Part II—Purple Hearts
The usual disclaimers…And a special thanks to DII, a woman of MANY talents, for betaing.
“Sarge…I have to talk to you. I have to explain.”
“I thought we already did that.”
“I didn’t tell you everything…”
“I didn’t think you did…let’s go back and you can tell me over some breakfast. I think they may still be serving.”
Sarge saw Caje look around, desperation clear on his face. It wasn’t in the scout’s nature to open up, and it wasn’t in Saunders’ own nature to want to know anything personal. Neither one of them were very good at the type of exchange that Saunders sensed needed to occur.
Caje’s eyes locked on the café across the street. “I’ll buy you breakfast, Sarge.”
Saunders followed Caje’s gaze. The cafe looked no better or worse than most. Caje clearly did not want to talk in front of the others. What did it matter?
Not much, Saunders decided, other than a complete reversal of his own personal policy about his men. He knew how to get the most out of them on the battlefield. He knew just enough about each one to motivate him to stay alive and keep those around him alive. And that was all he wanted to know, because he had learned the hard way, even before Omaha, the price of getting too close. They were on the verge of it all being over, of being able to shove all this behind them—of being able to shove all this responsibility behind him. He didn’t want to be saddled with any more. He had done his best. His duty was to get them out of France, on the boat, and back to NYC. That was all.
God, it had been enough, he thought.
He started to respond in the negative, but then took a closer look at Caje. The Louisianan never asked for much, rarely burdened Saunders unnecessarily. If this soldier for some strange reason was not ready to go home, not ready to adjust, whose fault was it? Caje’s...or the person who had exploited—manipulated?—the soldier’s own innate abilities and character to get the job done?
“No, let’s go.” Saunders grabbed Caje by the elbow, a gesture that was outwardly comradely, but the pressure was unmistakable as they moved down the street. He let go after a few feet, and looked at his hand. There was fresh blood.
Caje noticed Saunders staring at the stain. “It’s nothing, Sarge.”
“You may need stitches.”
“We’ve had worse.”
Saunders considered this. That was the truth--for both of them. Caje needed to talk more than he needed Doc. Saunders glanced around at the people on the street, then at his disheveled corporal, noticing anew the scar on his face. He had grown used to it, like he had the barriers he had built around himself.
People walked around them on the sidewalk, staring at the bloodstained soldier. Well, even if they didn’t know it, Saunders thought, they all owed this man, and so did he. He switched course abruptly and nodded to Caje to follow.
“C’mon. You’re buying.”
Caje picked up the doll and studied the face and body. He could tell it once had been brightly painted, but now it was faded and grubby—an object of love both to its small owner and the one who created it. He started to wonder what was keeping the latter.
Still holding the doll, he peered out the window. Claire Marie stood by the well. The buckets rested on the ground beside her. Caje could tell she was agitated from the way she yanked on her hair, tying it and retying it into a knot at the back of her head, as though she could not get it quite right. Finally, she stopped and straightened her shoulders, clearly coming to some sort of decision. She grabbed the buckets and turned back toward the house. Though she spotted Caje at the window, she did not break her stride.
Caje went over and held the door open for her. “I was wondering where you were.”
Claire Marie set the buckets beside the washbasin before responding. “Is your shoulder any worse?”
“I couldn’t see anything myself. Just aching—it’s nothing.”
“Well, it’s through the shirt in the back, so we will have to change the bandage and find you something else to wear.”
That reminded Caje of his shoes. He believed the butcher to be intimidated enough to keep silent, but he needed to be more cautious. At least until he left—he wouldn’t want to try to make a run back to his own lines in someone else’s shoes.
“Claire Marie, did you have any of your husband’s shoes here?”
At her frown, he explained. “I believe Msr. Boulanger noticed my boots.” He hesitated, and then continued, “He also noticed your blouse.”
“My blouse?” Claire Marie looked down in puzzlement and then noticed the missing button. “Oh…” She shrugged, and pulled the blouse closed as best possible. “Everyone already believes that I am…loose.”
“Because of Rolph?”
She nodded and changed the subject. “I thought I would put this meat in some salt water. I have seen Louisa do that.”
Caje remained quiet. Claire Marie was distant. Something had changed since the butcher left, but
Caje was tired and not up to sorting through emotional baggage—hers or his. Perhaps he should speed up his departure. There was too much traffic in and out of the house, and too much going on in the house. One thing he was sure of, though, was that no matter what, he did not want this woman to be hurt any more than she already had been. Along those lines…
“Are you sure that’s wise?”
Claire Marie stopped her search for a pot large enough for the haunch of meat. “What’s wise? Brining the meat?”
Caje’s tone reflected his impatience. “No, Claire Marie. Letting everyone think you are sleeping with the Bosche.”
Claire Marie let out an exaggerated sigh. “I already told you, you have not been here, you can not understand. I owe it to Rolph.” At Caje’s disgusted expression, she added, “Besides, Uncle knows the truth—and Louisa. And Guileau. But if this is going to work, we can’t let everyone know.”
“If what is going to work? Claire Marie, the Allies will be here soon.”
“You were here once, and now you are gone. I have to do what I think is best for myself and…” She nodded toward the doll Caje still held in his left hand, “my daughter.” She added a moment later, “Everything is so complicated.”
Caje placed the doll back in Bridgette’s chair, his mind made up. “And I don’t need to contribute to it. I’m leaving. After your Uncle gets back, as soon as it is dark.”
“You don’t have to do that.” Both concern and relief were apparent in her expression.
“I think I do—for everyone’s well being.”
“Are you well enough? You are still bleeding some, and you have only been less than two days without fever.”
“Yes. There’s no optimum time. I appreciate all you and family have done for me, but I think that to stay any longer only increases the danger that someone gets hurt.”
Claire Marie placed the meat in the pot, wiped her hands, and then came over to where Caje stood. She took his hands in hers, and looked earnestly in his eyes. “I want you to be alright. You have a war to get back to…to fight. Do what you have to… You do not need to add us to all your concerns.”
They understood each other. Caje placed a small kiss on her forehand, which was just at his chin level.
“Petite…if it is alright with you, I will go find myself another shirt. Never mind about the shoes. I’m going to lay down a while and try to sleep. Don’t hesitate to come and get me if you need something…” He gave her a wink and they both smiled, all the tension of a moment ago diffused. Caje continued, “I want to wait until your Uncle get back, to see if he has any information I can take back with me.”
“Guileau may be upset about your sudden departure.”
“I thought about that. And I thought that maybe he would have something that could help us—the Allies. But it is not worth the risk of me remaining. And I don’t want you in the middle of this.”
“It is too late for that, Commander LeMay.”
“It is Private First Class LeMay, and I make the decisions on my watch.” Caje then released her hands, though the smallness of them still burned in his own as he went down the hallway.
Claire Marie watched the American go down the short, dark hallway. She still wondered about her decision to pull back from the soldier. But the incident of last night occurred during the euphoria of food and wine, and the softness of a moonlight night. Daylight and Boulanger’s visit had sobered her.
She had never engaged in the affairs so prominent in her social circles in Paris, suspecting that she could not maintain within herself the lack of emotional involvement that everyone else seemed to take in stride. This was not the time to indulge herself, to take a chance on loosing the detachment from feeling that protected her day to day, and allowed her to focus on protecting her daughter.
She recognized the same detachment in him: the cold, unemotional way he had spoken to her when he sensed danger; the hard, flat manner with which he dealt with Boulanger; and the withdrawal when she unwittingly touched on what must be painful personal issues. More about him now made sense.
She had been correct in her initial assessment of him—an observer like herself. But now she understood that the similarities went deeper. To digest and process the discrepancies between light and shadow took the same impassiveness Claire Marie used deal with her mother’s late night visitors. To do so took the same objectivity she used to paint and draw. To do so required the same indifference she tried to maintain around her marriage and what happened in Paris…To participate in life during this terrible time—her to create and sustain it, him to take it—required burying one’s feelings.
She heard his footsteps upstairs and then the scraping of bureau drawers. Good, he was finding the shirts. She knew she should go up and take a look at his bandage, but she would wait and let Uncle do it. She didn’t want to take a chance on losing her resolve and becoming any more involved. It was better this way, for her and for Paul.
Caje was surprised to see his pants in the drawer. He had missed them earlier in his searching, probably because someone had washed and folded them. He debated about changing into them before he left at nightfall—they would be more comfortable than the ones he was wearing, which were a bit too large. Postponing that decision, he pulled out several shirts. The shirts, he thought with interest, told a lot about their owner. Most were very fine, handmade of expensive cloth. He recognized attention to detail and fashion similar to that exhibited by his father. Someone was—or had been—very conscious of appearances. He cast several aside before settling on one that’s material was not too flimsy and would provide some warmth. He and Kirby had lost their jackets when the Kraut’s captured them.
He was still upset the Krauts also had taken his watch. His best guess from the angle of the sun coming in the window was that it was about noon. Bertrand had indicated that he would return sometime in the early afternoon. Just a few more hours to be alone with Claire Marie in the small house. He was starting to feel hunger pains, but decided to ignore them. A nap would provide rest before the night and a good way to avoid Claire Marie.
After fifteen minutes of tossing on the bed and staring at the ceiling, Caje realized that sleep was not going to come as easily as it had been over the past few days. His body was healing, and his mind was humming. He still thought, given Claire Marie’s unease around the Marquis leader, that Guileau should not know about his departure. But there seemed to be nothing specific to her discomfort. Maybe, he was doing the wrong thing in leaving before ascertaining if the man had anything that could help. After all, Sarge and the guys were still out there…with any luck, he would be seeing them again soon. Claire Marie, however…
He got up and went over to the bureau again. He had noticed the pictures in the drawers when he had rummaged yesterday for his belongings. There were at least thirty of them, each as revealing and candid as the one she had done of him the other night. Black and white pencil sketches—some of the subjects he recognized, and some were unfamiliar.
Bertrand laughing while examining an unknown patient, the kindness and humor clear in the twinkle captured in his eyes…
Louisa, the dour look fixed on her face as she stood in the kitchen, but her hand reaching behind her to slip something to an excited Bridgette.
There was one of a crying Bridgette, and several of what her surmised to be townspeople, including a rather ethereal older woman in formal dress, who must be Elise.
There was one oil, rolled and tucked back in the corner. He opened it and smoothed it on the top of the bureau. The subject was Claire Marie’s mother, the colors bright, and the brush strokes thick. It was notable both for the rather suggestive yet understanding way the subject was portrayed. It was a portrait of unfiltered truth and a young child’s love, which sees no fault in a parent who loves them back. Caje could not stop staring at it.
After a while, he rolled it back up and slid it back in the drawer. He started to go back over to the bed, then turned back and returned to the bureau. He pulled out the sketch of himself, and began writing on the back.
“Take five.” Saunders and the men sank into the forest floor. The woods were getting deeper and taking a toll on everyone. They started out at quick clip earlier in the morning, more rested and better fed than they had been in while. Though they hadn’t adjusted to the loss of Caje, the return to action was an improvement over sitting around and brooding. Especially for Kirby.
Saunders studied the map. He didn’t remember the creek they had just crossed being marked. But then again, the maps they worked with were often less than accurate. Hopefully, the general direction was correct.
Kirby sidled up beside him. He had been quiet all morning, but now spoke to Saunders. “Hey, Sarge, where are we going exactly?”
Saunders had been careful earlier when briefing to omit the name of the small town around which they were reconnoitering. Given Kirby’s less than reliable sense of direction and usual lack of interest, he wasn’t sure if the private would recognize it anyway, but he didn’t need any trouble—or anyone urging him to do what he was using all his self control not to do.
The sergeant folded up the map and stuck it in his pocket before answering. “A little town over near the Loire River. As I said, S2 believes that that Kraut left wing that was giving us so much trouble is gathering near a bridge. We just need to confirm—the intelligence coming out there is thought to be compromised.”
Something was starting to click in Kirby’s mind. Saunders could tell. Though the direction they were taking was more direct that the circuitous run the BAR man and Caje had taken earlier, the terrain had to be similar.
“Eat something and take your rest, Kirby. That’s an order. We’ve got a long while ahead of us.”
Kirby sat back down, this time next to the sergeant. “Why can’t the fly boys just check it out?”
Saunders opened his can with disinterest. He hadn’t even read the label. Beef stew—it didn’t matter, he didn’t taste much of anything anymore. He decided to give Kirby a little information to distract him.
“Yeah, they’re trying something. But if everything is concentrated over there, it’s a little too dangerous for them to try it during the day. Hanley said something about them doing a flyover tonight.”
Kirby thought for a second. “That’s about as dumb as I’ve heard. What they gonna see in the pitch black?”
Saunders finished the tin and put it with the others for burial from Kraut eyes. “It’s not going to be pitch black, there’s still a full moon. As I understand it, S2 believes that the Marquis in the area are compromised. They’re dropping their own in with a radio.”
“Well,” Kirby scratched his head.) “I always thought they gave the shittiest jobs to us.”
“You’re not the only one in this war, Kirby.”
Saunders spoke up and addressed the platoon. “Finish up. We’ve got a ways to go. Knight, bury these things—we don’t need anyone looking for us.”
At a pub near Cambridge, England, not far from the large airbase at Duxford, Benjamin St. Claire was echoing Kirby’s sentiment. “Bloody awful assignment. What idiot over in intelligence came up with this one?”
Martin laughed. “The same one who came up with the previous ones, old chap. They have a fellow over there who just spends his time looking for ways to lose planes. I believe I heard his father has a vested interest in one of those Yankee factories that is churning out so many.”
St. Claire looked decidedly put out over the mug of beer he was trying to make last. He usually only allowed himself one before going up, but today he had had several. “Well, they’re going to have to churn out some more idiots like myself. I can’t keep doing this forever.”
