In the Dragon’s Teeth – part 5
Monday November 6, 1944, evening
Brandl circled the perimeter of the clearing warily. He didn’t like the twilight shift. At all. Twilight was when restless spirits rose from their graves.
Shadows lengthened as his shift wore on, until he could make out only varying shades of darkness. Each rustle from the woods made him jumpy, made his skin crawl, though he told himself the sounds were only those made by nocturnal animals, not anything supernatural. He squinted into the blackness, trying to place himself with respect to the kubelwagen parked at the end of the road, veering closer to the vehicle so that his path didn’t take him too close to the grave.
Ungeheuer could scoff at my “superstitions”, Brandl thought, but he was just a city boy raised in the Hitler Youth – he hadn’t heard the old stories passed down from generation to generation. There was a reason why bodies were moved to cemeteries. Only those who had died of natural causes should be laid to rest on the homestead. There was no rest for those whose deaths were violent and unnatural - their spirits would haunt the fatal site unless the bodies were moved away.
Brandl’s steps slowed as he approached the mound of loose dirt that marked the place where the American was buried. As he had done on each circuit, he took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and quick-marched the dozen paces that took him what he hoped was safe distance, glad that Ungeheuer wasn’t there to notice and mock him.
Brandl opened his eyes when he judged the grave was behind him and made himself focus on his duties, watching the perimeter, and not dwelling on his own shaky nerves. To his shock and dismay, he saw movement to his right – a flash of white – coming out of the woods. Toward him!
He raised his rifle, though his hands shook. The white, he realized, was a sling, supporting a heavily bandaged hand. It was a man in a uniform – an American uniform! The man staggered toward him, his left hand raised in surrender.
It was LeMay!
But - he was dead!?
Brandl’s voice caught in his throat – he couldn’t force as much as a squeak. It was the prisoner’s ghost! Come back to haunt them!
The apparition continued to move toward him, weaving slightly.
Brandl knew there was no point in firing – it would just make the spirit angry. He wanted to run, but his legs were paralyzed.
The figure came within a dozen feet and stopped there, swaying. Its face was as white as the thick bandage wrapped around its right hand.
An owl hooted in the trees.
And then the ghost crumpled bonelessly to the ground.
Brandl glanced around frantically. He saw nothing but the dark forbidding woods. Timorously, he knelt beside the body and, taking a deep breath, he poked it with the barrel of his gun.
The body felt solid.
Brandl gave it a slight push – the figure didn’t react but rolled limply onto his back. In the moonlight, Brandl saw the man’s gaunt features plainly. It really was LeMay.
How could it be? Brandl looked again at the grave. Even in the growing darkness the dirt seemed undisturbed. What should he do? Wake up the Colonel and report this? Colonel Drache frightened him nearly as much as his superstitions. Nor did he feel safe turning his back on the body lying motionless on the ground. What if he reported it, and when his comrades came to check, the ghost was gone?
He looked back at the farmhouse and then at the root cellar, mere yards away. Making up his mind, he quickly searched the American for weapons. Finding nothing, he grabbed him by the collar and dragged him roughly to the cellar. There, Brandl fumbled with the key, unlocked the door, pulled it open and dropped the body down the stairs.
Then he slammed the door shut again, locked it securely and marched to the farmhouse, his heart still thundering in his chest. He would report to Lt. Steiniger and let Steiniger face Colonel Drache if needed.
= = =
Harrison scowled from his prone position at the edge of the woods. “I knew it wouldn’t work. Kirby had to practically carry him the last hour or so. We were crazy to think that Caje could overpower the guard. You should have let me go.”
Saunders shook his head. Harry was still bucking for his chance to kill some Krauts. “If you’d gone, the guard would have either shot you on sight or raised the alarm. Caje was our best chance to shock him into silence.”
“So – what do we do now…. hey!” Harrison swiveled his head in both directions. “Where’d Kirby go?”
Saunders almost smiled. “None of us really expected Caje could take the guard. Not in his condition. But it worked as a diversion.” He shrugged in the direction of the house. A shadow moved on the roof. “Kirby’s up there, putting our real plan into play.”
