In the Dragon’s Teeth – part 4
Sunday November 5, 1944, afternoon
Deep in the Huertgen forest
Does he have any idea where we’re going? Harry wondered as he crept along the trail behind his stoic commanding officer. His legs ached with fatigue. The lieutenant had not spoken a word in two days, even in answer to a direct question, like - What happened to your Thompson? Or – most recently - Where the hell are we? Saunders had shut him out – reacting to nothing – lost in his own thoughts.
The silence was eerie. Harry missed the camaraderie of the other men in the squad, especially Kirby, who always had a story to tell. And he thought about his buddies from the Replacement Depot, Tommy and Dix. Tommy had lasted less than a week – no real surprise. That kid belonged in the Boy Scouts, not the Army. Harry wondered where Dixon was and if he’d ever see him again. He missed having an attentive audience.
Meanwhile, all he had for company was the silent Saunders, who moved like a sleepwalker.
Still, the LT did keep marching on. He was human yet – he still stopped to sleep, to eat. At least while they’d still had rations, Harry thought morosely. Those were gone now. He had enlisted with visions of showing off his medals back home – but he didn’t think you’d get even a Purple Heart for just starving to death.
Sunday November 5, 1944, late afternoon
Dixon huddled in his corner of the root cellar, hugging his knees to his chest, cocooned by his shame.
He’d taken the soup.
He had drunk it all - without a thought for the others - aware only of the gnawing pain in his belly. He’d thought that it was hunger, but the hollow feeling remained. His gut clenched with fear.
Caje had been sick. Billy had been recovering from a head wound. Both of them had needed the nourishment more than he did. But he hadn’t given them a second thought – he’d just reacted. And now there was no way to make it up to Caje – the filthy Krauts had executed him in cold blood.
They’d all seen the grave. Today the Krauts had let them out of their cellar – only to force them to march in the cold without their jackets – countless circuits around the house hour after hour – while the guards in their warm overcoats smirked and smoked cigarettes and watched.
Littlejohn stiffened each time they passed the grave and turned to glare at the German lieutenant, with an almost palpable hate. The German seemed unperturbed.
Dixon hadn’t even realized that Littlejohn and Caje were particularly close, during the week he’d been with the squad. He guessed that didn’t matter. The guys in the squad were loyal to the guys in the squad.
Except for him. He’d betrayed that loyalty. He wondered if he would ever get a chance to earn it back.
Sunday November 5, 1944, evening
Elsewhere in the Huertgen forest
Three nights had passed since Kirby had escaped from the Krauts at the forester’s lodge, and still there was no sign of the American lines. Worried didn’t begin to describe how he felt. Thursday night he’d spent alone deep in the forest, huddled under a tree, never sleeping longer than a half-hour stretch before some forest noise brought him awake with a jerk. His back still ached from that night. He never thought a foxhole could be called comfortable until compared to that alternative! Friday he had discovered he was being tracked – but it turned out to be nothin’ but a scrawny local kid. Together they’d found an isolated chapel in the woods to provide shelter from the rain and cold. That’s when the food ran out. All day Saturday they’d crept through the trees along winding trails, heading north Kirby hoped, toward the sawmill where they had planned to rendezvous with Saunders. Finally they’d collapsed, near exhaustion, to sleep under the trees again.
Today was Sunday – but Kirby hoped the good Lord didn’t choose to rest that day. They could use some help! He slowed his pace to give the gimpy kid a chance to catch up and wondered again how he ended up stuck with the orphan. Had to be an orphan or the boy wouldn‘t have been wandering on his own like he was. Usually the little beggars could tell that he was wise to them, and they’d find someone else in the squad to sucker out of his last chocolate bar. PFC William G Kirby was a BAR man, not a babysitter!
Besides, Kirby thought, kicking the dirt on the trail in disgust, he’s a Kraut kid and if the war keeps goin’, one day he’ll be lookin’ at me through his rifle’s sights. I oughta ditch the kid, instead of helpin’ him.
A murmur of voices brought him up short. Looking about in a near panic, he grabbed the boy and shoved him off the trail and under the low branches of an evergreen tree; then he crawled into cover behind him. It was dark in their coniferous cave and as footsteps approached, he hoped it was dark enough to hide them.
German boots marched passed – two, four, six, eight. A patrol?
No. The Krauts dropped their heavy equipment and began to set up a machine gun nest. Kirby’s heart was in his throat, wondering if the kid would step boldly out of their cover and announce their presence to his fellow countrymen.
