave Kirby the signal and, covering each other, they entered the house.
The cold November wind blew icy tendrils down Dixon's neck as he walked around the house toward the road. He shivered. The relief at being rescued made him weak in the knees.
It was over.
As he came around the corner, he stopped. The intermittent cloud cover drifted away from the moon and a terrifying tableau stood before him.
Moonlight glinted off the shovel marking Caje's grave - the shovel still lying where Littlejohn had dropped it in his grief and rage. Twenty feet beyond that stood Ungeheuer – tall and strong and proud – his back to Dixon. He faced the escaped prisoners who were clustered around the kubelwagen – and he had them covered with his rifle.
"I see you have found what I have come looking for," Ungeheuer said. He gestured to Littlejohn to set down the box he was holding. Had he come a moment later, the Americans would have opened it and discovered the cache of grenades. But Ungeheuer was too good for that. If you take the right actions, the right consequences will be yours. He believed that completely.
Littlejohn set down the box and took a step back toward the vehicle.
"What's this?" Ungeheuer smiled evilly. The prisoner who had had the head injury was lying in the backseat, where the medic had been settling him. The one with the sling – the one the others called Caje – leaned against the hood, too weak to stand unassisted."Everyone away from the vehicle!" Ungeheuer raised his voice.
"He's no threat to you," Doc protested, holding Billy in place with a firm hand to his shoulder. "Leave him be." Littlejohn edged closer to Billy as if to defend him.
"You Americans are so weak!" Ungeheuer scoffed. His pleasure in intimidating his enemies occupied his thoughts completely. "You – away from the vehicle!" he ordered again – this time staring directly at Caje.
Caje pushed himself away from the car and stood, wavering slightly. Sweat beaded on his brow.
"Weak!" Ungeheuer waved Littlejohn and Doc away from Billy. "We will play a game to see how weak you are," he said. Drache would like this one, he knew. Ungeheuer gave no thought to the fact that his comrades might be engaged in conflict with other Americans; he was totally immersed in his new game as he aimed the rifle at Billy's chest. "I will not pull the trigger while this one stays on his feet," he said, sneering at Caje.
Caje stared back. He found his vision blurring though, and blinked hard to keep the object of his hatred in focus. Everything started to go gray, but as he felt one knee buckle he staggered forward a step to regain his balance. Breathing hard, his broken rib stabbed with each breath he took. His arm was aflame. The rest of him was icy cold and he wanted so very much to lie down, to sleep, to stop feeling anything at all.
But not while Ungeheuer watched.
Caje began to sway with dizziness. His vision started to go blurry again. He could see Ungeheuer's smile widen. He could see Ungeheuer spit out the word "Weak!" – but he couldn't hear it over the roaring in his ears. He saw the German's finger tighten on the trigger with remarkable clarity, but everything around that was fuzzy and in motion.
And then he realized that blur of motion wasn't a symptom of fading consciousness. Dixon erupted behind Ungeheuer, swinging the shovel. The blade caught the German soldier behind his right ear and he crumpled to the ground.
"Weak?" Dixon crowed triumphantly. "The weak shall inherit the earth!" Then he stood unmoving, stunned at what he had done.
"That's 'meek'," Doc correctly gently, suddenly appearing at his side, taking the shovel from him.
Saunders and Kirby came trotting up at the sound. "All accounted for?" Saunders asked.
Dixon nodded, still speechless at what he had done.
Doc stooped to check the body. "He's dead," he said, without his usual tone of remorse.
Dixon staggered to the car and sagged against it. He had killed a man.
Billy looked across the car at him, pale and weak, but smiling. "Thanks, Dix. I owe you one."
"No," Dixon shook his head. "We're even now."
"I owed you – for the soup."
"The soup?" Billy's puzzled look faded only slightly and then he let his eyes fall shut as he gave in to his own battle for consciousness.
Saunders looked over the kubelwagen and then told Kirby to bring the captured SS officer to him.
"Can't someone else go? I'm turnin' blue here," Kirby complained. "I left my jacket and boots on the roof, remember?"