Harrison frowned. “But the goon could have just shot Caje and alerted the others.”
Saunders nodded. “True. But Caje remembered this guard, thought he might be easily spooked. He was willing to take that chance. Kirby took a chance that the guard would be too occupied with Caje to notice him climbing up on the roof. And now it’s our turn to take a chance.” He slapped Harrison on the shoulder as the German guard disappeared inside the house. Sliding the rifle he had picked up at the woodcutter’s hut off his shoulder, he gripped it tightly and sprinted across the open ground, to crouch below the house’s front window.
= = =
In the cellar, Doc woke to the thudding of something tumbling down the stairs and then a weight crashed against his outstretched legs and went still. A hoarse voice groaned, and then swore briefly in French.
“Who is it?” Doc called softly. He reached one hand for the motionless figure that was curled up across his boots. The body grunted and then sat up and answered. “Doc?”
There was a rustling sound as the others stirred awake. Then the sound of a snap followed and a flame sputtered to life as Caje shakily held out a lighter. In the flickering gloom he could see the rest of the squad – Doc’s concerned face - Littlejohn’s shocked stare - Billy’s mouth hanging open in wonder - Dixon hanging back in the shadows, fearful.
Littlejohn inched forward, overcome by an urge to clasp Caje around the shoulders and feel for himself that his friend was really there, really alive. But the light wavered as Caje swayed, and Littlejohn pulled back, struck by the impression that Caje might break if handled too roughly. So instead he simply leaned forward and took the lighter from Caje’s trembling hand.
“Doc – check the bandage,” Caje said, awkwardly drawing his arm out of the sling.
The medic looked puzzled, but suppressed the questions he had and carefully untied the ends of the cloth wrapped thickly round Caje’s lower arm. The light caught the glint of metal and he caught his breath, then unwound the bandage faster.
Between the outer cloth bandages and a thick pad of gauze he found a thin scrap of wood used as a splint, and lying on top of the splint was - a pair of knitting needles! “Sarge thought – you could use them – to pick the lock,” Caje said, breathing hard.
“Sarge? He’s here?”
Caje nodded. “Kirby and Harry too.”
A grin slowly spread across Doc’s face, easing the tension and erasing the furrows in his brow as he passed the needles to Littlejohn. Then Caje watched Doc’s eyes harden again as the medic stared at the dark red bloodstains on the bandage that still covered the wound. In that moment, Caje felt certain that Doc had to be remembering when Caje had gotten that injury, and what Caje had done in a futile effort to keep the Krauts from carrying out their threats. Unable to meet Doc’s eyes, he looked away as the medic carefully rewound the cloth bandage, and saw Dixon cowering in the corner of the cellar.
“We can’t try to escape,” Dixon said softly, hugging his arms to his chest and rocking back and forth. “What if we get caught? Maybe it’s a trap! What will the Krauts do to us then?”
= = =
Kirby’s feet were cold. He had taken his boots off and strung them by their laces around his neck, to move more quietly as he made his way like a cat burglar across the roof. Reaching the peak, he shrugged off his jacket and spread it across the chimney, placing his boots on opposite corners of the chimney to weight it down. He wrinkled his nose at the acrid smell that clung now to his jacket and he placed his hand on the fabric that was blocking the smoke’s escape. It was warm.
He wondered how long it would take for the Germans inside to react to the smoke that would be billowing back into the house. It had been quiet as he’d made his way precariously across the roof but now he could hear voices below him. The guard had wakened someone and was chattering away nervously. If Harrison had been the one on the roof, they might have known what was being said – at least Harry had some basic knowledge of German.
More voices were heard. And coughing too. Surely they had noticed the smoke. He hoped they would hurry – he was freezing up there. Would they all come out at once, or send someone outside first to check? Kirby peered down at the ground and saw Saunders and Harrison crouched and ready, backs to the wall by the front door. He inched down to the edge of the roof to play his part.
= = =
Littlejohn worked anxiously on the lock with no success. He just knew Kirby would have had them out of here by now – and would be giving him grief for being so fumble-fingered if he were here. His hands were getting sweaty; he scrubbed his palms on his pants and started again. One needle should apply just the right amount of torque to the plug; the other should find and lift the key pins.