Nicholas took one look at the blue-gray uniforms and started shaking so badly Kirby was afraid the evergreen branches under which they’d hidden would be jostled into betraying them. Shoot – he didn’t know how to handle kids – how to make them quiet or to make them feel safe. In desperation, he clutched the boy to his chest, holding him tight until the shuddering finally stopped. Still, they crouched in their pine needle tent for more than an hour while the Germans made themselves comfortable. Kirby’s fingers itched for his missing BAR. And he wondered why the kid was so terrified of his own people.
Finally, as dusk settled in, Kirby decided it was safe enough to try to slip away unnoticed, though their legs trembled with cramps. “Shhh … like a mouse,” he whispered to Nicholas, wiggling his nose and twitching a pair of fingers on each hand like tiny footsteps. One by one they slithered out from the far side of the tree, careful not to jar the branches. Then, keeping low, they moved furtively in a direction perpendicular from the trail.
A few hundred yards away from the machine gun nest, Kirby heaved a large sigh. And then he realized that he had no idea which direction led north any more. Going cross country, without the trail to guide them, dodging fallen trees, stopping to fashion the limping boy with a crutch from a broken tree limb - he knew they hadn’t traveled in a straight line.
Now the sky was growing darker with every passing minute as they marched aimlessly forward.
And then, finally, there was a small clearing in front of them. Kirby’s heart rose and then fell in a single beat, as hope swept over him and was just as quickly crushed.
It was the damn chapel. Again.
Somewhere along the way, he’d guessed wrong. They’d traveled all day in a circle.
Why? Kirby demanded, skyward. What did I do to deserve this? He squeezed his eyes shut in frustration. His legs felt too wooden to move. Beside him, he felt the boy start to limp across the clearing.
“Wait!” Kirby opened his eyes and reached out to grab the kid’s shoulder and pull him back. Even in his misery, he couldn’t let them run into what might be an enemy position. Together they crept along the edge of the woods until they faced the windowless back wall of the building. Then Kirby scuttled across the open ground, exposed in the light of the rising moon, and skidded to a stop just before he hit the log wall. For a moment he listened intently. It seemed quiet. Kirby raised an arm and waved the boy toward him.
Nicholas at his elbow, the soldier led the way slowly around to the front. At the first window, he craned his neck to peer carefully in but saw nothing but shadows. It was still quiet though - it had to be as deserted as when they left, he told himself. Still, the tiny hairs on the back of his neck wouldn’t be convinced. Stealthily, he reached forward to push the door open and then froze.
There was blood on the door. Still damp.
He grabbed Nicholas’s arm to get his attention, pointed silently to the stain, and then tugged the boy behind him and pushed him to the ground, his right hand gesturing for silence, while his left tightened on the bayonet.
Taking a deep breath, he gave the door a quiet push and guided it slowly open with the toe of his boot.
Nothing moved inside. No bullets fired. No one challenged him. Just as he turned to tell the boy it was safe to enter, he heard a sound. A moan came from the shadows in a dark corner, where Kirby and the boy had sat on a pew and eaten the last of the food the day before. The moan faded and then turned into mutterings.
The words weren’t English.
Kirby took the boy’s tree-limb “crutch” in his right hand and his bayonet in his left, and stepped inside. “You! Get up!” Kirby waved the stick. “Raus!” he added, figuring “Out!” was about all the German he knew but it would get his meaning across all the same.
The man in the shadows only tossed restlessly, faced the wall and moaned again.
It could be a ploy, Kirby thought. Maybe it was just a local woodcutter, sleeping off a drunk before heading home to a shrewish hausfrau. But - maybe it was a Kraut soldier who was out of ammo too, and it was all a ruse, to get him in close and then whip out a bayonet. It was too dark now inside the chapel to be sure. So Kirby gestured to Nicholas to stay back while he crept forward gingerly, approaching only close enough to poke the stranger with his stick. And just as he got close enough, several things happened at once. Kirby jabbed him in the ribs and the man gasped and mumbled something again, and Kirby realized the words were French, not German – at the same moment his eyes adjusted to the darkness enough that he could see that the man on the bunk was not wearing a German uniform, nor peasant clothes either. And in the midst of the fevered French mutterings were names that Kirby recognized, like Doc. And Sarge.
“Caje?” Kirby dropped to his knees beside the pew, took the sick man’s shoulder and rolled him onto his back. The face that met his was pale as the moonlight outside. The moonlight that could guide their steps, if Caje could walk. And if Caje knew the way to Saunders and the mill. Kirby had every confidence in the scout’s ability to find his way. Walking, he realized with a sinking heart as Caje slipped deeper into unconsciousness, would be another matter entirely.
Sunday November 5, 1944, evening
Deep in the Huertgen forest
A trail had to lead somewhere. Didn’t it? Harry was a city boy – what did he know about the woods? Where were those annoyingly earnest Boy Scouts when you needed one?