Martin looked closely at his friend and flying comrade of nearly five months. Compared to St. Claire, he himself was relatively new to the whole drop deals. A heavy landing had caused him earlier this year to lose his plane. He was grateful, he supposed, that his commanding officer had taken an interest in his case and gotten him assigned to this unit. Going along for the ride, with his only real responsibility to be making sure the carefully boxed items each plane carried were shoved out at the precise moment of the navigator’s “Now!” was not really his idea of fighting the war. But the truth was, since that fateful moment in June when he had felt the tracers finally making contact with his tail, he had lost his nerve. The flight back had been long, and he had been alone with his thoughts, his radio somehow also disabled in the hit. The idea of being alone up there again…well he just had not been able to face it. He did not know how the man opposite him did what he did, but then again, the St. Claire carried a reputation for luck.
St. Claire had done three of these drops. His ability to speak French, which he had learned from his father, first attracted S2 to him. They trained him over the course of several months, giving him various identities and preparing him to answer a multitude of questions by Boche and natives alike. He had been thought finally lost on the last drop two months ago, not meeting the rendezvous and with no word out for three weeks. Somehow he had stumbled into Yankee lines, fully intact, and with critical information about Jerry forces. It only contributed to his legend. Martin personally supposed that some of St. Claire’s luck was sheer determination touched with a bit of anger. He knew the chap’s mother was German—Jewish actually—and St. Claire had related to Martin that it was believed that his grandfather and grandmother had already perished at the hands of the Nazis.
Martin, therefore, did not exactly consider St. Claire lucky. Unless, of course, you looked at his girl. All heads turned when Sheila walked in. Tall and curvaceous, with the kind of red hair that drew attention without being loud. A real class act. Came from money, too, or at least that’s what everyone said. Even in her uniform, she had that cool, reserved air that attracted men like bees to honey. No one really understood what she saw in St. Claire; he definitely wasn’t the handsomest fellow around. Martin supposed it was the man’s angst-ridden air combined with the legendary feats. Some women, especially those pursued all the time, preferred the Heathcliff type.
Today, however, St. Claire seemed exceptionally withdrawn, which is not what Martin had expected, even given their assignment. He knew the old boy had been planning to pop Sheila the big question last evening, but from the way he was glaring down at his second beer, it didn’t appear that that assignment had gone according to plan. Martin debated about asking,(;) knowing the prudent thing to do would be to leave it alone. But he supposed it was his nerve coming back because he asked the question anyway.
“How did last night go with Sheila?”
St. Claire continued staring at his beer.
Sighing because he knew better, Martin continued. “Did she turn you down? Not surprising, you know. Everyone’s been betting that she’s going to hold out for someone with title. You know, someone like…”
“I didn’t ask.” St. Claire interrupted.
It was Martin’s turn to stare at his beer, trying to contain his surprise. St. Claire had borrowed the commanding officer’s staff car, located a full tank of petrol and champagne from God-knows-where, and taken Sheila for a drive on the moors on the perfect moonlit night. Everyone knew he had spent six months salary at the local jeweler—the airbase was close in many ways to the small town that provided basic services. It seemed a given that he was going to ask. No one was going to believe this.
“C’mon, old boy, there’s no shame in admitting she turned you down. Sheila’s never going to settle down to a cottage and the likes of us.” Martin signaled the woman at the bar for another round, mission be damned.
“I’m telling you, I didn’t ask her. Bought a ring, thought about it, but it just didn’t seem right. I’ve had a bad feeling for a while now…”
“A bad feeling about Sheila?”
“No, about…about everything.”
Martin sobered instantly, ignoring the newly filled mug that the girl had just slid in front of him. “What do you mean?” Everyone took such intuitions seriously. Soldiers overall were a superstitious lot, but none more so than airmen. Martin Christopher still wore the same pair of socks on every mission, somehow associating those socks with the fact that he survived the mishap in June.
“I don’t know…I started to ask her, but then I just looked at her out there and…and…just saw her. Lovely Sheila—alone. I just didn’t see myself standing with her, holding a wee one at some awful aunt’s 90th birthday or anything.”
Martin pondered St. Claire’s explanation. There was no way the man could make a jump right into enemy lines tonight with this sort of fatalism hanging over him. Martin didn’t know what had gotten the whole thing started. St. Claire was usually moody and sarcastic, but never a pessimist. This wouldn’t do at all.
“Maybe…maybe it’s because you didn’t ask her.”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe you couldn’t visual yourself beside her because you didn’t ask the question. Maybe if you had, everything would be different. You know, if she had that ring on her finger, knew she was yours, you could see yourself beside her.” Martin sincerely hoped St. Claire would adopt this line of thinking. He didn’t want to fly with someone who believed he wasn’t coming back. That could be bad news for all of them.
St. Claire appeared to consider Martin’s explanation for a moment. Looking up from his beer, he said with clearly forced confidence, “I’m sure you’re right. That’s probably it. But I’ll tell you what, we leave in…” He peered at his watch, then continued, “…three hours. Not enough time to remedy the situation. Why don’t you do me a favor? Hold on to this for me, and when I get back, remind me of how foolish I was.”
Martin looked at the box St. Claire placed on the table with a flourish. He glanced up for permission and receiving it, opened it to see a magnificent diamond mounted in what was clearly an estate setting. Six months salary be damned, this was more than Martin made since he had joined up.
“Really, old man, I don’t think she would have turned you down.”
St. Claire smiled. “At least I thought I would know it was me and not the ring. Just don’t go using it yourself. She’s mine.”
“The girl or the rock?”
Bertrand unwound Caje’s bandage, and replaced the back pad. “I really don’t understand why Claire Marie did not take care of you.”
Caje had several replies to this question, but shrugged and answered, “She was busy with the hind roast.”
“She has not idea of what to do with a hind roast…or a man either.” Bertrand muttered the last part under his breath, but he meant for the soldier to hear. “I really do not think you should leave tonight. Guileau said there is to be an air drop of supplies and potentially a coordinator for the area.”
“I believe that is what you call it. An Englishman, intelligence of some type—comes in to help bring what resources we have together. They have done it in several other regions. Guileau thinks you should go along to assist with the preparation, but I told him that you were not yet ready.” Bertrand waved his finger at Caje. “You will make a liar of me, young man.”
“Well, I’m sure that he will not be too upset. Besides, I told you, I believe the butcher figured out that I am American.”
“Boulanger is a good man. He will be going out with us tonight. Then again, maybe we should not trust a man with such awful taste in women.” Bertrand pursed his lips then added, “He hides the radio for us, you know.”
“I thought Guileau said that your radio was comprised.” Caje winced as Bertrand secured the bandage with a final tug.
“Hmm, yes, well, I guess that they will bring us a new one. New frequencies or something. I do not believe it is the operator who is compromised.”
“This has been done before?”
“Not here—Guileau says near-by, over in xxxx, several kilometers away. He maintains contact with the other groups in the area.”
“What will you do out there?”
Bertrand scratched his head. “I’m not sure. Not even sure now that I will go. I had thought so at first, but… I told Louisa to remain at the chateau with Bridgette, given everything going on tonight. I told her that Claire Marie would not be alone. Of course,” Bertrand smiled, “Louisa was not too happy about that.” He sighed. “But I do not want Claire Marie here by herself. The easiest answer is to take her on over to the chateau, but that may cause some suspicion. I just don’t know what to do.”
Caje assessed the situation. To start with, he didn’t think the old man should be going at all, but he didn’t think he could persuade him otherwise. He completely empathized with Bertrand’s concern about leaving Claire Marie alone tonight. Teaching her to use a gun was one thing, teaching her to be wary and to know when to use it…there was one alternative. He could push off his departure until Bertrand returned. He put forth his suggestion.
Bertrand raised his eyebrows. “Are you sure? It could mean you being more tired.”
“It could also mean that the Bosche are concentrated further away, if they happen to hear the plane. It will probably be easier to avoid patrols later—fewer on our side and theirs, generally.” This was not exactly true, but maybe the old man would not know the difference.
“Well, then, it is settled. I am supposed to depart at 7; we will meet at old widow Fourtand’s between 8 and 9. With any luck, I will be back here by 11.”
“Where will the…um…operator stay?”
“I’m not sure. Guileau keeps such information limited to reduce the chance of leaks.” Bertrand moved toward the door of the attic. “Shall we go down? I believe Claire Marie has done something to that piece of meat.”
Caje was skeptical. “I thought I smelled something.”
Bertrand laughed, “Yes, so did I when I entered the house…and she has hacked the poor meat to pieces. Young people!” He threw his hands in the air in a mock dramatic gesture. “Come, let’s dine. No matter what the condition of the poor pig, you need to eat. Guileau will be here soon, since this is on his way to the meeting. Perhaps he will join us for your last meal.” Bertrand was two stairs down when he hastily added, “Last meal with us…of course that’s what I meant.”
Caje followed Bertrand to the kitchen. When he first informed Bertrand of his decision, it had taken some convincing for the old doctor to go agree to both the departure and keeping the information to himself. Caje was not excited about sharing this last meal in Bertrand’s home with Guileau, certain from his one previous encounter that the man would take every opportunity to deride him for not going with the Maquis tonight.
Caje knew remaining behind was the right decision. He did not believe, given Guileau’s leadership role and personality, that suggestions about strategy and tactics would be welcome. At best on tonight’s mission he would be an additional body, and not a completely well one at that. The greatest assistance he could provide to Bertrand’s family was to leave, reducing at least by one the potential problems they faced.
It started as a pleasant meal after all. Guileau had been waiting in the kitchen when they came down, but left moments after Bertrand informed the Maquis leader that the American would remain behind. Mumbling about needing yet another man, he made a quick departure despite Bertrand’s insistence that one man more or less could not make that much difference. Bertrand expressed his surprise, adding that he had not realized that Guileau was counting on the American.
As they sat down to the charred meat and shriveled vegetables, Claire Marie dismissed Bertrand’s behavior. “He was unhappy from the moment he came in and saw that I had been cooking.”
Caje grinned as he stabbed at a carrot. “He has had your cooking before?”
“No, I only save that for a select few.”
Bertrand succeeded in swallowing his first piece of meat. “Actually, dear, I believe this is the first meal I remember having from your sweet hands. I will not count your reheating of Bosche food the other night.” He paused, with a twinkle in his eye, and continued, “And shall we all agree that your hands are better suited to the pencils?”
“We may not,” Claire Marie retorted. “You are both eating your share, and I’m sure Guileau would have eaten his and more if he had stayed.”
“My dear, we will all need some sustenance tonight, and this is all that is there is. Now, as for Guileau, we all know he would take anything you offered, eh?” Bertrand speared another piece of meat, then looked up as he realized that his sally had provoked silence rather than the expected laughter. He could not understand the sudden shift in moods, as Claire Marie blushed and Caje looked down at his plate.
The rest of the meal passed in relative silence, broken only by Bertrand’s occasional attempts with small vignettes to rekindle the earlier ease and levity. Each story ended with little or no response to the witty final observation. After it was obvious that no one was going to finish the remaining roast or vegetables, Bertrand excused himself to go. It was earlier than his initial estimated departure, but he insisted that he needed to speak about health issues with the Widow Fortrand anyway.
Caje stood from the table with the old doctor. “Two things before you go, Msr. Bertrand. Actually, three. First, if you have an opportunity at this meeting to learn anything I may be able to take back with me...”
“I still do not see why we must hide your departure from him.” Bertrand’s expression was petulant. It had been a difficult evening for a man who preferred things smooth and humorous.
“Uncle, I do not …I don’t know. I have a funny feeling about Guileau.” Claire Marie stared down at her nearly untouched plate.
“Claire Marie, he has done nothing to you, except be kind and understanding to this whole family. Which is a lot from a man whom we have displaced from this house, and whom I personally have probably not done right by over the years. I can understand you being a little uncomfortable. But I would expect you, of all people, to show understanding.”
Bertrand turned and reiterated to Caje. “I do not understand your request, son, but I do respect your opinion and therefore your wishes. I will try to do as you ask. What else can I—we—do for you?”
“Is there any way you can leave your gun with Claire Marie? If for some reason you and I have to go, and she is left…”
“I had already thought of that. I am sure that there will be some weapons to spare. Besides, I prefer to go as a doctor, a helper. I have already done my share of…the other.”
“The last, Msr. Bertrand, is not a request. I want to thank you and your family for your kindness. I just wanted to do so now—it may be a little hectic later on.” Caje looked the old man in the eye.
Bertrand returned the look with a small smile. He came around the table, grabbed the soldier gently by the shoulders, and planted a kiss on either cheek. “See that you do not undo the work that I have done young man.” With that and a nod to Claire Marie, he grabbed his jacket and slipped out the back door and into the twilight.
Caje continued staring at the door after the old man closed it. The similarities to his Uncle Bere were remarkable. He wondered how Bere would fare under these conditions, whether he would meet them with the same determination tempered with kindness. Somehow, he thought he would.
His revere was broken by clanging dishware. Claire Marie was cleaning the dinner remains with a vengeance.
“Hey, petite, you already killed the pig, there is not reason to destroy the tableware, too.”
Claire Marie whirled around. “How can you joke right now? He has no business going out there. He doesn’t know what he is doing, none of them do. Playing soldier—that is all you all do. And who is left behind, who does the cleaning up after it is over?” She turned back to the washbasin.
“Claire Marie, do you want me to go with him, to watch him?”
“No. That’s not it.”
“Well, what then? You could not stop him from going. He is doing what he needs to do, what he thinks is best. Is it because of Guileau?”
“No…yes. I don’t know.” Claire Marie’s hands slowed their furious scrubbing.
Caje walked up behind her and placed his hands on her shoulders. Once again he marveled at how small she seemed next to him. “Tell me about it,” he urged softly.