He realized that he would have to do this by touch and sound alone so he let his glance wander around the cellar while he manipulated the knitting needles. As usual, he sought out Billy first. The young soldier sagged weakly on the floor against a near wall. Littlejohn had been so relieved when Billy had first regained consciousness – but as the days passed Billy continued to suffer from dizziness and his headaches were getting worse. It seemed to be one of their captors’ ploys – to observe the effect of withholding medical treatment, as they were subjected to cold and hunger too. Littlejohn had worried that the Krauts would shoot Billy if they thought he was getting too sick to play their games anymore, like they had executed Caje.
But they hadn’t. Hadn’t executed Caje that is, he thought. Why the ruse? Littlejohn grimaced as the pin he was working on struck the hull of the lock and wouldn’t move. He would need to apply more force – but not too much.
Trial and error.
This lock-picking exercise reminded him of the Krauts – who seemed to be trying to unlock some mystery within their prisoners.
Which pins to push – what kind of pressure to exert – to get the prisoners to react?
His thoughts turned back to Caje – the first of them to be captured and interrogated. Why was he alive now? Where had he been the last 24 hours? Had the Krauts taken him aside – offered him food and shelter and medical care in exchange for information? Had Caje betrayed them?
Littlejohn’s hands froze. Was Dixon right? Was this another Kraut game, sending Caje back to test them, to study their reactions before punishing them some more?
He turned and looked back to watch Caje and Doc in the flickering light from the cigarette lighter. Exhaustion, pain and – yes guilt – were etched in wounded man’s face as Doc settled his arm back in his sling.
Caje looked guilty?
Littlejohn’s head was fuzzy from lack of food and sleep. He couldn’t trust impressions; he needed to look back on the facts. He and Billy had been hiding inside the house when the Krauts came and they’d heard someone shot – later they discovered it was the old grandfather. Next they’d heard the Krauts discover Caje and a young boy and drag them outside. What had happened then Littlejohn didn’t see or hear, but they’d gotten the story from a shattered Dixon, on one of the forced marches around the camp.
Dixon told them he’d been hiding and watching from behind a haystack when the Kraut colonel had demanded that Caje tell them where the rest of the Americans were hiding. Caje had defied them at first, even when they threatened to crucify him. When Dixon described the nail being hammered through Caje’s hand, he had started to shake and Littlejohn thought the boy was going to be sick. But Caje still didn’t tell them anything more than name, rank, and serial number. Then the Krauts had threatened to shoot the civilians, Dixon said. And that’s when Caje gave away Doc’s position.
No wonder he looked guilty when Doc was treating him.
Dixon had panicked and when the shooting started he had tried to run away but froze when the Germans shouted Halt! And fired in his direction. He guessed Kirby had gotten away in the confusion. The Germans had then searched the house and discovered Littlejohn and Billy.
The Krauts had seemed surprised. So no one had told them that more Americans were hiding in the house.
Caje had known they were there. But he hadn’t given them up to the Krauts. Littlejohn looked back at the scout now and found his gaze met squarely, without fear or remorse. And Littlejohn knew with certainty that Caje hadn’t betrayed them – then or now. He turned his attention back to his lock picking and applied a little more pressure. The driver pin caught on the edge of the plug. The lock opened.
Littlejohn scuttled down the steps, dropped the knitting needles beside Caje, and gave Doc a triumphant nod. Doc hauled Caje to his feet and Littlejohn helped Billy to stand. Dixon shrank back into the corner, his fingers scrabbling nervously against the dirt wall.
“Saunders and Kirby and Harry are outside,” Caje said. “They’ll keep the Krauts occupied. We’re supposed to break out – head for the vehicle.” He stopped there. Talking was more of an effort than he’d hoped it would be. In fact, keeping conscious was more of an effort than he’d hoped.
“Then what?” Billy asked, one hand to his head as though that action could keep the room from spinning.
“If there are weapons there, we can join the fight. If not .…” he paused, taking another shaky breath that made his battered ribs ache. “If not, take the car if we can get it running. Otherwise, disappear on foot into the woods.”