Saunders smiled – those muscles in his face taut from long disuse. "Okay, go get 'em," he gestured upward. He looked at his men before him – Nelson unconscious now in the vehicle and Littlejohn checking him out – Doc guiding Caje into the seat beside Billy – Dixon sitting on the ground now beside the truck, elbows on his knees, his arms thrust forward, his hands shaking. "I'll get the Colonel myself," Saunders decided. "We'll take him back with us. But we'll give the rest a taste of their own medicine; leave them locked up in the same prison where they held you."
Caje lifted his head; opened his mouth to speak. Saunders was standing beside the grave - his grave – and Caje thought for a moment about what he'd intended to say and then decided against it. Shaking his head slightly, he turned away and let Doc help him into thekubelwagen.
Tuesday November 7, 1944
The aid station was overflowing with broken and bleeding soldiers. The more seriously ill were treated first. Billy was promptly carted away with a possible skull fracture. But all of Saunders's men were examined for frostbite, malnutrition and physical trauma. Doc sat waiting his turn, talking quietly to Saunders. "Where'd the kid come from?" he asked, gesturing toward a scrawny tow-headed little boy whose leg was being bandaged.
"Kirby found 'im, in the woods," Saunders answered. "Funny – you'd think Kirby would be the last guy in the squad to pick up a stray. He was always suspicious of 'em, even the French ones. It's Caje who's always adopting the orphans."
The boy raised his head then, and suddenly Doc realized where he had seen him before.
The doctor finished with the boy and crossed the room, settling his stethoscope in place. Before he could start his examination of the gash on Saunders's head, Doc interrupted. "Did you see a guy with an injured hand? He came in with us. LeMay? Paul LeMay?"
The doctor looked up. "I did. Nasty wound. He's in line for the next ambulance to the evac hospital."
Doc scrambled to his feet. He knew where the ambulances would be loading. "I need to find him." He paused. "He's going to be all right, isn't he?"
"I haven't killed a patient yet," the doctor said cheerfully. He didn't say how long he'd been in the medical corps though.
Doc grinned back; then the smile faded. "But – what about his hand?"
"I don't think he'll lose it."
Doc gulped. "Lose it?" He and Saunders exchanged looks.
The doctor shook his head. "Mind you, that'll be up to the surgeons. My guess is, they'll be able to save it. With rehab – well …" he paused, frowned, then brightened. "It's lucky he's left-handed, isn't it?"
"Yeah, it is. Thanks." Doc left the MD talking to Saunders and he took himself off to the ambulance bay area. He found it crowded with injured soldiers, some on pallets and more stretched out on the floor – all of them bloodied, most with IV's dangling overhead. Medics bustled about between them.
"Caje!" He found the one he was looking for, sitting on the floor with his back against the wall, arm in a sling.
"Hey Doc." Morphine had eased the lines of pain that had ravaged his face, but his eyes still looked haunted.
"I – uh – just wanted to make sure you were in good hands," Doc said. Then he winced at his choice of words.
"Doc – I - " Caje looked down. There weren't any words that could make right what he had done – not in English or his native French. But he had to say something. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay. I understand." Doc folded his legs to sit beside Caje on the floor. "I saw the kid. He's okay, you know."
"The kid from the house? He got away." Doc shrugged. "You made a choice – traded my freedom for a kid's life. I'd have made the same choice."
Caje shut his eyes. Remembering. Remembering the blood on the old man's shirt. The echo of the pistol shot that killed the mother in cold blood. More shots fired. "The boy made it?"
"Yep. You were probably too out of it to realize that's the same kid that was tagging after Kirby. He's going to be fine. Thanks to you."
Caje remembered more then. In a red haze of agony, he remembered seeing Doc throw himself at Mueller to knock his aim off. "You saved the kid," he corrected him.
The medic smiled. "Okay, we saved him. We're in this together. We can both be the hero. And if we're giving ourselves medals, let's not forget Dix and his shovel," he added. "I never thought I'd feel this way, but that's the first time I really wanted to kill a man."
Caje didn't answer. Doc had no idea how many men Caje had been forced to kill in this war, but he'd never seen Caje take pleasure in killing. Still, there had been a grim satisfaction in his eyes when Doc had announced that Ungeheuer was dead.