Harry wondered if they should have taken a different turn the last time there had been a place where trails had crossed. Maybe they should go back. He tugged at Saunders’s sleeve to stop him and then looked up toward the sky, hoping for any clues that would point them west and north – that’s where the American lines were. He hoped. Suddenly Harry spotted a thin plume of smoke curling upward from around the next bend. His faced flushed with excitement and he raised a hand to point it out. There was no acknowledging nod, no flicker of interest. But Saunders trudged on in that direction and Harry followed.
Around the curve, they discovered a small cabin and beyond that, the gurgle of the cold Kall River. There was no sign of anyone, civilian or soldier, but there were cords of chopped wood piled against the wall and a rusting axe was lodged in a thick trunk. The smoke was rising from a chimney on the west side of the house. Harry felt a rush of adrenaline – this might be his chance. Schmidt didn’t count – they were simply overrun there. He had yet to look a German in the eye. Or to register his first kill. Would this be the test?
His hands were slick with sweat as he worked to rock the axe free. Then he circled the building carefully, without comment. Saunders followed, his face expressionless. Together they approached the door of the woodcutter’s hut and taking a deep breath, Harry nudged the door open. An old woman turned from the hearth where she’d been tending a heavy iron pot. Her hand flew to her mouth and she dropped the spoon in the kettle with a short scream.
Harry’s glance swept the room – a fireplace, a large oak table, chairs, a long low table against a wall; bins underneath it on the well-swept wooden floor. “Have you seen any soldiers?” he shouted at her. “Soldiers? Soldaten?”
The woman quaked. “Nein, nein! Keine Soldaten hier,” she sobbed, shaking her head. But her eyes betrayed her – they darted to a closed door.
Harrison handed the axe to Saunders and unclipped their sole grenade from his belt. Cradling it in his right palm, the other hand ready to pull the pin, Harry dropped into a crouch and shouldered the door open with a violent heave.
Inside were two men in German uniforms.
Harry pulled the pin without thought – and then grimaced with frustration as he caught himself and almost reluctantly replaced the pin.
The man on the bed didn’t move. Bloodstains covered his stomach. Beside him knelt another German soldier, wearing the white bib with a red cross that marked him as a medic. He looked up, never taking his fingers off the wrist of the wounded man as he continued checking his pulse. “We are not armed,” he said, his voice rough with barely concealed resentment.
A rifle stood propped against a wall across the room. Harry stared.
The medic shrugged. “It has no ammunition. I could not persuade Haas to leave it behind.”
“You speak English. Good.” Harrison had studied German in his Catholic school, but their practice dialogues had always involved restaurants and churches and other innocuous topics. The nuns had never taught him the vocabulary for the sort of things he wanted to say to this Kraut. He grabbed the medic’s pouch and the empty rifle and used the latter to point in the direction of the kitchen. “Move.”
For a moment the command hung in the air like a challenge, the silence in the room interrupted only by the harsh rasping breaths of the unconscious youth on the bed. The medic looked down at his patient, then closed his eyes and breathed deeply, getting his own hostile feelings under control. Now was not the time to rebel. He opened his eyes and then calmly rose to his feet and did as he was told.
The woman still stood by the hearth, weeping quietly. “Bitte,” she pleaded. She reached for the silver crucifix that hung from a thin chain around her neck and held the cross toward the less threatening enemy soldier in mute appeal for mercy.
For a frozen moment, Saunders stared at her. His eyes glittered at the sight of the gaunt figure hanging on the cross. Anguish flashed across his face and faster than Harrison had ever seen the lieutenant move, his hand flew out and grabbed the crucifix and yanked it from her neck. In a rage, he hurled it into the fire.
Sunday November 5, 1944, near midnight
Deep in the Huertgen forest
“C’mon Caje. Stay with me.” Kirby felt the wounded man start to sink to the ground, so he pulled on the arm that was draped over his left shoulder and shifted his weight so they were both upright again, tightening his grip around Caje’s chest.
Caje flinched and grunted in pain, and Kirby wondered what other injuries his friend had, besides the right hand and wrist that Caje kept cradled against his ribs. He wondered about a lot of things, but Caje was mostly too out of it to answer tough questions.
For the moment, Caje sounded coherent. Kirby’s face lit up with a weak smile of relief. “Yeah, buddy,” he said. “You need a break? Some water?” He could feel the heat of fever radiating off Caje.
Caje stopped. “We’ve got to go back,” he said. “Doc – and Littlejohn – and Billy - ”
“It’s all right,” Kirby said. “We’re going to get help. We don’t have our weapons. We’ll get help and then we’ll go back for them.” He pulled out his canteen and offered Caje the last of the water.