One by one, they crept out of their prison. Once in the night air, Littlejohn helped support Billy, who was still unsteady. Doc draped Caje’s good arm around his own shoulder and together they faded into the night behind the other pair.
Dixon hung back. His legs felt leaden – he couldn’t make himself follow. If their escape attempt was unsuccessful, he didn’t dare face whatever new tortures Col. Drache’s wrath would impose. Better, he thought, to do nothing. If Saunders and his men succeeded in overpowering the Germans, then he could leave with the Americans in safety, without risking his own skin. And if the Germans prevailed – well – he wouldn’t have risked injury or death and surely they wouldn’t punish him for the actions of the others. They wouldn’t!
He found himself completely alone. Shadows moved around him. In the dark he couldn’t tell friend from foe. Best not to move at all, he told himself.
And then a shot rang out.
= = =
Steiniger coughed as he led the others out into the fresh autumn air. Brandl followed, waving his arm in front of his face to dissipate the smoke. It was hard to see. Mueller came through next, but stopped in his tracks so quickly that Colonel Drache bumped into him, cursing.
“Why have you stopped? Idiot!”
Mueller just stared into the shadows, where an American sergeant stood motionless, rifle trained on the small group. Steiniger reacted first, instinctively drawing his pistol.
Saunders didn’t fire.
Steiniger’s gun went off – the bullet stirring Saunders’s hair as it whistled a centimeter wide of its mark when Kirby dropped from the roof onto the German’s back, knocking them both to the ground. They rolled in the dirt, each desperately struggling to gain sole control of the pistol.
Saunders stepped forward and jammed the barrel of the Mauser against the throat of the SS Colonel. “Don’t make a move,” Saunders ordered. Even the soldiers who didn’t speak English understood the threat. Brandl’s arms shot up stiffly in the air in instant surrender. Mueller looked doubtfully at his commanding officer.
Drache stared with livid hostility at the GI before him. He saw the dried blood crusting over a week-old gash on the man’s brow; stubble that had not seen a razor in even longer. Dirty. Unkempt. Clearly an inferior breed. He resented having to submit to this soldier’s authority and looked around at his men. They were not in a position to resist. For now. Drache reluctantly nodded his head and raised his hands shoulder high.
“Kirby, quit messing around and get that gun,” Saunders said in a tired voice.
The two soldiers struggled to their knees. Steiniger’s finger tightened on the trigger; Kirby had the barrel in his left hand and his muscles strained with the effort of redirecting it toward the cluster of dejected Krauts. But Steiniger had slept well and eaten in the last few days - Kirby had not and he felt his strength waning as the pistol slowly was turned to point back at Saunders.
“Kirby?” Saunders repeated, watching the battle on the ground but not moving his rifle from Drache’s jaw.
The pistol’s sights lined up … and in desperation, Kirby found an opening and kneed his opponent in the groin. Steiniger promptly collapsed, dropping to the ground like a coiled snake. His finger loosened and Kirby wrestled the gun free and rolled to his feet.
“Kirby, gather up their weapons.” Saunders ordered. “Harry – check the root cellar. Make sure everyone got out.”
And that’s how Harrison discovered Dixon, cowering in his tracks, beside the open door to his prison. “C’mon,” he said. “We’ve got ‘em!”
Dixon stumbled behind Harry as they walked back toward the house, quaking with relief that he’d been rescued. Rescued! Kirby had stacked the German’s weapons in a pile out of their reach and was busy tying their prisoners’ hands behind their backs.
“Dix – you okay?” Saunders called. “The others get out?”
Dixon nodded, his mouth too dry to speak.
Saunders gestured him closer. “Pick me out one of those rifles from the pile and bring it here,” Saunders said, more quietly, never taking his eyes from the German soldiers. “Make sure it’s loaded.”
Dixon’s brow furrowed in puzzlement but he did as he was told. Saunders took the Kar 43 from him and nodded, and handed Dix the rifle he’d used in the ambush.
“I don’t get it,” Dix said. “What’s wrong with the one you had?”
“Wasn’t loaded,” Saunders said.