"I do feel a little guilty about those other Krauts," Doc said. "That's crazy, I know. But they weren't all SS like the major. And that place is so remote – they could starve to death before anybody finds them. Their side or ours." He shrugged. "It's one thing to fight an armed enemy. It's another to leave them to a slow death." Having been on the receiving end of such treatment all too recently, it wasn't something he would wish even on a foe. "I guess I just hate to think that we're no better than they are."
"Don't worry 'bout that, Doc," Caje said.
Doc raised a querying eyebrow.
"We left the knitting needles in the cellar. They probably didn't find them till daylight, but …" His voice faltered. The drugs were pulling at him, offering him relief from the pain and from the memories. He wanted to surrender to that sleep. But not until….
"I am sorry," he repeated, this time looking Doc in the eye.
"It's okay," Doc said, smiling. "You came back for us."
It was okay. Caje could see that now. He could rest. "I'll catch up wit' you later," he murmured groggily, closing his eyes.
Doc shook his head. "Not this time," he said softly, climbing back to his feet. "You can go home. You've done enough." Caje didn't hear him, but Doc turned to find that Saunders had.
"Three hundred, huh?" Saunders sighed heavily. His cold, damp clothes still clung to him, but he was so drained with fatigue that he lacked the energy to shiver.
"That's right," Hanley told him. "We sent 2200 across the Kall River over the last week and barely 300 made it back. You're among the lucky ones. "
"Lucky. Right." For a moment the weary resignation in his eyes was replaced with a flash of anger. "What the hell happened here, Captain? There was no effort to take the dams. Hell, there was no effort to do ANYTHING seriously. We were all over the map. If they'd directed all three regiments to any one objective, we might have had a chance. But they split us all up. We didn't have a chance. Not in that terrain."
Hanley put one hand on his shoulder. "That's the kind of thinking we need at S2, Saunders." He gave a tight smile. "You pulled out the impossible there. Scouted the dams. Liberated POWs. Captured a colonel. Hell, you survived. You survived the Huertgen Forest. Thousands didn't."
"Somehow, that doesn't make me feel very proud, Captain."
"Maybe this will." Hanley handed his friend a small pair of silver bars. "Your promotion's official. Here. Take them."
But Saunders stared at the bars in the palm of his hand, no bigger than a stick of gum. Abruptly, he leaned forward, handed them back. "No, sir. I don't want them."
"You're – you're turning it down?"
Saunders slumped back in his chair. "I know a promotion means being re-assigned. And I don't want to leave my men, sir."
"But we need you in HQ, Saunders. We need men there who've seen battle up close, who can make the kind of decisions that need to be made."
"It's not the right job for me, Captain," Saunders said. "I don't guess that I have the kind of courage that takes."
"Courage?" His CO turned puzzled eyes on him. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, I don't have the guts to send men out on my command, ask them to do something I'm not in a position to do myself. If – " Saunders swallowed. "If it turns sour, I have to know that I was there to do everything in my power to prevent it. I don't have what it takes to sit back and give the orders. Sir."
"There's all kinds of courage, Saunders," Hanley said, sighing. "You remember that hill we were ordered to take, when we lost half the platoon? Against all odds, we took it. We lost Einstein there and …." He took a deep breath, absently, rubbing his sore ribs.
Saunders nodded. He remembered it. He'd gotten hit there – a hole in his leg big enough to lose a grenade in, Doc had said. They'd taken the hill against all odds and at great cost. And then were ordered to abandon it. "I remember," he said.
"That's where I decided I didn't have the guts for that anymore," Hanley said. "I can't watch my men die before my very eyes, following orders I don't believe in, when I might be able to influence a decision to prevent it, back at the command post."
"I guess there's all kinds of courage." Saunders admitted.
"And we each have our place in this war." Hanley stood up and shook his friend's hand. "Let's win this war - - Sergeant."
"You figure out how to win the war, sir. I'll do my best to execute those orders and bring the men home."
Hanley nodded, and Saunders made his way out the door and got directions to a tent where Supply was trying to restore order out of chaos and get the stragglers outfitted with equipment that other soldiers, the casualties, would never need again. He picked up a Thompson, and was about to ask about other equipment, when he saw what he needed, in a corner pile full of discarded helmets.