Claire Marie continued scouring the dishes, but she did not pull away.
“I know he is doing what he thinks is right. It’s just that, before, it has been meetings, meetings, meetings. It seemed harmless enough. No one could get hurt. And now, tonight, for the first time, they are really doing something. Someone may be hurt. And what does Guileau know anyway? All this...,” she gestured vaguely with a soapy hand, “is just playing for him. A way to make him feel important and accepted.”
She paused and took a breath. “And here I am just waiting, and Bridgette is not here. Whose decision was that? She has never been away from me—not for a night. No one had the right to make that decision, no one but me.” She began to cry, hard wrenching sobs that shook her entire body. “I want my daughter.”
Caje was dismayed. He could not fully understand Claire Marie’s emotions, however the depth of her despair stirred old, carefully buried memories within him. But there was nothing he could do or say to comfort her. So, he drew her closer, rocking her back and forth as one would a child. “Shhhh, shhh, shhh…”
A car was approaching.
Caje released Claire Marie, but hesitated. He was not sure what to do. He knew that indecision is what got him and Kirby into trouble just days before, but he could not bring himself to go out the back door and leave Claire Marie.
Claire Marie made the decision. She shoved him. “Go! I’m alright.”
Caje hesitated a second longer, then reached down and kissed her forcefully. He went out the back door.
A moment later, in the remains of the old barn, Caje crouched in a small pocket created by fallen timbers. He had picked out the spot earlier both for its ability to conceal and the view of the front courtyard it still offered. However, as he slid in, he realized that he had not accounted for the fact that the barn still gave off heat, even five days after the initial fire. It was bearable, but just.
The darkness made it difficult to see. The car pulled up in front of the house and stopped. Caje made out two men in the moment before the headlights were turned off.
The violent knocking on the door began even before Claire Marie could walk the short distance between the kitchen and the front parlor. Opening the door, she gasped a sigh of relief. “Rolph!” Her smile faded as fast as it had appeared.
“Rolph, what is wrong—is it something with Bridgette?” She went over and placed her hand on his arm.
Rolph looked down at her. She flushed as she could see him taking in her tear stained face, and her opened blouse, which she had forgotten to change. Even so, the backhand caught her unaware, knocking her to the floor.
“Where is he?”
Claire Marie tried to think clearly, despite the surprise and the pain. Whatever she did, she had to protect her Uncle.
“He went to Msr. Boulanger’s…his wife is…”
Rolph kicked her. His companion watched impassively.
Claire Marie drew a small, hesitant breath. It hurt. She could not understand what was happening. Rolph was saying something. She realized he had switched to French.
“Not Bertrand, woman. The man. The reason you have turned me down. The reason you sent Bridgette over the house. Where is he?”
Claire Marie knew her eyes gave her away. She could not help herself; the surprise of Rolph knowing about Paul eclipsed the blank look she tried to retain. Boulanger had talked.
“I don’t…” She struggled to speak.
Rough hands grabbed her shoulders and pulled her up. Rolph shook her. “Where is the man you are sleeping with?”
Claire Marie searched Rolph eyes. They were wild…with fear. Claire Marie suddenly grasped the situation. Boulanger told Rolph about Paul. Rolph must think, she realized, that he would be made a fool of among the men of his squad. He had certainly tried his best to make his supposed relationship with her public, only now to have it appear that he had been cuckolded. But…if he knew that Paul was American surely he would have brought more men. No one would send a doctor to bring in an enemy soldier, even with an escort.
Claire Marie tried to smile reassuringly at Rolph. “It was nothing…he is gone. They,” she nodded at the unsmiling private, “don’t have to know. Let them think this is a lover’s quarrel.”
Rolph did not respond. He appeared to be considering her suggestion. But when he finally spoke, his voice was cold and impassive, his words clipped. “You think you can just sleep with another man? You think that you can come with me to my hometown and make me look like a fool?”
“Rolph, we both know what you are so generously proposing. I have done nothing to change that.” Claire Marie tried to placate the young man.
“Yes, Claire Marie, you have done something to change the bargain. I have kept you safe. I have kept your family safe. And don’t think that that has always been easy. I know about Bertrand’s activities.”
Claire Marie felt as though the wind had been knocked out of her again.
“Rolph, wh..what are you going to do? You know we have always appreciated everything you have done for us. I ask you again, what has changed?”
“What has changed? Why you, Claire Marie. You did not hold up your end of the bargain. Don’t worry, though…I will keep mine, and I will teach you to keep yours…”
To Claire Marie’s horror, he signaled to the other soldier, who began to undo his belt.
Claire Marie could not help it. She began to scream.
Caje stood so quickly that his head caught the corner of one of the timbers. He blinked hard to clear the spots in front of his eyes as he ran across the compound. The screams had stopped by the time he ran through the front door. Without hesitation, he tackled the man pinning Claire Marie down on the sofa.
The jolt through Caje’s shoulder as he hit the floor was excruciating, but he did not let go of his hold on the Kraut’s throat. They rolled on the floor. His opponent was about the same size, but anger gave Caje the adrenaline to compensate for his weakened state. Just as he pinned the man against the hearth, he heard the click of a gun near his ear.
“Do not move.”
The downed Kraut scrambled up, and adjusted his uniform, refastening his sidearm holster. Caje rose more slowly, trying to assess the situation.
Claire Marie was sitting up on the couch, her blouse completely opened. A bruise, already turning purple and swelling, marred her cheek. Her eyes were clouded, and she stared at the wall across the room.
Caje turned his attention to the man who held the pistol. Tall and blond, his otherwise perfect Aryan visage was marred only slightly by pockmarks across his cheeks. The small blue eyes that squinted at Caje were hard.
“So you did not leave. You are an American.”
Caje was not sure if the man was asking a question or speaking to himself, but he knew the voice addressing him in French. Rolph.
He had not seen Rolph’s face on the German’s visit the other day. He seemed young to be a doctor, Caje noted.
The two men stared at each other. Caje could see Rolph assessing him, his eyes focusing on the shoulder with the bulky bandage.
The silence stretched. Caje did not offer a response to the statement of a moment ago. He could not find an explanation for the situation nor think of the best way to answer the question—if there was one—to protect Claire Marie.
The German private was looking from one to the other, unsure of the new turn of events. Finally, he broke the silence. “Is this the man?”
Rolph did not respond.
Caje looked again at Claire Marie. She still sat in shock. More than the bruise on her cheek, he hated the lifelessness in her eyes. He stepped toward her, only to have Rolph raise the gun slightly.
“I want to see if she is okay.”
Rolph looked closer at the man. His French was better than Rolph’s own.
Rolph’s mind raced. Burkhardt was becoming anxious. He had not given the private many details other than he needed a driver out to consult with the old doctor. Everyone knew—or thought they did—about his “consultations” out at the old farmhouse. He had selected Burkhardt because the man had a particularly dirty mind and a large mouth. And on several other trips out to the farm with he accompanied Rolph, Burkhardt indicated his interest in Claire Marie if Rolph ever tired of her.
What to do with this other man? Rolph could not decide. He did not trust his source or the source’s motives in telling him of Claire Marie’s involvement with someone else. In fact, he would not be surprised if this evening turned out to be a wild goose chase for Hausmann and his men, who were following up on additional information on Maquis activity. It would not be the first time. But the man was here, and clearly concerned about Claire Marie.
If he truly was American, he should take him in. However…if it was thought that Bertrand and his family were hiding Americans, it would not go well for them or, more importantly, for his plans with Claire Marie. If he was not… There still could be a way to salvage everything.
He pointed with the pistol over to the sofa to indicate that the man could go over to the sofa. The man did so, ignoring the pistol trained on his back as he knelt before Claire Marie and began gently talking to her.
Rolph did not listen to what the man was saying, his eyes were drawn to the man’s footwear. American.
Burkhardt noticed it, too. He drew his weapon. “Amerikaner?”
Rolph knew he had to make a decision. “Nein.”
The dark man turned around, clearly surprised. His attention had been drawn from the woman by Burkhardt’s question and Rolph’s answer.
Burkhardt was insistent. “His shoes—definitely American.”
“Nein.” Rolph’s tone brooked no opposition. “He is local, probably obtained them from dead Ami.” Rolph switched to French. “You are French, no?”
“LeMay, Paul. Serial Number….” The man answered in English.
“Amerikaner!” Burkhardt’s agitation was increasing by the moment.
“Nein!” Rolph shouted. “Nein…” He switched to French. “You are French. Do you understand? If you are French, then I will leave her alone.”
Rolph saw the understanding dawn in the man’s eyes. The decision was his. The American knew that he would not be taken in to German custody. After they left Bertrand’s house, he would somehow be killed. No one need know anything except that Burkhardt had caught and killed a local fooling around with his lover. There would be no questions of who had been housing an American soldier so far from his own lines. Claire Marie and her family would be safe.
“Oui, I am French.”
The man accompanied the statement with a shrug followed by a grimace. That shoulder must hurt, Rolph thought with detachment. Yes, if he were to take the French-speaking American in, it would create questions. Young, bullet wound, but otherwise healthy…
Actually, there were questions in Rolph’s mind. Why was he not told the man was American? What kind of game was his informant playing? Rolph felt he was being manipulated, but could not figure out to what end. He watched the slender, dark man in front of him unconsciously stroking Claire Marie’s hand.
“You must love her,” Rolph observed.
“Her family has been good to me. As I believe they were to you. I just choose to show my gratitude in a different way.” The American’s eyes were scornful.
Rolph did not bother to reply. He looked over at Claire Marie. She still gazed unseeing, not seeming to take in anything around her. Well, Bertrand would be back soon. He had dealt with a similar situation before…he could do so again. Nothing had changed. She would still help protect Rolph’s secret. In fact, it would not longer be a favor, but an obligation. Perhaps it was better this way—perhaps that disgusting man at the chateau was smarter than Rolph had given him credit for.
Rolph motioned with his gun. “Let’s go.”
The man understood. He did not look back at Claire Marie. Burkhardt did not pay her any attention either as he headed out the door-- not until the bullet entered his back. He fell forward into the dirt outside, unmoving, a surprised look frozen on his face.
Rolph and Caje whirled around at the same time. Claire Marie now had the pistol she had pulled from her apron pointed at Rolph.
“Put down the gun, Claire Marie, or I will shoot your lover here.” Rolph aimed his pistol at Caje, careful to remain arm’s length away from the American.
“Put it down, Claire Marie.” Caje tried to get her to look at him. Her eyes still remained unfocused. “Claire Marie, think of Bridgette…Put it down.”
Claire Marie shuddered and the gun wavered, but she did not lower it.
“Yes, Claire Marie. Think of Bridgette. Do not do anything that may make her loose her mother—or the rest of her family.”
Uncertainty flitted across Claire Marie’s face. It was replaced by anger.
“We were family, Rolph. That is what you said. That is what you said when you came and asked me to hide your relationship with Reiner (is this the right name?). “Family is greater than war”—isn’t that what you said?” She pushed back a lock of hair with one hand, but kept the pistol aimed at Rolph.
“And nothing’s changed,” Rolph answered soothingly. “Did you not see that I was trying to protect your lover here? Did I not conceal from Burkhardt that you are sleeping with an American?”
Silent tears started down Claire Marie’s cheeks, “I gave you my reputation to save you from humiliation. How dare you?”
“How dare I? You didn’t have anything to give. You are just like your mother! Maybe you don’t trade your body, but you will certainly trade your soul. What is the difference, Claire Marie?”
Before she could answer, Rolph sensed a movement from the American, and swung his pistol toward Claire Marie.
“Don’t do anything stupid. I’ll kill her.”
“No you won’t.” Caje spoke rapidly, emphasizing each word. “You aren’t man enough. You aren’t man enough to be wearing that uniform. If you were, you would not have had someone else doing your dirty work. You’re not even man enough…”
With a yell, Rolph pulled the trigger, but the American was already leaping toward the enraged German. The two collided just as the pistol went off. Claire Marie tried to take aim, but the men rolled back and forth so quickly she was afraid of making a deadly mistake.
Caje realized he would not hold out long against the larger German. He concentrated his efforts on gaining control of the pistol. The German’s hands were long and tapered, soft in comparison to the rest of his body. Hands used to heal…Caje hesitated for a second, and Rolph took the opportunity to head butt his wounded shoulder.
Caje wheeled back, and Claire Marie fired.
The gun clattered to the floor as Claire Marie raced over to Caje. “Are you shot?”
“No,” he gasped. He struggled to a sitting position, and then saw Rolph trying to do the same.
“Claire Marie, get me your gun.”
She stared at him.
“Now!” It was the same tone and voice he used when Boulanger showed up. Looking over to Rolph, she hesitated.
Caje got up to his feet, and stumbled over to the gun. Shit, he had no choice. There was no way Rolph could be allowed to go back to the chateau alive. And he could not be hidden here. The bullet had made a hole on the right side of his stomach. Too far right, Caje judged, to be fatal, but sufficient enough to prevent the German from walking far on his own. Caje could not take a chance on trying to get him outside to do what needed to be done. He didn’t want to do it here…not in front of Claire Marie.
“Claire Marie… in the kitchen.”
She turned and ran.
Caje walked over to Rolph. The blood poured from the man’s side, and he was trying to staunch it with his fingers. But on seeing the look on Caje’s face, he stopped, and held up the reddened palms.
“Surely you would not kill in cold blood an injured man.”
Caje did not reply, the gun remaining at his side.
“If you do this, how can she look at you again? It would be wrong. Claire Marie prefers things easier, less unambiguous...”
The bullet slammed into his heart.
Caje ran his fingers through his hair, as he tried to determine what to do next. The most important thing was to get the bodies out of here. No, it was not the most important thing, but there was nothing he could do about that.
She was watching him. He sensed it and turned. She stood in corridor, in the shadows.