“What?” The query came out in a squawk, and Kirby shushed him with one hand as he shoved the last prisoner to the ground.
“You mean – ” Dixon’s voice lowered. “You mean you attacked a Kraut position when you didn’t have any ammo?”
“I told you Saunders was the company to be in! We’ll probably get medals,” Harrison said gleefully.
“Knock it off, Harry,” Saunders said grimly. “Go lock the prisoners in their own root cellar.”
“My pleasure, Lieutenant,” Harry said, and prodded them to their feet.
Dixon counted them as they went past. Brandl, Mueller, Steiniger, Drache…. “Where’s the other one?”
“What?” Saunders and Kirby spoke at the same time.
“There were five of them.”
They looked back at the house. With the door open, the smoke had dissipated – the missing Kraut wasn’t missing because he’d been overcome by smoke. There was no sign of him.
They still had an armed enemy to deal with.
Saunders and Kirby didn’t need words exchanged to know how to clear a building. They approached the door together, bracing themselves against the wall on either side of the door. “Dix,” Saunders said. “You go find the rest of the squad – try the vehicle first.” Then he gave Kirby the signal and, covering each other, they entered the house.
The cold November wind blew icy tendrils down Dixon’s neck as he walked around the house toward the road. He shivered. The relief at being rescued made him weak in the knees.
It was over.
As he came around the corner, he stopped. The intermittent cloud cover drifted away from the moon and a terrifying tableau stood before him.
Moonlight glinted off the shovel marking Caje’s grave - the shovel still lying where Littlejohn had dropped it in his grief and rage. Twenty feet beyond that stood Ungeheuer – tall and strong and proud – his back to Dixon. He faced the escaped prisoners who were clustered around the kubelwagen – and he had them covered with his rifle.
“I see you have found what I have come looking for,” Ungeheuer said. He gestured to Littlejohn to set down the box he was holding. Had he come a moment later, the Americans would have opened it and discovered the cache of grenades. But Ungeheuer was too good for that. If you take the right actions, the right consequences will be yours. He believed that completely.
Littlejohn set down the box and took a step back toward the vehicle.
“What’s this?” Ungeheuer smiled evilly. The prisoner who had had the head injury was lying in the backseat, where the medic had been settling him. The one with the sling – the one the others called Caje – leaned against the hood, too weak to stand unassisted. “Everyone away from the vehicle!” Ungeheuer raised his voice.
“He’s no threat to you,” Doc protested, holding Billy in place with a firm hand to his shoulder. “Leave him be.” Littlejohn edged closer to Billy as if to defend him.
“You Americans are so weak!” Ungeheuer scoffed. His pleasure in intimidating his enemies occupied his thoughts completely. “You – away from the vehicle!” he ordered again – this time staring directly at Caje.
Caje pushed himself away from the car and stood, wavering slightly. Sweat beaded on his brow.
“Weak!” Ungeheuer waved Littlejohn and Doc away from Billy. “We will play a game to see how weak you are,” he said. Drache would like this one, he knew. Ungeheuer gave no thought to the fact that his comrades might be engaged in conflict with other Americans; he was totally immersed in his new game as he aimed the rifle at Billy’s chest. “I will not pull the trigger while this one stays on his feet,” he said, sneering at Caje.
Caje stared back. He found his vision blurring though, and blinked hard to keep the object of his hatred in focus. Everything started to go gray, but as he felt one knee buckle he staggered forward a step to regain his balance. Breathing hard, his broken rib stabbed with each breath he took. His arm was aflame. The rest of him was icy cold and he wanted so very much to lie down, to sleep, to stop feeling anything at all.
But not while Ungeheuer watched.
Caje began to sway with dizziness. His vision started to go blurry again. He could see Ungeheuer’s smile widen. He could see Ungeheuer spit out the word “Weak!” – but he couldn’t hear it over the roaring in his ears. He saw the German’s finger tighten on the trigger with remarkable clarity, but everything around that was fuzzy and in motion.
And then he realized that blur of motion wasn’t a symptom of fading consciousness. Dixon erupted behind Ungeheuer, swinging the shovel. The blade caught the German soldier behind his right ear and he crumpled to the ground.