Leaving the tent, he saw a familiar figure sitting slumped on the ground, apart from the other GI's.
"I can't do it, sir, " Dixon said to him. "I'm not a soldier. I didn't even have enough sense to take one of the Kraut rifles when you sent me to find the others."
"So – next time you'll know better!" Saunders said.
"Next time? I'm too scared to think about a next time. I'm scared all the time." Dixon looked down at his hands, to see if focusing on them could stop them from shaking, and to avoid seeing the expected criticism in Saunders's eyes.
"That's okay, Dix. You're supposed to be scared."
The boy's face screwed up in confusion. "Huh?"
"You think you've lost your nerve? Well, you aren't gonna find it staring inside yourself. Look around you."
Saunders gestured at all the exhausted men collapsed around the stone wall that surrounded the ruins of the village church. "When Doc runs out in the middle of an artillery barrage to get to a wounded man, you think he's not scared? When Kirby finds us a path out of a minefield, you think he's not scared? When Littlejohn was out of ammo and Billy left cover to toss him some clips, you think he wasn't scared? You saw what Caje did yesterday – going back to face his worst nightmare." He paused, waiting for Dixon to look him in the eye. "We're all scared, Dix," he continued. "Being brave doesn't mean you're fearless. It's what happens when you suddenly realize you're more scared for your friends than you are for yourself. That's when you find the courage you need."
Dixon took a deep breath. "I didn't know what came over me when that Kraut was gonna shoot Billy. I was scared, but I just reacted. I didn't think about it."
"That's what I mean, kid. Be scared. But be more scared for your buddies – worry about them and let them worry about you. And you'll be all right."
The boy straightened his shoulders, a small, determined smile replacing the uncertainty of a moment ago. Saunders gave him a nod and turned away.
Kirby squinted against the sunlight as his CO turned toward the other survivors of the Huertgen Hell. "You seen Caje, Sarge? I mean, uh, LT," he stammered as he stared at the familiar camo helmet in the other man's hands.
"You had it right the first time," Saunders said, a grin ghosting across his weary features. "I've asked for my stripes back. I'm here – to stay." He settled the helmet comfortably on his head. "If you hurry you can find Caje at the aid station," he added, knowing the two friends might have some things to say before Caje left. "I'll go tell the rest of the squad that I'm staying."
My squad, he thought.
It had a good ring to it.
~ The end ~
This story had its seed in a simple passage from the Stephen Ambrose book Citizen Solders. He wrote –
Lt. John Forsell, K Company, 110th Infantry, 28th Division, had a macabre experience. He was outside the village of Schmidt, which was no-man's land. "One morning our patrol came into town and found a GI hung on the Crucifixion Cross. We cut him down."
Although In the Dragon's Teeth is a work of fiction, some facts did creep in! For research, I am indebted to primarily these sources –
Ø Ø The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest by Charles MacDonald
Ø Ø After the Battle magazine issue #71, article "The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest"
Ø Ø Fellow Combatant Marty, who has tromped these battlefields many times and provided invaluable maps, and
Ø Ø My editor-and-friend-extraordinaire Bayo, who hiked the Kall Trail with me as this story was being composed. We found the Dragon's Teeth still dotting the forests and fields of Germany. Then we pushed on to Vossenack, and crossed the open ground that had been so exposed to shelling from the nearby ridges, before we entered the shadows of the Huertgen forest. We followed the same trail toward Schmidt that the GI's did back in 1944. We stopped for lunch at the mill that sits on the same spot by the bridge, and then we crossed the Kall River and wandered off the trails, imagining what it was like to be lost. There really is a chapel deep in the forest and a woodcutter's hut too. We explored the remains of shattered bunkers and rusty barbed wire hidden in that forest. And in one dramatic moment, we were drawn to streams of sunlight spilling though a gap in the twisted trees to reveal an isolated grave – a pile of stones and a cross marking the spot where an American GI's remains had lain undisturbed for over 50 years before recently being discovered.
May their sacrifices never be forgotten.