Caje’s hand shook as he brought it to his lips and let the cool water slide down his parched throat. Then he suddenly dropped to his knees and retched, his head hanging when it was over. He didn’t have the strength to stand.
Kirby tried not to hurt Caje more when he hauled him upright. He looked around. The firebreak they’d been following was at an end. Two trails led away from the firebreak – in opposite directions. Kirby turned back to Nicholas, who was still with them although following behind, nearly out of sight. The boy looked as lost as Kirby felt. The GI turned back to his friend. “Any idea which way?”
Caje straightened painfully and then took a staggering step toward the trail on the left.
“How do you know?” Kirby asked, looking puzzled. Not that he doubted the soldier who always took the point.
“Downhill,” Caje answered.
“The mill. It’s on the river.” Caje lacked the breath for longer sentences. “The river is always downhill.”
“I get it!” Kirby grinned, feeling more confident than he had in days. “We find the river – we can follow it to the mill.” His grin faded. “I just hope our team still has possession.”
Monday November 6, 1944, 1 am
Lengfeld woke with a start. A short squat candle sputtered weakly in the corner of the room. His wrists were still tied together, and then tied to the bed where Haas lay suffering. He didn’t need his hands free to help the poor boy – there had been nothing he could do for him.
When he’d first reached Haas lying at the edge of the river outside Simonskall, he knew that the abdominal wound would be fatal. But he couldn’t tell the boy that. Couldn’t tell him that there was no hope. And he didn’t have any morphine left, to send him gently to a sleep from which he would never waken.
So Lengfeld had put the boy on his back and promised to carry him to safety. He promised he wouldn’t leave him. They’d crossed the river on a narrow wooden bridge, and then followed it upstream, away from the fighting, until he found the woodcutter’s hut and a frightened widow who had nowhere else to go.
And now, he saw, his obligation to Haas was over. The boy had sighed his last breath during the night. The promise was fulfilled. But Lengfeld wasn’t free to leave.
He passed his hand over the dead boy’s face, shutting his eyes, though the gentleness of his action belied the tightly suppressed fury he felt toward his captors. The silence in the room was broken by a commotion at the entrance to the cottage. Voices raised – more voices than before. Unfortunately the voices were all speaking English. Then Harrison came in and untied him and shoved him toward the now-crowded kitchen. Lengfeld noticed that the American’s pockets bulged with the few silver items he had found in his search of the house.
In the kitchen, the old woman cowered in the corner, clasping a wide-eyed young boy to her bosom. The boy was filthy and had a blood-stained bandage around one leg. At the sight of civilians being harassed and hurt, Lengfeld felt his anger towards the Americans grow, but for the moment he was powerless, and wise enough to know that the safety of the woman and child might depend on his actions.
So he carefully studied the group of Americans before him in the light of the oil lantern. One of the new arrivals lay collapsed on the floor, awake but clearly too weak to pose any threat. The other new soldier, a private the others called Kirby, told Saunders that the injured man had escaped from the Germans. Lengfeld wondered why the soldier directed his story to Saunders as if he were in charge. Saunders’s face remained impassive. He acted like no officer. He had the shell-shocked gaze of a man who had endured too much, who had to shut down his senses in self-defense. Sometimes, Lengfeld knew, such men were never whole again.
He had seen soldiers broken, weeping like children. Some shook uncontrollably. Some, like this man, simply withdrew into themselves – no answers, no decisions, their eyes as unseeing as a blind man's. No, not a blind man. Like a corpse. Lengfeld had seen it too much in his own countrymen to have pity for the shattered American. He couldn’t help him.
But the man lying on the ground, shivering with fever. Him, he could treat, he thought distastefully. Perhaps. If it were not already too late for him. He had little desire to help an enemy whose soldiers would loot and attack innocent people. But clearly they had untied him for precisely this purpose. Glancing again at the woman and boy, he stifled his instinct to refuse and knelt beside the injured American.
Lengfeld took Caje’s right arm and turned it palm up and began to push up the sleeve. The injured man’s breath whistled through his teeth as he inhaled sharply. His wrist was badly swollen and discolored. The corpsman explored it with sensitive fingers, tracing the fragile bones, stopping when he felt the fracture. But more serious was the wound in the middle of the hand. The skin around the puncture mark was hot, puffy and bright red, with a cloudy fluid seeping past the crusted blood. Red tendrils snaked up the palm toward the wrist.
Lengfeld frowned. “How long ago?” he asked in lightly-accented English.
Caje’s eyes glittered with distrust. “Three - four days.”
The infection had grown worse quickly, Lengfeld thought. But he had seen it so before. He turned to the hausfrau and spoke quickly in German. She nodded, filled a kettle with water and set it over the fire in the hearth.