“How much did you see?”
She did not answer.
There was nothing he could do, he thought again.
Time to focus on the task at hand.
“I’m going to drag these bodies out of here. Over to the barn. Tomorrow, I want you or Bertrand to set fire to it. It’s been smoldering. If anyone asks any questions, tell them it flared back up. I’ll take the jeep when I leave, and ditch it a few miles down the road. Again, if anyone asks, tell them that these two stopped by looking for your Uncle.”
Caje paused and put his head down, his hand on his knees, steeling himself for had to be done next. He continued, “I’ll make sure to find a spot where I can leave some good boot prints. Make it look as though a patrol or something took them.” He shoved the gun in the waistband of his pants, and reached over to grab Rolph under the arms.
He had pulled him nearly to the door when Claire Marie spoke. “Let me help you.”
“No…it’s not necessary.” Caje paused and took a big breath, preparing to lug the 200-pound body over the threshold. Claire Marie’s small feet appeared near the boots of the Kraut. Without saying a word, she tried to lift the long legs.
“That won’t work. We won’t get him off the ground—he’s too heavy.” He wasn’t sure of Claire Marie’s state of mind, wasn’t sure if he even wanted to know what she was thinking. But if she wanted to do something…
“Get some water. Start cleaning up this blood. If you have a rug or something we can move from another part of the house, we may need it. Blood stains.” The irony of his own statement was not lost on Caje.
Claire Marie dropped Rolph’s feet and went back toward the kitchen.
“What about your uncle tonight?”
“Rolph said he hadn’t told anyone. I trust…trusted him.”
Their eyes met briefly, then Claire Marie turned back toward the kitchen.
It took Caje the better part of forty minutes to drag both bodies to the remains of the barn and conceal them to his satisfaction. He went over the back porch and grabbed some additional firewood to place around the bodies. He didn’t want to take any chances on anything identifiable being left after the fire.
Fingering the keys he had found in the smaller German’s pocket, Caje glanced down at his watch to see how much time they had until Bernard’s anticipated return. Habit—he had forgotten again that the Krauts had taken it. From the best he could judge, there were still a couple of hours remaining. The drop had probably not even occurred yet.
Caje climbed in the jeep and started the engine, fervently hoping that no one was out looking for Rolph and the other one. He didn’t feel like driving the jeep down the road, and hiking back. And though she may no longer want his company, he had no intention of leaving Claire Marie until Bertrand returned. He pulled the vehicle over in the trees near the ravine he and Kirby had stumbled down earlier. There was nothing more he could do.
He walked toward the house, his footsteps heavy with fatigue and dread. He could not bear to look at Claire Marie, to see in her the same look he saw sometimes in Doc, Kirby, and the others.
She was standing there, waiting for him. The rug he vaguely remembered from the downstairs bedroom covered where the blood had been and bullet holes remained. He looked down at the rug, and then stared at his hands. He thought he could still see traces of blood despite his best attempts to clean them at the well.
“Did you get the front cleaned up, too?” Caje could not make his eyes meet hers.
He started to look up, but her mouth met his, and he felt her small arms wrapped around his neck. This was not what he expected. Deciding that she must be in some type of shock, he pushed her back, and his eyes finally met hers.
They were green and bright with resolve, the way he would always remember. Framed by surprisingly dark lashes and capped by contrastingly light brows. With small crinkles just starting around them from her wide smile that he had responded to over the past days. The last sun of the summer had left a few freckles across her nose. For the first time he noted that her mouth had the same full, sensual lips as her mother.
Caje would recall every detail of her face through the next months of cold, death, and, finally, victory. But at the moment, there was no smile in those eyes or on those lips, nor was there the recrimination he feared or the absolution she could not give. What he saw instead was all-encompassing acceptance. And that was the expression he would not forget on the face he could not forget.
“I know what you did…both times. I know what you did, Paul LeMay.”
“It was not like there was a choice, Claire Marie.”
“Yes, there were choices. In one you chose my life over yours—and in the other, well...” her voice dropped to a whisper, “you tried to spare my soul.”
She pushed down his arms from her shoulders, and began to kiss him again. Caje could say nothing more. He knew it would be everything he anticipated and, more importantly, everything he had been searching for. But, despite what Claire Marie said, he had to wonder what sort of man—or woman--could think of making love within an hour of killing two others—and on the exact spot where one of them had died. He couldn’t do this. It was not right.
“No!” He pushed her away.
She looked up at him, the hurt evident in her eyes. Caje knew she needed reassurance—not just about what had happened—but about everything.
“This is not the way…”
“Paul, nothing in our lives is the way we planned it, is it? Did you plan to go and fight a war? Did I plan to marry into a family like this? Did we plan to have mothers….like ours? I saw you tonight make decisions to overcome what we were handed. You did not hesitate…I am tired of being afraid to put myself in a situation where I could get hurt. I want to live, not just for others, but for myself. Why is this any different?”
“Because you…you may regret it. Everything. And,” he took her chin in his hand, “I will regret it, Claire Marie. I cannot associate this,” he pointed to the rug below them, “with you.”
She stared at the floor, quiet. Finally, she whispered, “What now?”
“Nothing has changed. I will leave when your uncle gets here. I can tell him everything.” He reached down and pushed Claire Marie’s hair out of her eyes, then wrapped his arms around her. “I think…” He stopped, staring out the window.
Claire Marie twisted toward the door to see what had caught Caje’s attention.
“What is it?”
Elise stood at the window, uncertain of what to do. Her resolve of a minute ago faded to the indecision that relentlessly plagued her. It appeared she was too late, Bertrand was not here. And she did not know the dark-haired man with Claire Marie.
Her mind whirled. Claire Marie should not be doing that. Timone would not like it. No, Guileau would not like it. But wait, he was dead. Timone, not Guileau. Well, maybe not dead. Just missing. Missing is allright, Elise decided. Missing things always turned up. Better than being alive and having people look at you constantly like you were some kind of monster. Poor Guileau...
But the child did not look at her strangely. No, the child came over and put her head on her lap. So unlike her other child. She had tried. God knew she had tried. She had even been willing to sacrifice her marriage. But it was not enough to make it up to the child. And now look at what happened.
She sat down. She should not watch this. It was not decent. Maybe she should go home. She crossed herself and uttered a prayer to the sweet Virgin for strength. After all, Louisa had said she could do this. Louisa had looked at her with skepticism and then admiration when Elise suggested this plan. Elise was right; Louisa could not leave the child. But no one would think it strange if Elise went wondering. If Elisa left a child.
She had to tell someone. Even if Bertrand were not here Claire Marie would know what to do. She was a good mother, just look at the child. But the child was at the chateau, and Claire Marie was here. With that man, doing…Elise knew where that could lead.
Maybe they were finished. She braced herself. She could do this.
“Elise!” Claire Marie pulled out of Caje’s arms, but in her haste lost her balance. Caje put out a steadying hand, which she accepted. He stood behind her, staring at the apparition.
“Quasimodo, Dr. Jekyll, and now Mrs. Habersham…”
Claire Marie elbowed Caje. “I understood that.” She raised her voice and addressed the woman standing in the doorway staring at them.
“Elise, what are you doing here? Is Louisa with you?”
“He is not bad you know.”
“Elise, who is not bad?” Claire Marie gently questioned.
“My son…my son is not bad. It is my fault, you know.” Elise’s voice wavered and her eyes darted about the room in apparent confusion.
Caje leaned over and whispered in Claire Marie’s ear. “What is she talking about?”
“I’m afraid she may have, umm, been watching us.”
“Well…I told you Guileau was her son. He probably told her he asked me to marry him.”
Caje dropped Claire Marie’s hand and scratched his head. He had thought he sensed something for the past few minutes. The woman’s pale, blue-eyed stare was disturbing, as was the new information Claire Marie just gave him.
“You didn’t tell me…”
“It doesn’t matter...” Claire Marie cut him off impatiently and raised her voice. “Elise, why are you here? Are you lost again?”
Claire Marie went over, took the frail woman by the arm, and guided her to the sofa. Elise sat down and smiled, then seemed to remember something. She started to stand again, but Claire Marie retained her grip on Elise’s arm.
“Elise, what is it?” Claire Marie’s eyes widened. “It’s not Louisa and Bridgette is it?”
Caje broke in, his impatience evident. “Claire Marie, is she capable of making sense?”
“Yes…sometimes. She wonders…occasionally. But never this far. She does do well with Uncle, though.” Claire Marie turned her eyes to Caje, clearly starting to be frightened.
“He’s my husband, you know.” Elise smiled smugly, her thoughts skipping on to yet another subject.
“Of course he is your husband. Now why are you here?” Caje was starting to become exasperated. The whole family was crazy, he decided. With one important exception—and these were probably his last moments with her.
“Don’t scare her! I really don’t think she would be here if there wasn’t something wrong with Louisa or Bridgette. Louisa keeps a good eye on her.”
“I’m sure,” Caje responded dryly. “But how would she get away from the Krauts?”
“They ignore her, and her wonderings. Rolph has always kind of protected her…” Claire Marie’s voice trailed off.
“No, he won’t protect you.” Elise almost chanted the phrase.
Caje and Claire Marie both stared at the woman, the same question running through their heads—just how much had Elise seen?
“Elise, how long have you been here?”
“Long enough, young lady. You could get into trouble. You already are. You just don’t know it. But I know. He’s not a bad boy.”
Caje started to pace, restless. “Claire Marie, we are going to get nothing out of her. Your uncle should be back soon—maybe another hour.”
“But what if the Bosch…what if…?”
“Oh, the Bosch are busy. They are looking for them, you know.” Elise patted Claire Marie reassuringly on the hand.
“Why, Bertrand and the others, my dear. That is what Louisa wanted me to tell you. Yes, that’s it. The Bosch are looking.” Elise sat back on the sofa, clearly very proud of herself.
Claire Marie put her hand to her mouth. Caje swore softly. Boulanger had talked, and not just to Rolph. Or Rolph had told someone. It didn’t matter, the outcome was the same.
“Are you sure? Elise…think. Are you sure?”
Elise looked up as though seeing Caje for the first time. Her eyes narrowed and flashed. “Who are you, young man? We have not been introduced, I believe.” Elise turned to Claire Marie expectantly.
“Countess de Vire, Paul LeMay. Now, Elise are you sure?”
“Do I know your family?” Elise peered again Caje.
“Elise, are you sure? Oh, never mind.” Claire Marie twisted her hands, her agitation clear. “Paul, I think she does know something.”
Caje sighed, weighing the options in his head. None were attractive. “Well, there is only one thing to do. I’ll have to go find your uncle. You know where they are going?”
“No, but I know where they were going to meet. But I don’t think you should go. You’re tired, you just…fought.”
“I can rest later. Maybe, though, if I hurry, I can still catch them at the rendezvous point. I want you to take Mrs. Habersham there…”
“…and hide in the woods. I will be back for you.”
“I can’t do that.” Her voice was a whisper.
“Claire Marie, if they are looking for your uncle, they must know. Maybe not about us—about me. But you will fall under suspicion of espionage alongside your uncle.”
Claire Marie nodded. Nothing needed to be said aloud. Rolph would no longer be there to add any type of protection.
“I cannot leave my child. Or Louisa. I have to be with them. We just talked about this, Paul.”
He wouldn’t argue. He couldn’t.
“I will go with you then.”
“And do what? There is nothing you can do at the chateau…except let the Bosch finish what Rolph started.” Claire Marie’s voice increased in strength. “We both know what has to be done.”
“I don’t like the idea of you going back alone with the Countess here.”
“I know, but the men at the chateau are used to her wonderings. It gives me the perfect excuse to any questions.” Except, they both thought, the ones to which the Bosch may already have answers.
“I want you to take the gun.”
“Yes, Claire Marie. You take it. I’ll get one from the Maquis.”
There was nothing more to say to each other.
“Countess, come upstairs with me for a moment, please. I need to change my clothes before I take you back.”
Caje looked at her. Yes, it would probably be wise. “Go on. But hurry. I need you to give me some directions.”
Five minutes later, Caje was headed east in the jeep on the small road that bisected the farm. Claire Marie and Elise were walking the opposite direction. It was not the leave-taking that he had planned. Actually, Caje thought wryly, he had none of this planned. A quick kiss and an “au revoir”. He had handed her the doll from the kitchen. She had given him a small, sad smile. Then, it was over. At least, it would be once he disposed of the jeep, found the Widow Fortrand’s and warned Bertrand, and found his way back to own lines. Then explanations to be made, a war to be fought, a few memories to dwell on…dammit.
Back to the task at hand. It would probably be better to wreck the jeep. Nothing spectacular that would draw unwanted attention at the moment, but it should look like Rolph and the other one had had an unfortunate accident that led to capture. There was no way his single set of boot prints, even left several times over, would convince a discerning eye that an ambush occurred. It would be more credible this way.
He pressed harder on the accelerator, trying to drive unwanted thoughts and images from his mind.
Littlejohn and Kirby slithered into the underbrush beside Saunders.
“You’re never going to believe…”
“Kirby’s crazy, Sarge,” Littlejohn broke in.
“Shut up, both of you. That Kraut car spot you?”
“That’s just it Sarge, I just saw…”
“Kirby thinks Caje was driving that car.” Littlejohn’s voice reflected his disbelief.
“Hey, you weren’t close enough to notice…”
“Shhhh…” Saunders raised his hand. They all had heard it—this distinct sound of metal into a solid object. There had been no warning sound of brakes.
“Oh, shit…Sarge, I saw him.”
“Can it, I said, Kirby. Let’s go check this out, on the double. We don’t have anything for S2, so whoever is driving that thing may give us what we need. Now move out!”
“I’m telling you, Sarge...”
