In the Dragon’s Teeth - part 2
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 position. Caje 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 alone. More 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, Drache released 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 the Schwammenauel 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 limits Drache 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 soldier 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, Ungeheuer thought. 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.
* * * * *