The corpsman stepped away from his patient, toward the dark corner where Saunders sat listlessly. The two enlisted men gathered around their lieutenant, as though he would tell them what to do. Lengfeld doubted that very much. Nevertheless, he directed his diagnosis to their leader.
“It is very bad,” he told them simply. “If he is to survive, we must stop the infection from spreading. I don’t think the hand can be saved.” His eyes darted about the room and settled on the woodcutter’s ax that Harrison had brought into the house.
“You don’t mean - -” Kirby sputtered. He grabbed the medic’s sleeve, eyes wide with horror. “What are you, a medic or a butcher?”
Lengfeld looked down his nose at the offending fist and Kirby yanked his arm back, as if the medic were a surgeon wielding a bone saw while contemplating Kirby’s hand.
“I was a medical student before the war,” Lengfeld answered. “And if you do not want him to die, I think it must be done.” He looked at Saunders - detected a narrowing of the eyes, perhaps a tightening of the jaw? Or perhaps, the medic thought, he was only seeing things - simply weary of too many nights trying to comfort his own wounded with no medicines left to ease their pain. Perhaps he was imagining the reaction of the American lieutenant.
Kirby made the decision for them. “You just patch him up till we can get back to our own docs,” he said brusquely. Then he went and took his position at the window, keeping watch over the dirt track that led to the house.
“I have no medicines. Not even for my own wounded.” Lengfeld spread his hands. “You have seen my supplies.”
“You wear a medic’s insignia,” Harry snarled, poking at the red cross embroidered on the other man’s white arm band. “That means we aren’t allowed to hurt you. If you really are a medic, that is. So let’s see ya prove it. Otherwise… .” The snarl turned into a feral grin and he left the rest of the threat unspoken.
Lengfeld looked at the man who, in rank if not behavior, seemed to be their leader. The man’s face was blank, neither threatening nor objecting to his countryman’s threats. Lengfeld shrugged and turned back to the wounded American and directed his words to the others. “Put him on the table. I will do what I can. I do not think it will be enough.”
He took his medic’s bag from Harrison, knowing full well that it held little of use. Then he spoke again to the German woman. She poured the now-boiling water into a basin, brought it and a small towel to Lengfeld and then filled the kettle again and returned it to hearth. Harry followed her, his eyes narrowed with suspicion, as she moved about the kitchen, selecting other items the medic had requested. From a small cupboard of what appeared to be cleaning supplies she selected a dark glass bottle. Then she stooped and picked up a wicker basket by a rocking chair that was near the fireplace. She straightened, her stiff joints creaking, but Harry held up one hand and made her wait while he sifted through the contents.
It contained only her mending. He waved her on and she set the materials on a small table behind the medic, and then stood at his side to hold the oil lantern close.
Lengfeld draped the wet towel on his patient’s arm to serve as a hot compress. Then he turned to the other Americans. “I will need something for a splint.”
Kirby looked around; his glance settled on a stack of kindling by the hearth. With two strides he was there, and he pulled out a thin, foot-long piece of wood, flat on one side and about three inches wide. “This do?”
Lengfeld’s head bobbed with satisfaction and he reached into the mending basket, pulled out a pair of small embroidery scissors and a faded white blouse. He snipped through the hem and then tore the worn fabric into strips with his hands. Making no effort to be gentle, he slid the splint under the injured arm. But when Lengfeld attempted to straighten his patient’s slightly curled fingers and open the hand flat, Caje flinched violently, his shoulders rising off the table in an automatic reflex. Lengfeld paused, waiting until Caje sagged back against the table in utter weariness.
Again the medic tried to slowly straighten Caje’s hand. This time, although the muscles in his neck stood out with the strain, the wounded soldier remained still. Swiftly, the corpsman wound a strip of fabric around splint, securing the long fingers in place against the wood.
Caje started trembling then, his eyes wild, the reaction something more than pain. There was fear there. Lengfeld backed off and looked at his patient thoughtfully. The bruising on the man’s wrist had revealed a pattern like finger marks - as though someone had forcibly restrained him recently with brute strength, the American struggling desperately enough that the hand pinning him down had broken the bone in the wrist. Lengfeld muttered a question to himself and was surprised when a young voice answered in German.
It was the child with the gash in his leg. The boy was watching them, full of a child’s curiosity and ghoulish attraction to horror. He had seen how the soldier had gotten hurt, he said.
“Erzählen Sie mich,” the medic asked, as he reached for the delicate scissors. “Was ist geschehen?”
“Sie kruezigten ihn.”