Caje opened his eyes. Everything was spinning. He closed them again. Tightly. He had to get up and get moving. He must have either misjudged the speed of the jeep or hit his head. Maybe he was just tired. Yeah, that was it. He thought he had slowed down enough to allow for an easy jump. Not a big deal. All he had to do now was get up, make few boot prints, hike another couple of miles, avoiding Kraut patrols, and find the Resistance. His mind continued, convince them the Bosch are waiting, make sure Claire Marie’s uncle is safe, get back to Allied lines… The litany of tasks kept him from dwelling on other things.
Just one more minute of lying here wouldn’t hurt, though. He needed a second wind--and maybe a reason to keep trying.
Caje heard a gun click beside his ear. The second time this evening. Was it still this evening? He sighed. What a way to go, though. He’d given it everything he had, he was just so tired.
“Sarge, over here! Found somebody!”
Okay, he must have hit his head. That explained why the Krauts were speaking English.
Caje opened his eyes. He didn’t recognize the GI aiming his M1 at him, but four other pairs of eyes were familiar. He must have really cracked his head. He tried to sit up.
“Doc, take a look at him.” Saunders shook his head in disbelief.
Kirby was practically jumping up and down. “Sarge, told you I saw him.”
The guy standing over him sounded did not move take his eyes off Caje, but the surprise was evident in his voice. “You all know this guy, Sarge?”
“Yeah, he’s one of ours. Been missing for a few days. Boy, am I going to have some explaining to do.”
“Uh, Sarge, he’s wearing civilian clothes and driving a Kraut jeep. I think he’s going to have some explaining to do.”
“Shut up, Knight.” Saunders pushed the tall soldier’s rifle away. “Doc, is he okay?”
“Can’t see anything, Sarge…just where that bullet must have been that Kirby told us about. Looks kinda beat up, though.” Doc turned back to Caje. “Caje, you know where you are? Does anything hurt?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know where you are, or if anything hurts?” Doc felt around Caje’s head for a lump or gash.
Caje brushed Doc’s hand away, and focused on Saunders. This evening was only getting more and more strange. “Sarge, what are you doing here?”
“No time now. If you are okay, we gotta get moving. Doc, he seem okay to you?”
“Guess so. C’mon, Caje, let me help you up.”
Caje accepted Doc’s outstretched hand and stood. He was surprised to find himself a bit unsteady, but Kirby’s arm was suddenly around his shoulder.
“Sorry, buddy. Just happy to see you. Told you I had a plan…or, I guess Sarge did. Didn’t let any of us in on it though.”
“Kirby, not now. Give Caje a hand. We’ve gotta’ be moving.”
“Kay, Sarge. C’mon, Caje…” Kirby started forward, then stopped when Caje didn’t fall in with him. “What’s the matter?”
Kirby stared, concern evident on his face. “Hey, Doc!”
“No, Kirby…I can’t. I have to go somewhere.”
“Well, you’re going to have to explain that to Sarge. I got my orders. C’mon.”
Saunders reappeared out the brush. “What’s going on back here? Caje, you gonna’ make it?”
“Yeah, Sarge, but I can’t go.”
“Can’t or won’t?” The sergeant’s tone betrayed his increasing edginess.
“Let me explain.”
“Not here…too close to the road. Let’s move back a couple hundred yards.”
“You’re telling me that you were on your way to warn the Maquis of a possible Kraut ambush?”
“It seemed pretty certain, Sarge.” Caje rubbed his temples, trying to focus on making the sergeant understand. His thoughts kept straying, though, to the chateau and what could be simultaneously occurring there.
“But nobody was behind you. You wrecked the jeep deliberately?” Saunders gently prodded Caje along in his explanation.
“Yeah, I had to. Cover up those other two Krauts I killed.”
“Well, S2 has information that the Marquis in this area are compromised.”
“They are…they know it. Their leader told me. That’s part of why there is an air drop.”
“So, you were going to go into an ambush to warn a group of Maquis that are already….”
“I have to…”
“You seem hell bent on suicide tonight.” Sarge shook his head. “We can’t do it.”
“We don’t have to, Sarge. Just let me go. Pretend you didn’t see me.” Caje could not look at the sergeant, could not let him see how close his suicide remark was to the truth. He knew it was a real long shot, but the one thing left he could do for the family was to try and save Bertrand. Perhaps if the old doctor weren’t there when the Krauts moved in, there would be chance for the family.
“No dice. You’re not going anywhere. That would be desertion. You know that.” Caje could feel Saunders staring at him, deliberating, thinking.
“Take five, then we move out.”
“What are they yapping about?” Knight gnawed on his chocolate bar, uneasy about the unexpected respite.
“Dunno. Maybe Caje has some information about those panzers we were supposed to be looking for.” Kirby had started to go over with Caje a few minutes ago, but Sarge had motioned him away.
Knight thought a moment. He had tried for days to break into this group, but they had seemed united and withdrawn over this missing guy. Now the guy showed up, and Saunders seemed to be softening up for the first time, despite what appeared to Knight to be questionable circumstances around the reappearance. Taking a break right here in the middle of the whole damn Kraut army, ‘cause the guy was tired…Sarge hadn’t stopped earlier when Knight had taken a tumble and twisted his ankle. Just told him to walk it off, they were in a hurry.
“You sure he wasn’t deserting? Talks like a Frenchman—bet he could blend in real easy.”
“You know, Knight, if you know what’s good for you, you’d learn to keep your mouth shut about things you don’t know about.” Littlejohn spoke quietly, but the tone was unmistakable.
“All I was saying was…Here we are sitting ducks cause this guy’s ‘tired’. What’s next, Sarge gonna’ have us carry him?”
Kirby quickly went over and squatted next to Knight. “Lookee here, mister. I think Littlejohn told you to keep your trap shut. You’re lucky Caje isn’t feeling well, or he’d probably cut you up just for the fun of it. Might do it myself, come to think of it, but I probably wouldn’t do as good a job.”
“Kirby, cut it out. Knight, come over here and let me check out that ankle.” Doc looked hastily over at Sarge to see if he was paying any attention to the small commotion.
Knight limped over beside Doc and McCall. The medic undid Knight’s laces and twisted the ankle around. “Looks like a maybe a little sprain. Not even enough swelling for me to wrap it up. Just lace up your boot pretty tight.”
Doc dropped his voice and glanced over at McCall to make sure he was listening. “You all have only been out here a couple of days. If you make it a couple of more, and then a couple more, it will be because of guys like Caje over there. And Kirby and Littlejohn. They do what the Sarge says. But if Caje is pulling up on something, there’s a darn good reason. It ain’t like him, but there’s no way you could know that, is there? So if I were you, I’d sit back and be quiet and watch these guys. Get to know them without pushing. That’s the way you’ll stay alive…and get their respect.”
McCall nodded thoughtfully, as he did at all suggestions thrown his way. The one Doc aimed the message at, though, continued to look put out.
“Well, guess it it’ll take a few more weeks to get the Sarge to notice when someone pulls up lame. That, and disappearing for a while…”
Knight continued mumbling but stopped as he glanced over toward the newcomer again. It appeared that the guy and Sarge had arrived at some type of agreement.
Sarge unholstered his pistol and gave it to Caje along with a pat on the back. He then came over to the other two clusters of soldiers. “Saddle up, we’re going to take a quick little detour--.”
“But Sarge, you said earlier that we didn’t have time to stop. And that the Krauts…”
“Knight, what matters is what I am saying now. And don’t ever interrupt me.” Saunders’ dispassionate stare caused Knight to drop his eyes. The sergeant then swept his gaze over the rest of the group.
“Littlejohn, I want you to take McCall and hightail it back to Hanley. Tell him we could be a little late… but I think we may be able to get that Panzer information for him after all. We’ll keep the radio and let him know something as soon as we are in range.”
“Caje know something, Sarge?”
“He knows where we might get it. But Littlejohn…don’t mention to Hanley that Caje is back. That’s some explaining I think I am going to have to do myself.”
Littlejohn nodded his agreement, but looked curiously over at the still slumped soldier. “Sure thing, Sarge.”
“Knight, point. Kirby, rear.” Saunders dropped his voice and nodded his head back toward Caje. “Doc, keep an eye on him.”
Doc went over and offered Caje a hand. For a moment, he didn’t think the scout even knew he was there. But then Caje looked up, his eyes older and more tired than Doc could ever remember, and he accepted the outstretched hand. “Thanks, Doc.”
“You gonna’ be okay?”
Caje took a long, deep breath as he shoved the pistol in the waistband of his pants. “Sometimes, you just feel kind of helpless.”
“I know what you mean.”
“I know you do, Doc. I know you do. Let’s go.” They fell in behind the sergeant.
Kirby whispered from behind them. “Hey, Caje, where we goin’?”
“The Maquis are meeting near here—a place just down the road. We’re just to check in and see if anybody has spotted those Panzers. I told Sarge I never heard anything at Bertrand’s house, so they didn’t come in from the east like I guess S2 thought.”
The walked a few more steps in silence.
“Hey, Caje, you know I didn’t want to leave you there. Sarge tell you what happened?”
“Yeah, sort of. Don’t worry about it, Kirby.”
“Well, I don’t want you to think that old Kirby went off…”
“Forget about it, Kirby.”
“Well, if someone went off and left me…”
“Just by me a beer when we get back, okay? Maybe a few.” Caje sped up his pace to catch up with Doc. The medic didn’t talk much, and Caje needed to be alone with his thoughts. He really would have preferred to continue this little mission solo, but there was no convincing Sarge. Especially since he couldn’t explain the real reason why. He guessed he was lucky that Sarge and guys were returning empty handed from their information quest about those Panzers.
As he had told Saunders, he was pretty sure that if the Panzers were around here somewhere, one of men in the Maquis meeting would surely have seen them. And since he now knew where the leak was in the resistance, the only danger would be in being taken along with the Maquis by the Krauts. Sarge had agreed with Caje’s conclusion that if indeed this rendezvous was compromised, then the Germans would probably wait until after the drop to make their move. Sooo…as long as everyone was still at this Widow Fortrand’s, everything should work.
He hoped so. He kept telling himself he wasn’t really deceiving Sarge. Maybe just misleading him a bit about his own real intentions. But it didn’t matter. If the outcome of saving Bertrand ended up saving some GI’s, then…
“How’d you know we would be here?”
“Well, how’d you know we’d be waiting here for you?”
“Then how’d the Sarge know you’d be coming?”
“What are you talking about?” The irritation was clear in Caje’s voice
“Well, I thought this area looked familiar, but you know everything over here is starting to look the same to me, even the women…Sarge never let on a word, though, that we were picking you up.”
“I don’t think you were.”
Kirby paused for a second, digesting Caje’s statement. “You mean we were coming this close to where I left you, and there were no plans to try and get you?”
Caje turned around, but kept moving. “I guess not. C’mon, Kirby…”
Kirby shook his head and picked up the pace. Sometimes he really didn’t understand that guy. If it were him, the Sarge had better of had a pretty damn good answer about coming so close without intending to get him back. But Caje didn’t seem the least upset or concerned.
“What now, Kirby?”
Kirby pulled the balled-up beret out of his pocket. “Here, catch! Been carrying it around for you. Tried it on—don’t look quite right on me.”
Caje picked the beret up off the ground and fingered the soft wool. He slipped it on his head and squeezed Kirby’s arm as the BAR man caught up. “Merci.”
“If you’re gonna start ‘parley vu’in’ to me, I’m going to take it back. Left you out there too long, I guess.”
Caje allowed himself a small smile. Maybe, just maybe, this would work.
They found and entered the Widow Fortrand’s small cottage without incident. Caje breathed a sigh of relief and exasperation at finding the small group of Maquis huddled around a table with a couple of opened bottles of wine. On a whole the men gathered around the table were unproposing—older, overweight, bespectacled, clearly not fighters. It was apparent that the first indication the group had had of others nearby was when Saunders shoved the front door open.
Knight returned from his search of the other two rooms of the cottage. “Clear, Sarge. Just an old lady and these relics.”
Saunders nodded in acknowledgement.
Caje addressed the still startled occupants of the front room. “It’s alright…we’re friends. Msr. Bertrand and Guileau know me.”
The other five men at the table looked to Guileau and Bertrand for confirmation.
Guileau glared at the Caje, but said nothing. Bertrand, however, smiled. “So, my friend, not only did you decide to join us this evening, but you brought reinforcements? You are indeed a resourceful man.”
Sarge grabbed Caje’s arm. “Ask them about the Panzers. We don’t have much time…”
“Yeah, Sarge.” Caje switched back to French, speaking quickly. “Two things…we need to know if any one of you know or have heard about a group of Panzers anywhere in the area. Second, you’re compromised…”
Guileau cut him off. “I speak English.”
Caje was bewildered.
The Maquis leader pushed back his chair and stood, his large disfigured bulk hovering over the other men at the table. He addressed the sergeant, deliberately not looking at Caje.
“I know we are compromised. I am dealing with it.”
Saunders took in the scarred figure without blinking, then looked at Caje curiously. “Fine, your problem. What about the Panzers?”
Guileau shrugged. “I know nothing of any tanks.”
Saunders gestured with his Tommy. “What about them, they know anything? You speak for them?”
“Oui…I am the leader.”
Saunders caught Caje’s eye. “You ask them.”
Guileau took a step forward toward Caje, and addressed him in French. “You left Claire Marie alone? Did you think that was wise?”
His exhaustion was starting to overcome him. Caje could not understand Guileau’s sudden switch of subject…unless…
“You know about Boulanger?”
Guileau faced revealed nothing for a moment, then he gave a small grimace. “Oui…I know about Boulanger.”
Caje looked at the table. Boulanger was not among the men.
Bertrand got up and came over to join the conversation. “What about Boulanger?”
“Hey, Sarge…thought you said this was going to be a quickie.” Knight peered anxiously out the window.
