The kübelwagen wasn't stuck in mud this time. It was stuck in snow.
It was stuck in the same blasted Bavarian forest as before, just in frozen water instead of filth this time. And I hadn't slammed into any generals, which I suppose I should have taken as a good sign, though I was too bloody cold at the moment to care.
I stood outside the miserable little car, staring at the drifts of snow practically burying the kübelwagen, arms wrapped around myself and teeth chattering. It was somewhere in the latter part of December- I couldn't recall the exact date- and Germany's weather was responding accordingly.
I stamped my feet in a half-hearted attempt to keep warm, wondering numbly what to do. A shovel and snow tires were in order, obviously, but I possessed neither, having left the French border in a mad rush hours earlier with no thought whatsoever being given to the weather. I was supposed to have left sometime around daybreak to reach Düsseldorf in time for an important meeting, but I slept in, and, well... just hope you never get a perpetually irritated Prussian for your CO. They're liable to chase you around with firearms if you oversleep.
I huffed out a breath, leaving a wreath of smoke behind. It was 1800 hours, darkness (and snow) gathering under the trees, and here I was in nothing but basic uniform and a trench coat. No scarf, no gloves, nichts. I considered concocting some elaborate insults concerning the situation, but seeing as that would be highly unproductive I opted instead for motion. Might get me warm, at least. I marched stiffly over to the side of the road, looking for some manner of forest rubbish I could use in place of a shovel- namely, a stick.
I didn't expect any great rate of success. Last time I had been here- and I shuddered to think of it- there were no sticks to be found anywhere, and that was before everything became covered in snow.
However, the stakes were a bit higher now. The rain of before, miserable as it was to walk through, posed no threat to my health. It was spring. The shower was warm. Now, it was winter. There were blizzard conditions. And Max Keilwasser was severely ill-equipped to handle the situation. Nature had to be forgiving.
That thought left my mind when I heard the chirping.
I whirled and jerked my head up, staring into the trees. There, not five feet away, sat a bird, glaring beadily at me from its nest.
Now, you have to understand. I've ran into these things before, and we haven't gotten along in the slightest. I had assumed the birds were only a problem in the spring. That was their hatching season, after all, not to mention the last time they tormented me. They should have flown south to Italy for the winter or some such. This vile avian had no business being here. Unless, of course, I had managed to find some peculiar, season-illiterate individual. Which was possible in this forest.
Not knowing what else to do, I started backing up slowly, very slowly. Someone had told me to do that if I ever encountered any dangerous predators, which was an apt description of my current adversary.
The bird flicked its head and made some unpleasant hissing noises, but didn't pursue me. I glanced over my shoulder, gauging the distance to the kübelwagen, wondering if I could make a run for cover.
That was when I saw it.
A lovely, excellent pine branch, of an agreeable size and shovel-like dimensions. I couldn't have asked for a better stick if I had one custom-made. I muttered some jubilant phrase under my breath and looked back at my nemesis. The bird eyed me balefully.
I kept walking backwards, step by step, shuffle by shuffle, until I was even with the pine branch, then dropped to my knees. The bird screeched at the sudden movement, its neck feathers rising like some dreadful halo. I scooped up the stick and shoved it under my coat, backpedaling.
The bird screamed a battle cry and dove at my head like a miniature Messerschmidt. I threw myself flat, disappearing into the snow, and all the feathered missile managed to take out was my officer's cap. It screeched and wheeled about, readying itself for another attack.
Spitting snow out of my mouth, I grabbed up my cap and ran furiously, leaping out of the woods. I skidded to a halt just before slamming into the kübelwagen, then spun and drew the stick, brandishing it before me like a sword, in case the bird should have more evil designs on my headgear.
I needn't have worried. My enemy remained at the edge of the woods, twittering with anger. Its tiny eyes burned, but it wasn't about to follow me out of its territory. I cried aloud in victory, then let fly some rather unkind words about the bird's recent ancestry. It seemed to screw up its gaze and fluffed up its feathers in outrage, looking uncannily like my Prussian CO, then squawked one last time and fluttered off to its nest.