“Weak?” Dixon crowed triumphantly. “The weak shall inherit the earth!” Then he stood unmoving, stunned at what he had done.
“That’s ‘meek’,” Doc correctly gently, suddenly appearing at his side, taking the shovel from him.
Saunders and Kirby came trotting up at the sound. “All accounted for?” Saunders asked.
Dixon nodded, still speechless at what he had done.
Doc stooped to check the body. “He’s dead,” he said, without his usual tone of remorse.
Dixon staggered to the car and sagged against it. He had killed a man.
Billy looked across the car at him, pale and weak, but smiling. “Thanks, Dix. I owe you one.”
“No,” Dixon shook his head. “We’re even now.”
“I owed you – for the soup.”
“The soup?” Billy’s puzzled look faded only slightly and then he let his eyes fall shut as he gave in to his own battle for consciousness.
Saunders looked over the kubelwagen and then told Kirby to bring the captured SS officer to him.
“Can’t someone else go? I’m turnin’ blue here,” Kirby complained. “I left my jacket and boots on the roof, remember?”
Saunders smiled – those muscles in his face taut from long disuse. “Okay, go get ‘em,” he gestured upward. He looked at his men before him – Nelson unconscious now in the vehicle and Littlejohn checking him out – Doc guiding Caje into the seat beside Billy – Dixon sitting on the ground now beside the truck, elbows on his knees, his arms thrust forward, his hands shaking. “I’ll get the Colonel myself,” Saunders decided. “We’ll take him back with us. But we’ll give the rest a taste of their own medicine; leave them locked up in the same prison where they held you.”
Caje lifted his head; opened his mouth to speak. Saunders was standing beside the grave - his grave – and Caje thought for a moment about what he’d intended to say and then decided against it. Shaking his head slightly, he turned away and let Doc help him into the kubelwagen.
Tuesday November 7, 1944
The aid station was overflowing with broken and bleeding soldiers. The more seriously ill were treated first. Billy was promptly carted away with a possible skull fracture. But all of Saunders’s men were examined for frostbite, malnutrition and physical trauma. Doc sat waiting his turn, talking quietly to Saunders. “Where’d the kid come from?” he asked, gesturing toward a scrawny tow-headed little boy whose leg was being bandaged.
“Kirby found ‘im, in the woods,” Saunders answered. “Funny – you’d think Kirby would be the last guy in the squad to pick up a stray. He was always suspicious of ‘em, even the French ones. It’s Caje who’s always adopting the orphans.”
The boy raised his head then, and suddenly Doc realized where he had seen him before.
The doctor finished with the boy and crossed the room, settling his stethoscope in place. Before he could start his examination of the gash on Saunders’s head, Doc interrupted. “Did you see a guy with an injured hand? He came in with us. LeMay? Paul LeMay?”
The doctor looked up. “I did. Nasty wound. He’s in line for the next ambulance to the evac hospital.”
Doc scrambled to his feet. He knew where the ambulances would be loading. “I need to find him.” He paused. “He’s going to be all right, isn’t he?”
“I haven’t killed a patient yet,” the doctor said cheerfully. He didn’t say how long he’d been in the medical corps though.
Doc grinned back; then the smile faded. “But – what about his hand?”
“I don’t think he’ll lose it.”
Doc gulped. “Lose it?” He and Saunders exchanged looks.
The doctor shook his head. “Mind you, that’ll be up to the surgeons. My guess is, they’ll be able to save it. With rehab – well …” he paused, frowned, then brightened. “It’s lucky he’s left-handed, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it is. Thanks.” Doc left the MD talking to Saunders and he took himself off to the ambulance bay area. He found it crowded with injured soldiers, some on pallets and more stretched out on the floor – all of them bloodied, most with IV’s dangling overhead. Medics bustled about between them.
“Caje!” He found the one he was looking for, sitting on the floor with his back against the wall, arm in a sling.
“Hey Doc.” Morphine had eased the lines of pain that had ravaged his face, but his eyes still looked haunted.
“I – uh – just wanted to make sure you were in good hands,” Doc said. Then he winced at his choice of words.