Lengfeld dropped the scissors on the floor. He had heard rumors of an SS officer who had done such things to prisoners. He glanced at the Americans to see if any of them had understood the German words.
One had. “They crucified him,” Harry translated, in a stark whisper.
The word galvanized Saunders. He was on his feet, shock turning his face gray.
The German medic took a deep breath, then looked up from his patient to the other Americans. “It is necessary to restrain him so I may clean the wound.”
For a moment no one moved. Having one’s arm physically restrained against a piece of wood - it had to feel like being crucified all over again. No one wanted to be the one to put Caje through that.
It was the injured man who broke the silence. “Sarge?” he called weakly.
There was a sound from the corner of the room. Lengfeld turned in surprise to see Saunders step forward. The American came up alongside the table, and leaned close. “Easy, Caje. Take it easy.” The words came out in a low murmur, his voice hoarse from disuse. “I’m here.”
“Keep him still,” Lengfeld directed. “Hold his arm there – below the elbow. But be careful of the wrist, it is broken.”
Saunders took a deep breath, then did as instructed.
Then Kirby came forward too, tapping Harry’s chest as he said, “You keep watch.” He took his place at the head of the table, placed his hands on his friend’s shoulders, and winced as he watched the German begin.
Kirby strained for something clever to say, something to take Caje’s mind off what the medic was doing. For once, though, as the German began snipping away at dead tissue, Kirby was at a loss for words. He felt Caje jerk suddenly and he glanced down to see Lengfeld had picked up his tweezers and begun poking in the infected wound. Fresh blood welled onto the palm of Caje’s hand and dribbled down between his fingers.
Kirby looked away, his stomach churning, and tightened his grip on Caje’s shoulders as Lengfeld then untied the hand and turned it over to debride the exit wound.
“Hang on Caje,” he heard Saunders say. “Almost there.”
In the silence of the room, Kirby became aware of the ticking of a clock and nearly jumped when it chimed for two o’clock. How much longer could it take?
Finally the medic leaned back, with a heavy sigh and a slight shake of his head. He had done what he could. Kirby’s arms fell to his sides as he stood weaving with exhaustion. Slowly, Caje unclenched his jaw. His free hand fluttered, grabbed Saunders’s sleeve. “Sarge,” he said. “We gotta go back.”
‘Sarge’, Lengfeld thought. The others called him Lieutenant. No matter. He shrugged and reached for the dark bottle.
“Don’t worry,” Saunders told Caje. He gave one shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “We’ll get you back to our lines.”
Lengfeld began filling his syringe with a thick red liquid. Kirby wrinkled his nose. “Smells like carbolic acid. Like my ma uses when she’s cleanin’….” The thought trailed off and he exchanged looks with his CO. They steadied Caje against the table again.
“Sarge,” Caje repeated, his voice weak but urgent. “That’s not what I mean. We gotta go back - ”
Then he had no breath to speak, as Lengfeld began squirting the acid solution into the wound to disinfect it. Caje shook violently, tears running from the corners of his eyes down toward his ears.
Finally, Lengfeld stopped. He used hot water to wipe away the fresh blood and then packed a wad of soft cloth loosely over Caje’s palm and another against the back of his hand and secured both with another strip of cotton wound around the splint. Then he reached for the other wrist to take a pulse and found it rapid and thready. Lengfeld had nothing to treat shock. Time alone would tell. He looked into his patient’s eyes – saw that they were unfocused now. Caje was fighting hard to stay conscious but losing the battle.
“Sarge?” Caje tried one more time. It came out in a whisper. “The Krauts have ‘em,” he said. “Littlejohn and Billy and Dixon. And Doc. They’re still there. They didn’t move us.”
Saunders straightened. Thoughts and emotions raced across his face like a crack spreading through ice, and his eyes flickered with determination and renewed purpose. “Where, Caje? Where did they hold you?” It couldn’t be far. Caje couldn’t have traveled far in his condition.
But Caje was in no condition to answer. “I’m sorry, Sarge … .” The words were faltering now. “I –” Grief made the words catch in his throat.
“Shhh. Don’t talk,” Saunders said. The urge to act was overwhelming but he pushed it back.
Saunders always knew when his men had reached their limits, and Caje had been pushed to the breaking point. He needed to rest. And to rest, he needed some reassurance from Sarge. Saunders didn’t know what had happened yet, but he knew something was tearing Caje up inside – something that was causing him more suffering than the meatball surgery he’d just endured.
“You can’t change the past,” Saunders said softly. “Put it behind you. Sleep now.”
He didn’t need to add the last. Caje was already out.