Satisfied smirk still on my face, I set to freeing my kübelwagen from the clutches of winter, putting my hard-earned stick to good use. Numb as my hands were, the work gave me a sort of internal warmth. Whether it was the good physical exertion or the glowing joy resulting from getting one step closer to freedom, I couldn't say. The inner ball of sunshine dimmed somewhat due to the blisters, splinters and blisters with splinters in them that I kept getting from the pine branch- no gloves, remember- but I cheered my way through it, not necessarily with vocabulary my mother would approve of, and got that blasted rust bucket clear in record time.
Finished, I jumped inside the kübel-cab and twisted the key with gusto, a painful grin plastered on my face. I'll get out of this forest yet, and I won't stop driving until I hit Berlin! I thought with glee, though my mood soon dropped like a dead goose.
The kübelwagen was out of petrol.
I stared in horror at the fuel meter, a chilled sense of dread icing my veins, then tried starting the car, again and again, to no avail. The thing was kaputt.
I cursed as well as I could through my chattering teeth and stomped on the gas, not that it did any good. "Wonderful." I muttered, slumping over the steering wheel. No petrol, in addition to its obvious drawbacks, also meant no heater. So not only was I stranded in the middle of a Bavarian forest during winter with night coming on, I was stranded there without heat.
I glared out the front window at the ever-darkening forest and felt my mood sink lower. Even if I could have gotten the kübelwagen started, there was no chance of it plowing through the snow drifts that loomed ahead. They had only grown larger as I spent valuable time and energy freeing my useless vehicle.
I sucked in a breath through my teeth and slouched further down in the seat, pulling my cap down on my head. If my mood sunk any lower it was going to be below sea level. I'm going to die out here. Of exposure. I thought morbidly. All because I just had to sleep in late. I ruffled down into my coat. Whoever comes down this road next, in spring if they have any sense, is going to find me frozen solid. It'll probably be the Americans, the way the war is going. I'll be a nice Kraut-sicle for them. I snorted. And I was so ever-lovingly happy I didn't get posted to the Eastern Front. Ha. Here I am, getting the same treatment in my own country!
I'll admit it. I was getting fatalistic. My mood had the same elevation as the Netherlands by this time.
I sat there watching night fall, cold, miserable, and very uncomfortable- kübelwagen seats are exceedingly non-ergonomic. I wondered how my nemesis the bird would taste, should I have to eat it to ward off starvation, then decided it was irrelevant because I was going to freeze to death before hunger got to me.
Then, I heard the truck engine.
I had a sudden, absurd jolt of fear that it was that crazy general coming back to haunt me, but seeing as I hadn't killed him I found this highly unlikely.
I stepped out of the kübelwagen, keeping my eyes on the road. I could see headlights in the distance.
"I'm seeing things," I muttered. "And hearing things. I've been out in the snow too long."
But the truck kept coming. As it drew nearer, I could make out enough details to figure out it was some kind of troop transport, built ruggedly enough to make it through the snow drifts, in no danger of getting stuck. I felt a smile cracking my frozen face.
The truck growled to a stop about ten feet away from me, steam rising from its idling engine. The sight brought tears of joy to my eyes.
An enlisted man in Luftwaffe uniform, a rather fat fellow, clambered down from the driver's seat. A number of men hopped out of the back, none of them wearing German uniforms. I was at a loss for a moment until I remembered where I was.
They're Kriegesgefangenen, I realized. POW's. From that Luft-Stalag close by I always forgot about.
The Luftwaffe NCO- I could see he was a feldwebel by now- huffed his way up to the kübelwagen and saluted me. "Feldwebel Schultz, of Luft-Stalag 13, Herr Leutnant."
I returned his salute, wondering where to begin. Schultz solved that problem for me. "Car trouble, sir?" he asked in a thick Bavarian accent, peering at the kübelwagen.
I half-smiled at the understatement. "Y-yes, Feldwebel. Extensive car trouble." My teeth still refused to stop chattering.
One of the prisoners, a dark-featured American officer with a relaxed manner, walked up and considered the situation. Seeing the eagles on his collar, I recognized his rank as Oberst and snapped off a salute, shaky-handed from the cold. He answered me promptly, then proceeded to ask me something in English.