“Doc – I - ” Caje looked down. There weren’t any words that could make right what he had done – not in English or his native French. But he had to say something. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. I understand.” Doc folded his legs to sit beside Caje on the floor. “I saw the kid. He’s okay, you know.”
“The kid from the house? He got away.” Doc shrugged. “You made a choice – traded my freedom for a kid’s life. I’d have made the same choice.”
Caje shut his eyes. Remembering. Remembering the blood on the old man’s shirt. The echo of the pistol shot that killed the mother in cold blood. More shots fired. “The boy made it?”
“Yep. You were probably too out of it to realize that’s the same kid that was tagging after Kirby. He’s going to be fine. Thanks to you.”
Caje remembered more then. In a red haze of agony, he remembered seeing Doc throw himself at Mueller to knock his aim off. “You saved the kid,” he corrected him.
The medic smiled. “Okay, we saved him. We’re in this together. We can both be the hero. And if we’re giving ourselves medals, let’s not forget Dix and his shovel,” he added. “I never thought I’d feel this way, but that’s the first time I really wanted to kill a man.”
Caje didn’t answer. Doc had no idea how many men Caje had been forced to kill in this war, but he’d never seen Caje take pleasure in killing. Still, there had been a grim satisfaction in his eyes when Doc had announced that Ungeheuer was dead.
“I do feel a little guilty about those other Krauts,” Doc said. “That’s crazy, I know. But they weren’t all SS like the major. And that place is so remote – they could starve to death before anybody finds them. Their side or ours.” He shrugged. “It’s one thing to fight an armed enemy. It’s another to leave them to a slow death.” Having been on the receiving end of such treatment all too recently, it wasn’t something he would wish even on a foe. “I guess I just hate to think that we’re no better than they are.”
“Don’t worry ‘bout that, Doc,” Caje said.
Doc raised a querying eyebrow.
“We left the knitting needles in the cellar. They probably didn’t find them till daylight, but …” His voice faltered. The drugs were pulling at him, offering him relief from the pain and from the memories. He wanted to surrender to that sleep. But not until….
“I am sorry,” he repeated, this time looking Doc in the eye.
“It’s okay,” Doc said, smiling. “You came back for us.”
It was okay. Caje could see that now. He could rest. “I’ll catch up wit’ you later,” he murmured groggily, closing his eyes.
Doc shook his head. “Not this time,” he said softly, climbing back to his feet. “You can go home. You’ve done enough.” Caje didn’t hear him, but Doc turned to find that Saunders had.
= = =
“Three hundred, huh?” Saunders sighed heavily. His cold, damp clothes still clung to him, but he was so drained with fatigue that he lacked the energy to shiver.
“That’s right,” Hanley told him. “We sent 2200 across the Kall River over the last week and barely 300 made it back. You’re among the lucky ones. ”
“Lucky. Right.” For a moment the weary resignation in his eyes was replaced with a flash of anger. “What the hell happened here, Captain? There was no effort to take the dams. Hell, there was no effort to do ANYTHING seriously. We were all over the map. If they’d directed all three regiments to any one objective, we might have had a chance. But they split us all up. We didn’t have a chance. Not in that terrain.”
Hanley put one hand on his shoulder. “That’s the kind of thinking we need at S2, Saunders.” He gave a tight smile. “You pulled out the impossible there. Scouted the dams. Liberated POWs. Captured a colonel. Hell, you survived. You survived the Huertgen Forest. Thousands didn’t.”
“Somehow, that doesn’t make me feel very proud, Captain.”
“Maybe this will.” Hanley handed his friend a small pair of silver bars. “Your promotion’s official. Here. Take them.”
But Saunders stared at the bars in the palm of his hand, no bigger than a stick of gum. Abruptly, he leaned forward, handed them back. “No, sir. I don’t want them.”
“You’re – you’re turning it down?”
Saunders slumped back in his chair. “I know a promotion means being re-assigned. And I don’t want to leave my men, sir.”
“But we need you in HQ, Saunders. We need men there who’ve seen battle up close, who can make the kind of decisions that need to be made.”
