A/N: I own nothing of Louis L'Amour's works and have no permission to sample them here. Please don't sue me. The most you could hope to get is a twenty-three year old Corolla and several cats, and I'll fight to the death for the cats. ;-) Honestly though, I loved the novel and this quote has always meant a lot to me. I only pay it homage, now.
Fear not! There is action ahead, especially now that our favorite officer is getting back in the game. For now, though, things are gonna get worse for my beloved sergeant.
Warnings: This chapter gets kind of serious. Continued warnings for torture, though most of it is implied or offscreen.
As I cautioned at the outset, the second half of this story is awash in H/C. Sometime within the next couple of chapters it will be thick enough to cut with a bayonet, but really, I think whoever's still reading has seen that coming (I never said I wasn't predictable, LOL). I will give you a heads-up, along with an option to skip past the worst of it to the next chapter, posted at the same time.
How much can a man endure? How long could a man continue? These things I asked myself, for I am a questioning man, yet even as I asked the answers were there before me. If he be a man indeed, he must always go on, he must always endure. Death is an end to torture, to struggle, to suffering, but it is also an end to warmth, light, the beauty of a running horse, the smell of damp leaves, of gunpowder, the walk of a woman when she knows someone watches…these things too are gone.
By Louis L'Amour
Hauptmann Ehrlich dropped exhausted into a chair and flexed his bruised knuckles. He rubbed them absently and wondered if the Führer would ever know just how hard he worked for the cause. He looked up at the unconscious man being roughly manhandled by his men and posed the question to him.
"What do you think, Sergeant? Do you think he realizes how much I sacrifice? The unpleasant lengths I must go to?"
He watched as Feldwebel Schröder and his drones carried out his instructions, cutting the ropes binding Saunders to the chair and lifting him enough to resecure him with more rope, tossed over the timbers running lengthwise along the ceiling and tied tightly to each wrist. Ehrlich laughed quietly to himself as he thought of whoever had built this lodge with such painstaking quality and love, and decided they probably hadn't had this use in mind.
As was his wont, Ehrlich's mood turned on a dime and he leapt to his feet and strode up to the American. He raised Saunders' head by his hair and stared into the bloody face. "There you are, my little, brave GI." He canted his head to the side and thought for a second. "You must be thirsty by now." He let go and turned to snap his fingers at Schröder.
"Holen Sie sich etwas Wasser für unsere durstigen Feldwebel. Ihn aufwecken!"
Schröder grinned and snatched up one of two large buckets he'd already prepared, and threw the water into the soldier's face.
Sergeant Chip Saunders felt himself being jerked from one world filled with suffering and into another, and he moaned softly.
The common belief was that when you were really out, there wasn't any pain. He knew from bitter experience that that wasn't always the case. Sometimes, being asleep or unconscious and in pain was like being trapped in a small, pitch-black room with a vicious animal. There was nowhere to go, and no other stimulus but pain.
Opening his eye to the nightmare around him now, though, made him wish he could crawl back into that darkness. Ehrlich's face leered before him, and a solid wall of unfettered agony slammed into him and he whimpered quietly before he could stop himself.
For reasons he didn't want to contemplate, he'd been raised to a standing position and every ounce of his weight cut into his mutilated wrists, and his shoulders felt like they'd already been dislocated. The pain in his head had a scary, sick feeling to it, like something was broken loose deep inside, but it was his ribs that washed everything else away in a white-hot fire.
He'd been injured many times; as an athlete and a young man growing up on the streets of the inner-city, and as a frontline squad leader he had so many Purple Hearts the Brass must think he was either Sergeant York or the clumsiest man ever born.
These experiences had led him to believe there was nothing worse than broken ribs. With almost anything else, you had the option of just not moving and waiting for the pain to subside. With damaged ribs, obviously that wasn't possible. With every breath that heaved his chest, he could feel the jagged edges of broken bone grating together.