Monday November 6, 1944, 6 am
Saunders rubbed the grittiness from his eyes as he stared out the window, watching the night’s black hues soften to gray as morning approached. The old woman and the boy had been sent to a small back room for the night and had had the sense to stay put. Kirby had dropped from exhaustion on the floor near the front door, and Harrison was asleep nearby in a chair. The German medic occupied another chair, but he wasn’t permitted to sleep. His safety depended on the life of the American who still lay motionless on the makeshift operating table. Lengfeld had spent what remained of the night applying cold compresses to his patient’s brow to reduce the fever and hot compresses to his wrist to draw out the infection.
At 0600 he looked wearily up at his captor. “The fever is broken.”
The lieutenant rose stiffly and came to check. The injured man’s chest rose and fell in the rhythm of deep healing sleep. Saunders let the back of his fingers brush against Caje’s gaunt cheek and found the skin cool to the touch. Without thinking, he said softly, “Thank you.”
“I would like to go now,” Lengfeld said. He tilted his head toward the south. “Let me go back to my lines.”
“Think you know where they are?” Saunders asked. “It’s awful easy to get lost out there.” He’d have given a lot to know where either side was located exactly, but he was pretty sure those grease-pencil lines on the maps had been drawn and erased and re-drawn several times already. He doubted Lengfeld knew any more than he did.
The medic shrugged. “I will hear the sounds of battle soon enough. That is where I am needed.”
Between them, they agreed on one delay. Saunders followed his prisoner and kept him under guard while Lengfeld carried his fallen comrade outside, dug a shallow grave, and marked it with a short branch stuck in the ground, balancing the German’s helmet on top. When he finished, he looked down at his handiwork and remembered the boy whose life he had watched drain away. Then he turned back to his guard and saw the American’s eyes that had been lifeless the day before now shone with resolve, brought back to life. So it was, with war. Without a word, he turned and walked away.
The woman and boy stayed hidden in the back room, waiting for the Americans to leave.
The shelling started at mid-morning.
Caje woke with a fitful start. His arm throbbed, an incessant drumbeat that seemed to echo the brutal cadence of the mortars. He grimaced and rolled over to rise up on one elbow, surprised to discover the other encased in a white sling. Raising his eyes, he saw Saunders standing by the east window, keeping watch over the dirt track.
“Sounds like they’re hitting Kommerscheidt pretty hard,” Saunders said. As bad as things were, at least they weren’t in the middle of that. “Think you can travel today?”
Caje felt like crap. But it was worlds better than he’d felt lately, so he figured if he could make it from the lodge where they’d been captured to this woodcutter’s hut yesterday, he could make the same journey back today. He didn’t let himself dwell on the fact that he’d been dragged semi-conscious part of the way. He nodded.
Kirby stirred on the floor, stretched, and unthinkingly kicked Harry, who came awake with a muttered curse. Kirby scrambled to his feet and reached automatically for his BAR, before remembering he’d left it with Dixon. “I thought you were gonna wake me when it was my turn to keep watch,” he said to Saunders.
Saunders shook his head. “You needed the sleep more’n I did. Besides, I had some figuring out to do.” The words he had used to reassure Caje last night had echoed in his head until he finally surrendered to them and applied them to himself. You can’t change the past. Put it behind you. Even if he never forgave himself for what happened to Tommy, he had to forget it, for now. And get on with getting the rest of his guys safely back. Focus on what you can do.
Kirby wondered whether Saunders had spent the night trying to figure out whatever had made him go all catatonic, or whether he’d spent it figuring out what they were going to do next. Either way, Kirby was just relieved to have his CO seemingly back to his old self. “I’m not complainin’, mind you,” Kirby said. “You know, carryin’ ol’ Caje here plumb wore me out yesterday!” He grinned at his friend.
“Hey!” Harry looked around the room anxiously. “Where’s that Kraut medic?”
Saunders nodded. “Time for us to be movin’ out too.” He turned to Caje, who was now standing by the table, although with one hand pressed against it for support. “You said you wanted to go back for the others. You still think you’re up for it?”
Caje’s face hardened. “Yeah.”
Saunders held up a hand before Caje could take a step. “First, sit down.” He turned to the others. “Kirby, take all the canteens down to the river and refill them. Harry, see what food you can rummage up.”
The two silently slipped away to their tasks.
Saunders turned back toward Caje and said, “I need to know exactly what we’ll be walking into. I need you to tell me everything that happened.”
The request was so simple. Spoken softly, almost casually. But Caje looked up into the hard gaze of his CO and saw the urgency there.
Only, Caje couldn’t sort through the maelstrom of what had happened over the last few days, couldn’t find the details Saunders needed, without re-living the events that he couldn’t bring himself to face again. Nervously, he licked his lips.