“Caje, get a move on. Ask about those Panzers. Anything else is not our problem I said.” He paused, then added, “Besides, you already knew they were compromised and they’ve already said they know.”
Caje took a deep breath and tried to concentrate. He needed to get an answer about the Panzer’s for Sarge, but Guileau seemed to be trying to confuse the issue.
More importantly, though, at least to himself, he needed to get Guileau and Bertrand focused on the potential problem at the chateau. He wasn’t sure that they could provide an answer, but if Bertrand could get back, if this group were not captured, then maybe, just maybe…The Krauts would have nothing to go on. Not that they required anything, really, to deal with potential resistance. But hopefully, the shadow of Rolph’s presence and influence would be enough to tide the family over until the Allies arrived. It was a real long shot…
Guileau, Bertrand, and Saunders were all looking at him expectantly.
“You know about Boulanger?”
“I said I did.” Guileau replied quietly, the finality evident in his tone. “Keep your voice down. I said I would deal with this issue.”
“And the flight tonight—you know you cannot go out? You need to return home?”
Bertrand looked from one man to the other. “What are you talking about?”
“It is nothing.” Guileau raised his voice and looked over at his compatriots at the table. “It is nothing…old news. We knew the radio was compromised. We will deal with it.”
Caje leaned up against the wall for support. No matter what, he would remain upright in front of Guileau. He could feel the sergeant’s eyes boring into him, questioning the conversation, wondering what was taking so long. Bertrand was also looking at him closely. Caje had to make him understand.
He grabbed the older man’s arm. “You understand, then, that you cannot go out? Claire Marie…”
“Caje! I need an answer now! We’re leaving…” Saunders’ anger was evident in his voice.
Retaining his grip on Bertrand’s arm, Caje addressed the seated group, who had begun to talk among themselves.
“We’re looking for Panzers. A whole battalion. Supposed to be around here. Don’t think they came in on the east road.”
The men looked to each other and then shook their heads. “We have seen nothing,” one of the muttered.
Saunders took in the negative body language. “That’s it, we’re out of here.”
Caje searched desperately for another moment. He sensed that Bertrand and Gauileau did not understand the depth of the danger. He had to make them understand.
“Sarge, what about the plane?”
“Not our problem…let’s move out.”
Caje looked over to the group at the table. “Heard anything. Have you heard anything? More guards anywhere..?”
The men conversed again. The small, bald one who had answered for them before nodded in the affirmative.
“Sarge…they’ve heard something. Give me one more minute.”
Saunders shook his head in disgust. Caje could tell the sergeant thought this was taking way too long. He had expressed his doubts in the first place, but Saunders noted that he trusted his scout not to steer him wrong. Now, Sarge was looking at him closely, clearing sensing something amiss and, Caje knew, taking in the fact that he could barely stay on his feet.
“Doc, take a look at Caje.”
“Now what? We ain’t ever going to get outta here.” Knight didn’t try to keep his voice down.
Caje closed his eyes. It shouldn’t be this difficult. He summoned what energy he could. “Msr., where did you hear those tanks?”
“What did he say?”
Bertrand turned and answered the bespectacled man. “He asked where you heard those tanks.”
The man retorted indignantly. “I did not say I heard tanks. I heard something. Downriver near the mill. In the pasture over there. Couldn’t get close enough to say what it was.”
Caje heard the answer, and simultaneously felt Doc and Bertrand ease him to the floor.
“Doc, what’s wrong with him?”
“Nothin’ different than before, Sarge. Not that I know of. I think he’s just plumb tuckered out.”
The old man shoved Doc out of the way, and made his own quick examination, then stood and went over to the table.
“I just need some water.” Doc handed him a canteen, and Caje took a swallow. He was humiliated at his own weakness, especially in front of Guileau, but he was not going to give up. Suddenly, Bertrand took the canteen and replaced it with a bottle of wine. Caje took a longer swallow.
“For the last time, shut up, Knight. Doc, get him up and let’s move outta’ here.”
“Sarge…” Caje tried again. “Sarge, they may be downriver. Near an old mill. They didn’t come in on the main road. Check and see on the map if there is a smaller one alongside the river.”
Saunders pulled out his map. Caje used the opportunity to grab Bertrand by the lapels. “You can’t go out tonight. Do you understand? You need to get back. Rolph is dead. Do you understand?”
Caje saw comprehension dawn in Bertrand’s eyes, only to be quickly replaced by compassion. Caje knew the old man realized that things with Claire Marie had gone farther than a casual war time encounter. He looked over toward Guileau. Bertrand’s stepson clearly understood some of what was going on. How much, though, was not certain.
“We still go out, right?”
“Oui.” Guileau nodded at Bertrand’s question, but did not stop staring at Caje.
Saunders spoke up. “Doc, see if he can stand. It’s a possibility those tanks are downriver. We need to get this back to Hanley ASAP.”
heard Saunders. There was no way he
could leave. Bertrand still did not understand.
He couldn’t. As Doc stood and
reached down to help him up, Caje shook his head.
“No! Bertrand…let me go out. You all go back…I’ll signal the plane.”
To Caje’s surprise, the old man smiled at him gently. Then Bertrand pulled back his fist and punched Caje right at the tip of the chin.
Caje’s head hit the floor.
“Sarge!” Doc grabbed the older man from behind and held his arms behind him as Saunders rushed over.
“What the hell?”
Summoning his very limited English, Bertrand said, “Good boy—Paul LeMay is good boy.”
Guileau snorted and turned away.
Saunders stared at the small, round man before him. His eyes were kind and gentle, with a deep sadness that extended throughout his lined face. Saunders had no idea why the old guy had cold cocked Caje, but could tell that somehow he had thought it was in Caje’s best interest. Hell, at the rate things were going, it probably was.
Saunders looked across the room at Knight. The strapping private for once had nothing to say, he was staring at the scene in front of him with his jaw open in amazement.
“Knight, pick up Caje. Let’s move out.”
Kirby burst through the door. “Krauts! Don’t think they know we’re here…”
He was cut off by the sound of a plane’s engine. The men at the table all jumped, their chairs tumbling to the floor.
“C’mon. This is their show. Let’s go.”
Kirby stared as Doc helped Knight situate Caje across his shoulders. “What happened to Caje, Sarge?”
“Someone beat me to it.” Saunders headed out the door, followed by the rest of the squad.
The plane was so cold. Martin Christopher thought he would never, no many how many of these trips he made, get used to the cold. It was worse than the fighter plane. At least there, in the confined space, his body had been able to heat up the interior somewhat. Never his feet, though. But the cavernous fuselage of the Whitley was too large to be in away impacted by the body heat of the three men huddled between the strapped down boxes of supplies intended for the Resistance.
Thankfully, just when Martin realized he could no longer feel his toes in his lucky socks, Girdy pulled a thermos out of one of the boxes.
“May be a bit warm, fellas, but let’s toast crossing over the border—again.” He took the first swallow, and passed the thermos to St. Claire.
With an amused smile, St. Claire took a sip, and looked up in surprise. It was just tea. And lukewarm, too.
“A man could use a little more as he’s about to jump into the middle of Jerry lines, Girdy.” Girdy looked a bit abashed as St. Claire handed the container to Martin.
Martin swallowed, then said. “Well, I don’t think anything stronger would help, either, old man. Either you go or you don’t, right? And if things don’t look—or feel—right, well then, we’ll all just have another sip as we cross back, right?” He peered meaningfully at St. Claire. Martin was still spooked by their conversation earlier today at the pub. And if St. Claire wanted to pull back, to not make the jump, Martin would support him in any way. It was his job to spot the signal lights below, looking to make sure they were at approximately the correct spot and gave the right signal to proceed, rather than a wave off. Or nothing. It wouldn’t be the first time they had come over and their hosts had not been there. Martin shivered, and not from the cold. Who knew what happened when no one showed up at the rendezvous? Who knew what happened to those people? Well, he decided, it was better than being greeted by German fire.
They settled down among the crates as the lights were dimmed for the remainder of their flight inside France. Girdy and the navigator—a new fellow no one knew well yet, other than he was called “Rusty”, an obvious reference to his hair—would make sure they were all awake and ready for the drop. Surprisingly, the hum of the engines and the vibration of the plane made for good sleeping for even the most tense passengers. After all, there was nothing they could do now.
Martin, felt Girdy shaking his leg. “Ten minutes, sir. We’re starting to go down. Thought we’d open the hatch in about five, start taking a look around.”
Girdy went over and shook St. Claire awake with the same message, then started unstrapping the boxes to shove them out the hold. His was a particularly crucial, though unsung, job. The middle aged Welshman needed to shove the heavy boxes out at precisely the moment Martin gave him the thumbs up. But, given that they were most likely to encounter enemy ground fire at this time, and the boxes had to undone, he could easily be crushed as the pilot maneuvered. His size and graying hair belied his agility. He had done this before, managing to get all his cargo out without losing a limb to the boxes or the stray bullets that made their way into the hold.
St. Claire stood and stretched. He would go out on the second pass, once the boxes were out of the way. It would save him from a potential nasty run in with the descending cargo, but would also give the Jerry’s a good go at him if they were waiting. Hopefully, any of the friendly farmers or other men down there waiting for the drop would wave them off if this were the case. He had two chances, he supposed, this way to make sure that everything was all right.
The plane leveled out and the cargo hatch swung open. Martin eased himself over to the side, near the yawning darkness. He glanced over to the partition separating the pilot and the navigator, and saw the latter peer around and give a thumbs up. Martin peered into the darkness. At first he saw nothing.
Then it appeared. The lights in a straight line, welcoming their presence. Everything looked right. The signal was correct from a torch below, the code entrusted long ago but never used until tonight. Some poor sod down there with his light, somehow managing to do a rude Morris code while his compatriots stood by and indicated the drop zone.
Girdy began to shove the crates out, five in all, filled with two radios, extra batteries, light firearms, and, because they knew they were needed, some food supplies. St. Claire pitched in, absurdly hoping that the latter would increase his chances of an easy landing and friendly welcome.
The cargo delivered, intact or not was not up to the plane’s occupants, the pilot began to bank right. Martin patted St. Claire’s back, as he perched on the side of the opening, holding on as the plane heaved and bucked. They all leaned over, looking in the darkness. The torches again came into view.
Then Martin saw it. Somewhat north of the drop zone. The single signal away from the drop zone, flashing a warning. It was a wave-off. A wave-off contrasting directly with the signal ahead, indicating that the drop zone was friendly.
Martin did not like it—he felt the foreboding of days stealing over him, and made the decision quickly.
“Rusty! Pull up, pull up! We’re being waved off!”
Rusty peered around the partition, not sure of what Martin was trying to communicate. Martin used to hands to give a wave off, and Rusty nodded in acknowledgement.
For a millisecond, Martin breathed a sigh of relief, waiting for the plane to nose upward or bank away from the drop zone.
Then all hell broke loose.
The ground below erupted into orange fireworks as machine guns opened up on the plane as it started to bank left. The pilot jerked the heavy aircraft, first further left and then upward, as the men in the back tried to hold on to anything they could grab. Bullets were finding there way through the hatch, but there was no answer from the rear gunner. Either he could not fire down at that angle or he was disabled already.
St. Claire was thrown toward the hatch—Martin reached and pulled him back, his thankfulness stopped short of being expressed by the bullet hole between the man’s eyes. He looked over to Girdy to say something—he didn’t know what—but was slammed forward and out of the hatch as the plane began a nosedive.
He had dragged St. Claire with him, but the force of blast as he fell out of the aircraft jerked the body out of his hand. Instinctively he released he parachute, knowing that it was too late. They were too low, and he was going to be the perfect target.
Miraculously, though, perhaps because of the now bright orange glow of the plane as it hurtled toward the ground several kilometers away, Martin did not feel the bullets he was waiting for. The seconds as he continued to hurl towards the ground felt like a lifetime, but pain of the impact assured him that he was still alive. At least for the moment.
He was conscious long enough to hear the crash. Then nothing.
They were pulling at him. Trying to kill him. Martin tried to fight, but the least motion to his leg made him want to vomit.
“Stop. We are friends.” The voice spoke in English.
Martin opened his eyes, then closed them again. He was in hell. The man he had seen was---could not be human.
He opened his eyes again. The man wasn’t a Jerry, either.
“Be quiet. We are surrounded. There are Bosche everywhere. We will try to get you out of here.” The man did not look at him; his one good eye was surveying the surroundings. But another man, an older, gentle looking man patted him on the shoulder, murmuring reassuring words that Martin could not understand.
He moaned. The pain was intolerable. The one-eyed man turned his gaze on him fiercely, “Be quiet, I said. Do you want to get us all killed?” He leaned over to make sure he had the injured man’s attention. “You were early. Why were you early?”
Martin shook his head. He had no idea of what the man was talking about. They weren’t early. In fact, Martin thought with amusement, as he drifted back down into the painless blackness, they were too late.
Doc noticed some twitching in Caje’s hands. “He’s coming round, Sarge. That must have been some punch.”
“Yeah,” Knight grunted, “you’re telling me. He’s been out long enough.”
Saunders stopped. “Alright, take five.” He went over to where Knight had unceremoniously dumped his load
Doc started to check Caje over, but was waived off. “I’m alright.”
Saunders squatted beside Caje and Doc, reached in his pocket, and pulled out a crumpled chocolate bar. He shoved it toward Caje. “Eat this.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“I didn’t ask if you were. Now, you want to tell me what that was all about?”
“You got your Panzers.” Caje opened the chocolate and stared at it, his eyes not meeting those of Saunders.
The sergeant leaned further, putting his face right in that of the other soldier’s. “You better hope I got something. I may not understand French, but I do understand when someone is trying to pull something over on me.”
interrupted, “Hey, Sarge, he’s been through…”
“I don’t care what he’s been through, Doc. We’ve all been through something. But the only way we get through is to do it as a group. There are no individual objectives or missions here.” He grabbed Caje by the front of the sweater. “Is that understood?”