He closed his eye and fought to gather himself. Don't cry out. Don't whimper. Don't say PLEASE, for any reason. Unbidden, a memory came to him that had played itself out in his dreams: Private Harold Gates, crawling up to Steiner on his hands and knees, for a drink of water.
Get up, Gates. Gates… stand up.
From out of the darkness someone slapped him, but at this point he barely registered it.
He missed his jacket. He was very cold, especially now that he was wet. He tried hard not to shiver; shivering with broken bones was a special kind of agony he was already aquainted with, and the inevitability of it was torment in itself.
And he was afraid. He was afraid and hurt and tired and his need for water had been pushed beyond his endurance, about half a day ago.
Get up, Saunders. Saunders… stand up.
Throughout all this the notion of giving in, of giving up Hanley or what little tactical information he himself possessed, never occurred to him. Not even as that kind of stray thought you bring out and look at and play with, when you already know you have no intention of acting on it. Not at all.
He moaned again, quietly. The strain on his wrists and shoulders had reached a point he could no longer tolerate and he struggled to stand up; a directive his body couldn't obey. He had reached that heartbreaking threshhold: the moment when an unbreakable will was betrayed by simple physiology. His legs wouldn't hold him and the failed effort tugged at his upper body unbearably.
Hauptmann Ehrlich stood in front of his stubborn plaything and watched the struggle of mind and body. He wanted the man's attention and was considering the best way to get it when Saunders tried to stand and groaned when he failed. Ehrlich smiled at the sound.
"Good to know you're with us, Sergeant. I wanted to show you something," he gloated, like a kid with a train set. When Saunders showed no curiosity, he went on. "I feel our time together is drawing to a close, and I wanted to get this last part over with so I can send you back with your men, and you can rest."
When Saunders didn't respond to the cruel, false offer of hope either, Ehrlich shot out a hand to again grab his hair and jerk his head up. "Look at me when I speak to you, Hund!"
Saunders finally opened his good eye and Ehrlich gave his head one more shake and let go. "You will pay attention or I will drag one of those pitiful creatures out of the barn and put a bullet in his head right now!"
Saunders fought hard now to keep his head up and his eye open. As awful as this was, it could be that much worse. Early on he'd expected that very thing: Hanley or Caje or both brought in and used against him. He'd been terrified at the prospect, and surprised when it didn't happen. He supposed he had to be grateful that Ehrlich was a physical sadist and not into the higher-level psychological torture, at least not so far. It didn't hurt that the man was absolutely barking mad, to the point he probably couldn't even consider there might be a more effective way.
Ehrlich smiled again, pleased at the obedience. "As I was saying, Sergeant, I wanted to show you this." He held something in front of the American, and the smile widened. Saunders stared at the dark object but his vision was hopelessly blurred, and he'd been dizzy from the head injuries for several hours now. Ehrlich himself was just a fuzzy shape that slid nauseatingly across his field of vision, from left to right, over and over again.
Ehrlich frowned at the lack of comprehension, then realized the problem. "I understand in your country, these are used for guiding farm animals. I wonder if anyone, in all of France or Germany, is using them for such." He laughed. "It seems like a waste of a good whip." He shook it out, the coils dropping noisily, and watched as Saunders automatically tracked the sound to the floor, before raising his head to look in the German's direction.
Ehrlich looked eagerly into that single bloodshot, blue eye. For one moment, something flickered there too quickly to identify. Then the gaze hardened and Ehrlich could read it all. He could see the barriers and everything not behind them: anger, hatred, and a defiance so raw, so intense, it was like another person in the room with them.
It took the American two tries before he could speak, and when he did his voice was rough with extreme thirst. "But… you'll… you'll shh-shut up, now… right?" the blond slurred insolently. "Jus'… jus' the… whip, okay?"