Saunders reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a cigarette, lit it, took a drag and then passed it over. Caje leaned forward to take it in his good hand, nodded gratefully, and then sagged back wearily.
Harry came in, silently depositing some bread and raw potatoes on the table. He noticed Saunders’ hands didn’t shake any more.
“Kirby told us what happened until the Krauts showed up at the forester’s lodge and he slipped away,” Saunders said to Caje. “What happened then?”
How to explain the cold ruthlessness of Colonel Drache? The sadistic gleam in Ungeheuer’s eyes – the bone-crunching vise of his grip pinning Caje to the cross – the arc of the hammer’s swing …. Frantically, Caje’s eyes darted away, but they no longer focused on the safe room where the Americans were sheltered. Instead, he saw again the family on the porch, cowering in fear; he heard the awful crack of the bullet, saw the dark red blood so vivid against the white apron. Caje closed his eyes to shut out the memories, but it didn’t help. He saw Doc’s pale face - the shock in his eyes as he realized his friend had given him up to the Germans. One hot tear clung to Caje’s eyelashes for a moment before it was blinked away.
He should have thought of something – some way for the squad to get away. Dazed with pain, all he could think was to say anything to stop the Germans from shooting anyone else. He had to say something; give them something. And Doc was there. Surely the Krauts would treat a medic, someone who didn’t carry a weapon, honorably.
But he couldn’t give up one of his friends! He’d rather die … but then the Krauts turned their guns on the kid. And without making a conscious decision, the word was blurted out. “Doc - - ”
Caje’s eyes flew open. Had he said it aloud? He must have - Saunders was staring down at him, waiting for him to finish his sentence. There was no accusation in his eyes, but how could there be? He wasn’t there; didn’t know what Caje had done; didn’t see the stunned look on Doc’s face.
Caje swallowed. His throat ached all the way into his chest. “I was in the house. When the Krauts came. They took me. I … I … ” He started trembling. Saunders placed a hand on his good arm, and the trembling eased, although Caje seemed unaware of the gesture. “I turned in Doc.”
“Go on.” The hand tightened on his arm.
Caje couldn’t meet his eyes. “The Krauts shot the family….” His voice trailed away, the “anyway” inaudible.
“What happened to the rest of the squad?” Saunders’s voice was carefully neutral.
The minutes that followed the execution of the innocent family were lost in a haze of agony. Four days later and he still remembered nothing from those minutes but the excruciating pain. And the stunned look in Doc’s eyes that haunted him still.
Saunders’s face swam into view, his blue eyes soft with concern, not blame. Didn’t matter. Caje couldn’t look to Saunders for forgiveness.
“The others?” Saunders repeated.
Caje shuddered, trying to forget the image that haunted him, trying to remember what came before. “Tommy -” he began.
The guilt that ravaged Caje’s face over his betrayal of Doc was now mirrored in Saunders’s grim features. The CO nodded. “I know about Tommy.”
Caje struggled to find some details that he could share, details that wouldn’t make his throat ache and swell shut. “Littlejohn said MacAllister got it at Schmidt. Kraut grenade. Billy was knocked out by it; hurt pretty bad, but Littlejohn got him away. They’re alive.” He named each of the survivors then, as if saying their names aloud would bind them to an oath – that they would all still be there, still alive, holding out for a rescue. “Littlejohn and Billy. Doc and Dixon. They’re still there, in the root cellar.”
“How many guards?”
Now they were on safer ground. Talking strategy – starting a plan. From the corner of his eye Caje saw Kirby had returned – was standing by the door with three canteens hanging from his hand. Had he heard the whole thing?
“I saw four or five, I think,” Kirby offered helpfully. “Is that right, Caje?”
The injured man nodded. “There’s a colonel. Two – three goons. And a lieutenant. Named Steiniger.” Funny that he should remember his name, Caje thought. Or maybe not so odd. “Steiniger let me go.”
“He just let you go?” Kirby’s tone was incredulous.
“I thought he was going to shoot me,” Caje answered. “Took me out of the cellar.” He shifted his bandaged arm in the sling. “Then he said I would die if I stayed there. Told me there was a road a mile south; the Germans were moving reinforcements on that road. They would have doctors. If I could walk a mile I would live.” He smiled thinly. “I don’t think he thought I could. But he gave me a chance.”
“Guess your sense of direction kinda deserted you too, huh?” Kirby chuckled. “I hate to break it to ya, pal, but you took a wrong turn north.”
“I knew where I was goin’.” Caje’s voice was rough with weariness.
Saunders pushed food in their direction. “Eat. We move out in 20 minutes. And now I need to know everything you can tell me about the layout of that place.”
“We got a plan?” Kirby asked eagerly.
“We got a plan.”