In the Dragon’s Teeth – part 3
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 even before 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 were well-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.