Saunders grunted as Ehrlich suddenly dropped the whip and slammed into him, bunching his hands into the sergeant's shirt and jerking him upright. He could hear the German sputtering and trying to speak past his fury, and Saunders smirked blindly at him, busted lip and all. He chuffed weakly, half sob and half chuckle. "An' I… I gotta… tell ya, K-kraut …" He paused, panting hoarsely, and shook his head slightly. "You like… tou-touching my… h-hair… way too much."
Ehrlich made a sound like a gurgling shriek and wrapped his hands around Saunders' throat, squeezing with the strength of the demented. Saunders choked and jerked reflexively at his bound hands, struggling to defend himself.
Despite his reckless words, he hadn't been trying to goad Ehrlich into a quicker demise; his survival instinct was far too powerful for that. He'd just been so angry, so tired of the posturing of a weak-minded madman.
But it was that need to survive that drove him now, almost powerless and in his last seconds. In his rage Ehrlich was supporting most of the sergeant's weight, and Saunders was able to lift one knee in a feeble but well-aimed strike at Ehrlich's groin. It probably wouldn't save his life, but as his vision grayed and the light started to go out, his fading thought was that he hoped it hurt.
Ehrlich was gnashing his teeth and lost in a haze of fury when he felt Saunders shift and the fog cleared in a hurry. Gifted with quick reflexes, he twisted at the last moment and took the blow on his hip. It wasn't forceful enough to really hurt him there, but if he hadn't moved he'd have been on the floor in a fetal position.
He let go of Saunders' throat and shoved him. "Sie wie es rau, Liebchen?" he panted. "Okay." He spun and picked up the whip, turning back to where Saunders was struggling to recover his equilibrium, and smacked him clumsily alongside the head with it. "Okay."
He clenched the whip and whirled, then stopped and muttered unhappily under his breath. He turned back and grabbed Saunders under the chin and lifted his head.
"What were you doing in this area, Sergeant?" Saunders probably wasn't even close to full consciousness yet, and Ehrlich bared his teeth and tightened his grip. "Why are the Allies so interested in this area, Sergeant?" The non-com opened his one working eye, which promptly rolled back.
Ehrlich heaved a sigh. Well, his duty was done. He had tried. He could move on to recreation, now. He strode to a spot behind the American sergeant and again shook the whip out.
"Hauptmann?" A voice quivered.
Ehrlich looked over at his corporal and hissed dangerously. "Yesss? Ich bin beschäftigt!"
Saunders turned his head ever so slightly, peering through the hair hanging over his eyes, and watched the scared Kraut hold a shaking hand to his ear in the universal sign for 'telephone'. Ehrlich snarled, threw down the whip and stalked off toward his field radio, shouting in German.
Still panting from the near-strangulation, Saunders dropped his head.
He has a whip. He closed his eye and briefly prayed. They're gonna whip me. God, help me.
His eye opened for a second, then drifted closed again and he breathed out, slowly. Let go. In a response learned long ago, he clamped down on his emotions and focused completely on his breathing. No thought. No fear. No pain. Just inhale, exhale. Even painful and damaged, the process was soothing. Inhale. Exhale. Let. Go.
He slipped in behind his barriers, and in a strange way the three minutes and thirty-five seconds he had before the next onslaught became a lifetime. He was in the shelter of his own mind now and it stretched out, vast and limitless. He was in control here, always had been, and that was all he needed to know. Really, it was all he'd ever needed.
The sheer force of his will expanded out, then pulled in, tightened, and solidified. Outside factions would come at him and break against it like waves on a rocky beach. Ultimately they could break his body and he was sure they would, but his mind and his will was beyond their reach, belonging only to him and God and nobody else.
That didn't mean he wasn't afraid, though. He already hurt so badly it was simply inconceivable that it could get worse, and terror gnawed at him, soft but relentless, like rats on a corpse. Desperate and scared, he reached out to the people in his head, in his heart. Chip Saunders never, ever bestowed his trust or his friendship lightly, and he didn't now. With only seconds before the lash fell, he reached out to his brothers, again.
And his brothers kept him.