“It’s not the right job for me, Captain,” Saunders said. “I don’t guess that I have the kind of courage that takes.”
“Courage?” His CO turned puzzled eyes on him. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, I don’t have the guts to send men out on my command, ask them to do something I’m not in a position to do myself. If – ” Saunders swallowed. “If it turns sour, I have to know that I was there to do everything in my power to prevent it. I don’t have what it takes to sit back and give the orders. Sir.”
“There’s all kinds of courage, Saunders,” Hanley said, sighing. “You remember that hill we were ordered to take, when we lost half the platoon? Against all odds, we took it. We lost Einstein there and ….” He took a deep breath, absently, rubbing his sore ribs.
Saunders nodded. He remembered it. He’d gotten hit there – a hole in his leg big enough to lose a grenade in, Doc had said. They’d taken the hill against all odds and at great cost. And then were ordered to abandon it. “I remember,” he said.
“That’s where I decided I didn’t have the guts for that anymore,” Hanley said. “I can’t watch my men die before my very eyes, following orders I don’t believe in, when I might be able to influence a decision to prevent it, back at the command post.”
“I guess there’s all kinds of courage.” Saunders admitted.
“And we each have our place in this war.” Hanley stood up and shook his friend’s hand. “Let’s win this war - - Sergeant.”
“You figure out how to win the war, sir. I’ll do my best to execute those orders and bring the men home.”
Hanley nodded, and Saunders made his way out the door and got directions to a tent where Supply was trying to restore order out of chaos and get the stragglers outfitted with equipment that other soldiers, the casualties, would never need again. He picked up a Thompson, and was about to ask about other equipment, when he saw what he needed, in a corner pile full of discarded helmets.
Leaving the tent, he saw a familiar figure sitting slumped on the ground, apart from the other GI’s.
“I can’t do it, sir, “ Dixon said to him. “I’m not a soldier. I didn’t even have enough sense to take one of the Kraut rifles when you sent me to find the others.”
“So – next time you’ll know better!” Saunders said.
“Next time? I’m too scared to think about a next time. I’m scared all the time.” Dixon looked down at his hands, to see if focusing on them could stop them from shaking, and to avoid seeing the expected criticism in Saunders’s eyes.
“That’s okay, Dix. You’re supposed to be scared.”
The boy’s face screwed up in confusion. “Huh?”
“You think you’ve lost your nerve? Well, you aren’t gonna find it staring inside yourself. Look around you.”
Saunders gestured at all the exhausted men collapsed around the stone wall that surrounded the ruins of the village church. “When Doc runs out in the middle of an artillery barrage to get to a wounded man, you think he’s not scared? When Kirby finds us a path out of a minefield, you think he’s not scared? When Littlejohn was out of ammo and Billy left cover to toss him some clips, you think he wasn’t scared? You saw what Caje did yesterday – going back to face his worst nightmare.” He paused, waiting for Dixon to look him in the eye. “We’re all scared, Dix,” he continued. “Being brave doesn’t mean you’re fearless. It’s what happens when you suddenly realize you’re more scared for your friends than you are for yourself. That’s when you find the courage you need.”
Dixon took a deep breath. “I didn’t know what came over me when that Kraut was gonna shoot Billy. I was scared, but I just reacted. I didn’t think about it.”
“That’s what I mean, kid. Be scared. But be more scared for your buddies – worry about them and let them worry about you. And you’ll be all right.”
The boy straightened his shoulders, a small, determined smile replacing the uncertainty of a moment ago. Saunders gave him a nod and turned away.
Kirby squinted against the sunlight as his CO turned toward the other survivors of the Huertgen Hell. “You seen Caje, Sarge? I mean, uh, LT,” he stammered as he stared at the familiar camo helmet in the other man’s hands.
“You had it right the first time,” Saunders said, a grin ghosting across his weary features. “I’ve asked for my stripes back. I’m here – to stay.” He settled the helmet comfortably on his head. “If you hurry you can find Caje at the aid station,” he added, knowing the two friends might have some things to say before Caje left. “I’ll go tell the rest of the squad that I’m staying.”
My squad, he thought.
It had a good ring to it.