I stood there and blinked, feeling rather useless. I've never been good with languages. I have maybe a kindergartener's comprehension of French and my English is worse. You couldn't even call it tourist-English, which is shameful, because I've heard tourist-German and it's not pleasant.
Schultz, to his credit, caught on to my confusion pretty quickly and offered a translation. "He is offering to have his men free your car, Herr Leutnant."
"Oh, ah. Well, y-you can tell him there's no n-need for that, the blasted thing's out of p-petrol. It wouldn't move if we were on the Autobahn."
I shivered and rubbed my arms, looking over the POW's. Most of them seemed to be Americans, as best I could tell in the dusk, but I saw at least one Englander and a Frenchman. There was one gawky-looking little American I found myself staring at. Something in his face was uncannily reminding me of someone, someone I couldn't place, a visual lurking just beyond my memory... something to do with mustaches...
Said American, apparently uncomfortable with being eyeballed, blinked and muttered something in the flat tones of English. Understanding nothing, I glanced over at Schultz for a translation.
"Oh, he said Merry Christmas, sir. Merry Christmas from me, by the way, I had forgotten to tell you."
It was my turn to blink. "Ch-christmas?" Goodness, I certainly have lost track of the date! "You h-had the prisoners out working on Christmas, Feldwebel?"
"Oh, no no no no, sir, we have been caroling in Hammelburg."
"P-prisoners of war? Caroling?"
Schultz shrugged. "Well, we have to do something to keep them busy."
I shook my head, too cold to puzzle out this situation or continue the conversation. Most of my extremities were numb by this time.
Schultz looked at me with concern. "Are you alright, Herr Leutnant?"
"N-not ex-xactly, Feldwebel." I blew some air onto my likely-frostbitten hands and tried to keep my teeth from chattering. "My vehicle, being out of petrol, has refused to start. I've had to engage in pitched battle with an insane bird over a stick. I forgot my gloves this morning because my CO was chasing me with automatic weapons. And I'm bloody freezing." I probably shouldn't have mentioned that bit about the bird, but I plowed on regardless. "I would dearly appreciate a ride to the nearest vestige of civilization."
Schultz took it in stride. "Well, it's a little late to go back to Hammelburg, but you are certainly welcome to come back to camp with us, sir, if you have nowhere else to go-"
"Do you have heat there?" I gasped, clutching his sleeve in a rather maniac fashion. The cold was catching up with me.
"Um, jawohl, Herr Leutnant."
I almost passed out in relief, which worried the feldwebel even more. He tittered something to the prisoners in English, and then insisted go I warm myself up in the truck. I sprinted over there and launched myself into the front seat with times that would have qualified me for the Olympics. One of the prisoners came by soon thereafter and gave me a blanket, wishing me season's greetings in his language. "Ja, Frohe Weihnachten, danke," I answered, hoping his German was better than my English. He seemed to get my point well enough.
Schultz had the prisoners push the kübelwagen off of the road so the truck could get by, bickering good-naturedly with them all the while. They had extra fuel and could have technically driven the wagen away, but no one was even going to attempt driving that thing, least of all me. They piled into the troop transport with good spirits, and after an impromptu roll call Schultz joined me in the front. I marveled at how well they all got along.
Schultz started the truck. "You know," he began, "it's only by chance we found you. Normally, we take the main road around the forest, to avoid the snow- heh, I think you know why, Herr Leutnant- but tonight, something just told us to follow this road."
"Oh, yes. It was a unanimous decision." Schultz glanced over at me and his rosy cheeks lifted in a smile. "Season for miracles, I suppose."
That warm feeling in my chest was well on its way to coming back. "Yes," I said, smiling faintly, "yes, I suppose it is." I looked up at the stars, shining brightly in between the snowclouds, clearer than they ever were at the front. "Lovely night, as well."
So lovely, in fact, I forgot all about the code books I left stashed in the kübelwagen's dashboard...
Author's Note: Frohe Weihnachten, y'all!
Feldwebel, by the way, is the German word for Sergeant, in case you didn't know :)