Caje looked up, his eyes glittering with unspoken emotion. But his response was flat. “Yes, Sergeant.” He gave the rank the French pronunciation.
Saunders stalked off. “Kirby, bring the radio over here, we may be close enough to make contact.”
Doc gave Caje a thoughtful expression, then pulled something out of his medical pack. It was the bottle of wine from earlier. Bertrand had shoved it at him as the squad headed out the door.
“Looks like you could use a drink.”
Caje raised his eyebrows.
Doc smiled slightly, “The old man handed it to me…no new issue from Uncle Sam.”
Caje held it up to his lips and took a long swallow. With his other hand he tossed the chocolate bar in the bushes.
Kirby, relieved of the radio, caught sight of the bottle and sidled over. “How ‘bout sharing that?”
Caje took one more drink, and then looked thoughtfully at the bottle.
“Here, trade ya’.” Kirby pulled something out of his pocket.
“My watch!” Caje reached for the object, but Kirby pulled it back.
“Uh, uh. Trade.”
“Trade for my own watch? Kirby, my father gave me that watch.”
“Guess it’s worth trading for then, huh?”
Caje’s brow clouded over.
Doc saw Caje tensing, and sensed that Kirby had, once again, gone too far. “Kirby, this ain’t no time to be playing games. Just…”
“It’s okay, Doc.” Caje took a deep breath, trying to focus on what was important. “Here, Kirby.” He handed up the bottle and received the Philipp Patek back in return. He quickly strapped it back on his wrist.
Kirby took a drink and then sighed appreciatively. “Nothing better to restore a man’s natural vim and vigor. Speaking of which…wasn’t that he old guy from the barn? Msr. Whatever?”
“Yeah, Kirby, it was.”
“Sarge said the old guy gave you one in the chopper. Can’t figure him out—saves your life, gives you wine, knocks you out. What gives?”
Doc listened with interest for the answer. He had been wondering the same thing, but was glad Kirby had posed the question.
“It’s nothing.” A ghost of a smile crossed Caje’s lips. “The old man takes a real holistic approach to medicine.”
Kirby still didn’t get it, but knew that Caje was unlikely to explain any further. “Don’t you be getting any ideas, Doc.” He took another drink, then added, “Well, maybe the wine is alright.”
Caje caught sight of Knight staring at them. “New kid?”
Kirby sniffed. “Yeah, Knight. Big as Littlejohn, but got an attitude to go with it.” He started back over to collect the radio from Saunders, who had finished up his report.
Caje noticed Kirby took the bottle. “Kirby, give the kid a drink, tell him thanks.”
Kirby frowned but detoured toward the other soldier.
Doc laughed. “C’mon, Caje, let’s get you back. I might not be your old French doctor, but I do know I’m going to put you in for several days of rest.”
Caje started to get up--slowly. Everything hurt.
“What happened to the plane?”
Doc’s expression turned serious. “Sounded like the Krauts got it. We heard some yak-yak, then a big crash.”
Caje nodded without saying anything, and fell in behind Doc.
Claire Marie tucked the blanket around Bridgette and her doll. The little girl had been excited about spending the night at the chateau and sharing the large bedroom with both Louisa and her mother.
Louisa slept on the trundle in the small alcove near the door. Though she had not said it, she had been overcome by Claire Marie’s safe arrival with Elise, and tears had momentarily glistened in her eyes as she scolded Elise for her wondering loud enough for any nearby soldiers in the wing to hear.
Elise had been confused by this, her pride at her accomplishment shattered by Louisa’s words. The reassurance later in private by both Louisa and Claire Marie as they helped the Countess prepare for bed did little to assuage her hurt. She had gone to bed without speaking to either.
Claire Marie continued to sit on the edge of the bed and stare at her child. If things had turned out differently, she may not have had this second chance to be with Bridgette, a chance to do things another way. All it would have taken was one shot from Rolph, or, perhaps, if Rolph’s companion had succeeded, and then Bridgette would be without a mother. Of course, dear Louisa would take care of the child, just as she had taken care of Claire Marie for so long. But what memories would Bridgette have had of Claire Marie? What things would people say? She thought of the repulsion with which Paul had spoken of his mother. Would, if the Allies prevailed, had Bridgette have thought of her mother as a collaborator? Paul certainly had, and for all appearances she was. And if the Bosche prevailed, what then? If she went to live with Rolph and help perpetuate his perfect Aryan man myth, what would Bridgette think of her mother? Though the child would live, what would she think? What place would she have the new Reich order? Even worse, if Rolphjhad used his influence and everything had gone smoothly, what would Bridgette have become?
Somehow, Claire Marie thought, Natasha was lucky that her daughter had escaped into art, spending hours on studying the outside form of people and things, rather than taking a close look at what made them who and what they were. Subconsciously, perhaps, even as a child as young as Bridgette, Claire Marie knew that this path was easier. Of course, Claire Marie thought as Bridgette sighed and turned in her sleep, a child would do anything for a mother’s love.
And that habit could continue into her adulthood. Perhaps Rolph had been right in what he had said about Claire Marie’s similarity to her mother. She thought of the past nights with Paul. No, she would never become a prude—she was definitely too much of her mother’s daughter for that—but she had not thought beyond the moment. There had definitely been a connection; she knew he felt it, too. But what she had tried to give him—them--was transitory. It was not what this troubled soldier truly needed. It was the safe, quick, and easy way to momentarily assuage the pain inside him and the need in herself.
She rubbed her eyes. She was so tired, and her head hurt both from the blow she had sustained and the thoughts pounding through it. She would stay awake and see if Uncle would also appear at the chateau safe tonight. Both she and Louisa were buoyed by the fact that no one seemed to care about the presence of Claire Marie, or had said anything untoward to Louisa all day. Perhaps Elise had misunderstood what she claimed to have heard earlier. But, unlike usual, she had seemed both certain and insistent.
Well, if someone was indeed listening to prayers, long out of practice that they were, then perhaps Paul was resting at the Widow Fortrand’s, as he had indicated he might. And there was still time to let him know what Claire Marie had realized as she had guided Elise through their strange moonlit odyssey.
But how to let him know?
Even if was at the old farmhouse, she could not take a chance on going there, on being away from Bridgette, not again, given everything going on around them.
Her eyes came to rest on the small table across the room. A note. Perhaps someone could take it to Paul in the morning. Surely he would wait until then to leave. There was still a chance.
Thank goodness there was paper and pen. Old Elise still kept things in style. There were advantages, Claire Marie thought, to having the Bosche in your home. But that didn’t make it right…and that was part of what she needed to convey to Paul.
Paul. She started without preamble or salutation.
I have been wrong about so many things. But I am not going to let this be one of them..
She continued writing by the light of the candle, filling the entire page. By the end, here eyes burned with the effort of trying stay awake and focus in the dim light. She closed them a moment, wondering why Bertrand was not yet back, and trying to think of how to end her missive.
And that was the way Bertrand found her an hour later, her hair spread across the desk, the pen still clutched in her hand.
He leaned over and looked at what Claire Marie had been working on. It was not the sketch he expected. He peered at it curiously; he had never knows the girl to write anyone. After a few lines, he grunted. So, it was that way with both of them, whether they realized it or not. He had not meant it to go this far. Just a little enjoyment, just a little remembrance of the fun in life. He hadn’t wanted anyone to get hurt.
Well, everything had gone too far. Poor Rolph. He still wasn’t sure exactly what had happened. He would have to ask Claire Marie in the morning. The boy had been a great help, how he had ended up dead was perplexing. As was Paul and Guileau’s exchange about Boulanger this evening. As was the mix up on the drop time, and the fact that though the plane was shot down, he and Guileau had entered the chateau without challenge as usual after depositing the poor surviving airman at the Widow’s.
Either the Bosche did not know who was involved in the Maquis, or the plane had been the only thing they were after. The question was why? They were not totally incompetent. In fact, Bertrand rather admired much of the efficiency they displayed, and had conveyed that to the Oberfurher on their few encounters. Overall, though, he found their rules and discipline disturbing. They were too confining.
He became aware of Louisa staring at him, and turned.
“You’re back, you old fool?”
He smiled. He knew her gruffness hid a heart as large as her bosoms.
“Yes, my dear, I am back. And thankful that we are all okay. Well…we are. The drop was unsuccessful. I’m afraid we must have the most ineffective resistance cell in all of France. Our first mission, and nearly everyone dead.”
Louisa quickly sat upright. “Who’s dead? You’re not making sense.”
Bertrand came across the room to where she was. “Keep your voice down. The plane crashed. We were able to save one of the airmen, but he’s in pretty bad shape. We took him to the Widow Fortrand’s.” He shook his head, his confusion evident by his expression. “For some reason, the Boche did not seek us out. Perhaps…perhaps they thought that there would be no one on the ground for the drop?”
Louisa’s face showed her skepticism.
“No, no I suppose not. Something is going on here…something I cannot put my finger on. And then, my dear, you know, the strangest thing happened.”
Louisa raised her eyebrows.
“Oh, yes, I suppose you know some of it, since Claire Marie is here. Elise is alright also?”
“Yes. What are you talking about?”
“Well, the boy showed up at the house. With other Americans. The best I can tell, he killed Rolph, and then came to warn us that the Bosche knew of the drop. And for some extraordinary reason, he kept insisting that Boulanger had something to do with all this.” He nodded toward Claire Marie. “Did she mention any of this?”
“Only some, but I shall let her tell you in the morning. Is he okay?”
“Who, my dear, the boy or the airman?”
Louisa tried to bite back her impatience. Although she was quite fond of Bertrand, his wonderings—in many aspects—often annoyed her. She had come to believe his air of constant bemusement was deliberately adopted in order to more easily extract himself from potentially difficult situations.
“The boy, of course. Is the American okay?”
“Yes, I, uh, had to give him some help in getting away. But he will be okay.”
Louisa looked across the room. “And will she?”
“Hmmff, you knew about this?” Bertrand thrust the letter he had taken from the desk in Louisa’s hand.
She scanned it quickly. It confirmed what she suspected. “I did not know. I have not been there. But after I was with her this evening, I thought so.” She put the letter down in her lap and looked up at Bertrand. “He is a good boy?”
Bertrand scratched his head and nodded. “Yes, I do believe so. A good fighter, I can tell that. But perhaps a bit hotheaded and impetuous.”
“And what about for Claire Marie?”
“What does it matter? I said he is gone, so nothing will come of it. You can tell her in the morning. You are always so good in these matters. Matters of Claire Marie, I mean. Don’t worry my dear.” Bertrand patted her on the arm. “You know, I suppose I should go to my own chambers. At least keep the semblance of normalcy. Strange, strange evening.” He continued muttering to himself as he opened the door connected to his seldom-used bedroom.
He came back after a moment, to see Louisa carefully studying the letter. She did not hear him reenter.
She looked up, startled. “Yes?”
“The other one, the pilot. We have to get him back to his own lines, or he may lose his leg. I’ve already spoken to Old Pierre. He will try to take him by wagon in the morning. Although I can’t put my finger on it, I still think the Bosche may be watching some of us. The Resistance, I mean. I was thinking you could go along with Old Pierre in the morning and pick up some clothes from the house for the Englishman. Make him less conspicuous—the Englishman. And maybe talk to him some in his own language; tell him what we are up to. He’s a bit out of it, and may respond to one of his own.” He peered at her closely, her attention seemed far away. “It could be a bit dangerous.”
“Yes, of course.” She looked down at the letter in her hand, a plan forming. “Yes, it could be dangerous.”
“What would be dangerous?” Claire Marie stretched at the desk, then caught site of Bertrand. “Uncle!” She ran across the room as fast as she could into Bertrand’s outstretched arms. “I was so afraid…”
“Yes, well, everything is alright. But I really must go to bed. It has been too much for an old man. Tomorrow we shall talk.”
Claire Marie nodded, then her eye caught the letter in Louisa’s hand.
“Sorry, my dear. I saw it, thought it would be another sketch.” Bertrand paused and then said gruffly, “He’s gone, you know.”
Claire Marie’s eyes widened, and she gasped.
“No, no. He has gone back to his own lines.”
“But…he was so tired. He couldn’t…”
“It was rather fortuitous. Seems he met up with some other Americans. In quite good hands, I think.”
Claire Marie snatched the letter out of Louisa’s hands, crumpled it, and threw it on the floor. She kissed Louisa and Bertrand, and went over to her bed without a word.
Louisa and Bertrand looked at each other, and waited for the sobs, but nothing came. Bertrand shrugged and went back to his room.
Louisa remained propped on her pillows. After a while, Claire Marie’s soft, even breathing told her that the girl’s exhaustion had mercifully overtaken her emotions.
Louisa slid out of bed and picked up the crumpled paper. She went over to the desk where the candle was flickering its last light. Smoothing the letter, she reread the bold writing.
The poor child. Louisa unfortunately knew the sentiments, if not the exact words. And the heartbreak that could accompany such a risk. It had been over twenty- five years, but she remembered as if it were yesterday. The promises made. Her light footsteps of youth becoming heavier everyday as she waited for the word that never came. That is why she came to France, soon after the war. Looking for answers she never found. There were so many, just listed as missing, presumed dead. And Henry had been one of them.
She put her finger to her mouth and chewed on her nail as she thought. Yes, she knew the risks. But what of the alternative? She loved Claire Marie as the daughter she never had, and counted the day that Bertrand had hired her to take care of the little girl as the one consolation in her whole futile self-exile to France. But she worried about her constantly. The strange manner in which she had been raised--the beautiful, sick mother so careless with a young girl’s development. Louisa had bit her tongue at the marriage, knowing that it had assuaged some of Natasha’s deathbed worries, and that Bertrand seemed to believe that Claire Marie and Timone would be good for each other. But Louisa had known it was wrong, that it would bring the girl only grief.
She blamed herself for what had happened to Claire Marie. She should have known that Timone’s personal pride and his jealously of the growing recognition of his wife’s talent would drive him to do something stupid. But still she had bit her tongue, not wanting to be driven out of a household that unfortunately over the years did not need her services as a nanny. And though she loved Bridgette nearly as much as the child’s mother, she wondered if the circumstances under which the child had been conceived had finally destroyed any capacity Claire Marie had to love.
She stared at the letter. She would not tell her. She did not want Claire Marie to wait the
unfulfilled wait she had so long ago. If
it was meant to be, then maybe this letter would find its way. After that, it was up to fate. But maybe she could make amends for being
Three days later.
“Saunders—everything go okay out there?” Hanley didn’t look up from his desk.
“Yeah, Lt. All quiet. Those planes musta’ hit that Panzer division pretty hard. We didn’t see anything or anyone.”
“Well, it’s still Kraut territory…” Hanley shoved his papers aside and sat back in his chair. “Have a seat.”
Saunders grabbed what looked to be the sturdiest of the several chairs shoved against the wall. The sign, he thought, had said “dentist” when he entered, but this didn’t look like any dentist office he had ever been in. Who knows, it could have said anything…That led to another train of thought.
“Gonna’ need another couple guys, Lt. I can’t keep going out shorthanded.”
“Yeah, I ran into Doc and he said Billy may still be another couple of weeks. But Caje has been hanging around here lately—looks ready to me. I’ll see about getting you one more.”
Saunders stared at the floor, and took a long, deep breath. “Don’t think Caje is ready.”
Hanley pursed his lips and leaned forward. “You don’t think Caje is ready, or you’re not ready for Caje?” He paused, letting the question sink in, then continued, “Doc told me a little of what happened. Can’t say I totally understand it, but I do know it’s not like you to not go visit your men. You want to tell me what’s going on?”
“Caje and I had a…had some words. Nothing for you to worry about.”
“Actually, Sergeant, it is something for me to worry about. I need to make sure my squads are capable of doing their jobs, just as you need to make sure your men are. If there is some problem between you and Caje, and you are not going to deal with it, then I have two courses of action. One, if it is serious enough, I can bring him up on whatever charges you think are appropriate or, two, I can reassign him. Danvers expressed some interest.”
“It was just a shoulder wound and a long detour. He and his men will be ready in another day. He saw Caje hanging out out front and asked about him.”
Saunders considered the lieutenant’s options, but then queried, “What’s Caje doing hanging around here?”
“I don’t know. He corners every local who comes through the door.” Hanley stood, indicating that the meeting was over. “It’s your job to know—he’s your man. At least for now. Let me know this evening if you want that changed.” He looked closely at Saunders. “And get some rest and something to eat.”
Saunders walked down the steps of the building onto the narrow cobble stoned street. Even though the buildings across the street cast their shadows over the roadway, the blue sky directly above promised another beautiful autumn day. It was still chilly enough, though, this morning to make the prospect of a blanket and a soft spot seem like a guarantee for a good, long nap. The late night patrol had left everyone exhausted.
But first things first. Saunders turned unwillingly toward the temporary hospital set up in the school down the street. The lieutenant was right; he needed to deal with this.
Caje lay with his eyes closed, but wide-awake. He had been sleeping badly. He was tired of being here, and knew he was ready to leave. He knew the Lt. was curious as to why he kept hanging around the OP. The doctors, though, didn’t care. As long as he seemed to get his rest and the shoulder wound continued to heal…
He had to know what happened to them…to her. He questioned everyone that came through, every informant or Resistance fighter, looking for someone who knew something about that area and what had happened. Everyone knew about the bombings—the rumblings from the planes had shaken the hospital beds Caje’s first night there, followed later, if one was awake and paid attention, to the far away thunder of the bombs.
The other plane had crashed that first night. He knew that. Doc had told him. But whether Bertrand and Guileau had allowed that to happen, allowed the waiting Krauts to shoot it down…Maybe they had gone back to the chateau, maybe no one was the wiser, maybe they were all huddled there together when the bombs came, maybe…He played this game in his head constantly.
It all started with that night...the first night of that feeling. The memory of that feeling sustained him through the last several difficult days. The complete exhaustion of his body had shown him what his mind had refused to admit. He had not been able to detach himself as much as he had thought from the events of the past months. He still was young, but like a very old man, he had started to accept his end as inevitable. The only difference was that there was nothing in between, nothing to draw upon and take comfort when the final moment came. And then there had come that feeling…this woman.
The bond he had felt with her had been so real. It had made him feel as though there could be value to his life, that he could transcend his personal history. Unfortunately, it was too late to tell Theo or Bertrand that he finally understood what they had been trying to tell him—about looking for something, striving for something instead of running away.
He would probably never see her again. And maybe this was not the most important thing. Maybe the most important thing was that he was capable of these emotions.
But he did miss her. Oh, God, he just wanted to know…
He opened his eyes and saw Sarge staring down at him.
Caje sat up, feeling at a disadvantage for whatever was about to come. He knew it was not going to be pleasant.
“You’re feeling better.” Saunders did not take the chair beside the bed.
“I don’t know what to do with you.”
“You know exactly what I mean. We depend on each other out there, you, and me, Kirby…everyone in the squad. We’ve been through this before, and I thought you understood it. There are no personal agendas.”
Caje knew why Saunders kept harping on the issue. It wasn’t the first time something like had happened. There was the incident a month or so ago, when he had accidentally shot a civilian and created an orphan. He had taken it hard and his irrationality had nearly lost Saunders’ trust then. Then there was the whole Theo incident at the landing. And now this.
Caje thought a moment. Did it matter? In the context of everything he had discovered in the past week, did it matter what Saunders thought, or the others?
Yes, he concluded, actually more than it had before all this. He identified his own abilities to survive, and perhaps now to live, with this group of men, and this man in particular. They were inexorably linked in his journey of personal discovery and this fight through Europe.
He could never explain it, not in a way that Saunders could understand. He couldn’t even fully explain it to himself. But the link between his private war and the one they all fought was somehow tied up in the woman and the emotion she evoked. He had to somehow continue and prove himself in the one, in order to sustain the other.
Caje knew Saunders needed something he could believe. Some part of Caje that could be given away, without letting the sergeant see this irrational exuberant emotion roiling inside of him. Something that could maintain the façade of responsibility and trustworthiness. Maybe, though, it wasn’t a façade. Maybe even the Sarge had his own unbelievably strange struggles buried deep inside. Maybe…
“What language do you dream in, Sarge?” Caje didn’t wait for Saunders to reply. He knew the sergeant was in no mood to play games. “I dream in French. I hear my mother, my grandmother, sometimes; just recently, I have thought maybe I heard a wife or children. And they all speak to me in French.”
He looked in the Sarge’s eyes. They were still hard, but curious now. He knew that the Sarge never pushed him on anything private. Maybe he could understand that this was a very personal peace offering.
“I think in French, I dream in French. When you ask me, I tell you in English what is said in French. But I often don’t tell you what else they say, those people. When they talk of being hungry, afraid, of their children or parents dying. It is not important to you, it is not important to the mission. I tell you only what you need to know—and,” Caje emphasized, “what you want to know. You don’t want to know the rest.”
Saunders shrugged. “Like you said, I don’t need to know. What does this have to do with anything?”
“I’ll tell you, Sarge. You don’t want to know for the same reason you don’t ask any of us—Kirby, Littlejohn, Billy—who was responsible for saving your life on any give day. For the same reason you don’t ask what anyone of us is going to do after the war. It makes your job easier…makes it easier to be dispassionate and objective about the decisions you have to make.” He held up his hand. He could tell Saunders was now starting to get angry, but Caje didn’t want to be interrupted.
“I know you have to do your job. I wouldn’t want it. Not everyone could do it. And I don’t know what it costs you. Maybe nothing—but I don’t believe that. But don’t think that what you ask me has no cost. ‘Listen to them Caje, tell me what they say—but only what I want to know.’ I can’t filter it out, Sarge. I can’t not hear them. I don’t have a choice. I try to stay uninvolved, to have no ‘personal agenda’. But when I hear them, I hear my family…maybe, my future.” He had to grind out the last words through his own learned reticence. It was almost a whisper.
Saunders pulled up the chair and sat down. He put his hand to his mouth for a moment, rubbing his lips with his fist. Then he put it down and began to speak with a cold, quiet intensity.
“You want to know what I hear, Caje? I hear you, Kirby, Littlejohn…whoever. I hear Hanley when I don’t bring one of you back. And I hear Billy’s girlfriend Evelyn asking me what happened. I hear Kirby’s mother…Oh, yes.” He nodded at Caje’s startled expression. “I hear you all talk. I know—just because I don’t ask doesn’t mean I don’t know. And I know about you—this own little personal war you’ve been fighting since Theo died.”
Caje tried to keep his face impassive. This is not the direction he had intended the conversation to go.
“You think I don’t know that you take chances you shouldn’t out there? You think that I think you do whatever I tell you just because you’re a good soldier? I know better. I know that you may not care—about yourself, anyway. You have some personal demons you’re battling. Maybe you think reckless is the opposite of cowardice…”
Caje glared, eyes flashing, but Saunders continued relentlessly.
“But I at least thought you cared enough about the others—and what they want—to make the smart decisions. So they don’t end up like Theo. If I’m wrong in that, you tell me now. I’m listening. No…actually, I want you to think about it. You think about those other voices you say I don’t hear. And you ask yourself if you can come back to this squad and do what is right for them.”
Saunders stood. “We’re camped out down by an old icehouse. I have ‘til tonight to let Hanley know if I need someone else. You can go to Danvers, if you chose.”
Caje remained motionless as Sarge went down the narrow aisle between the other cots. He saw the soldier two beds down staring at him. Ignoring the questioning look, Caje reached under the bed and found his hidden pack of cigarettes. He pulled one out and lit it, blatantly violating the rules.
Saunders stepped back out onto the street. In just the few minutes he had been inside the temporary hospital, the temperature had started to rise. Didn’t matter—his nap was needed whether a blanket was not. The idea had been nice, however.
He set off back the way he came, trying not to think about the scene that had just occurred. But as he passed the OP, he couldn’t help but stop and stare at the sign. He had no idea of what it said. Could be dentist---could be convent, tobacco shop, anything…He thought he had known, but after being inside a little while ago, he knew he was wrong.
“Hey, Sarge, what you staring at?”
Doc came up alongside Saunders and peered up at the sign. “What’s it say?”
Saunders scratched his nose. “Don’t know.”
Doc turned and looked at him thoughtfully. “You could ask Caje. I’m on my way over there right now, see how he and Billy are doing.”
Saunders still didn’t look at him. “Naw—just left. I reckon Caje would know, though.”
Doc sensed something bothering the sergeant. It wasn’t anything new. He had been a bear every since they had found Caje and the two of them had clearly had a falling out. Doc sighed. It wasn’t the first time, and wouldn’t be the last that the men in the squad squabbled. Most times it was over nothing, and soon was forgotten. But this was not a poker game, and these two—Saunders and Caje—were too much alike. They liked to keep the hard things to themselves. But if they both did it at the same time, with neither one reaching out, this thing between them would never be resolved. And that, Doc decided, was unacceptable.
“Yeah, Caje would know,” Doc agreed. “But he’d only tell you if you asked him—or if he thought it was important.”
Saunders turned his attention away from the sign and to the man next to him. “You think so?”
“I know so, Sarge.” Doc looked at Saunders expectantly.
“I just don’t know if I can trust him.”
“What’s changed, Sarge? You always have—trusted Caje, I mean. Everyone, including Caje, knows he’s the one you go to when something has to get done. You put a lot of pressure on him—but I’ve never heard him complain.” He paused, then added, “Kinda’ like you and Hanley.”
“Yeah, I know. You ever wonder about that?”
“About Caje not complaining? Yup. I wonder about all of you—us. We each deal with things in our own way. You, too, Sarge. But just because I don’t understand someone, doesn’t mean I don’t trust them.”
“You giving me a lecture, Doc?”
“Wouldn’t think of it. Wouldn’t know what to say, anyway. As Caje told me the other night, sometimes you just feel helpless.”
“He said that? He tell you what was going on back there?”
“Yeah, he said that. But that’s all he said.”
Saunders looked down and kicked at a loose stoned in the street. Caje had been trying to tell him something this morning. And he hadn’t wanted to listen—it was too personal. So he had turned the conversation around because…He really didn’t want to know. Shit…
“Tell Caje to meet us at the icehouse after he gets checked out. Not to worry about Danvers.”
“Were you thinking about transferring him?”
“Don’t worry about it, Doc. Just tell him. I’m going to catch some sleep.”
“Okay, Sarge. Whatever you say.”
Doc watched Saunders wonder down the street. It wasn’t the sergeant’s usual purposeful stride. Good, Doc thought. Maybe Sarge was chewing on what they had said a little. That old man of Caje’s back there wasn’t the only one who took a—what was it Caje had called it?—“holistic” approach to medicine.
Around eight o’clock that evening Caje walked out of Hanley’s office and turned left toward where he had been told the icehouse was located. The street was now shiny from the mist that had settled in, bringing an early end to the brilliant sunshine that had endured throughout the morning and part of the afternoon. He walked carefully over the unlit cobblestones, listening through half-closed shutters and broken windows to snatches of conversations. In the dark street, there were occasional signs on the outside of the houses: an upholsterer, a repairer of bicycles, a flower shop. Though much of the village was still inhabited, it was too late for customers, and the occasional lit interiors of these shops and homes showed domestic scenes surprisingly unaffected by the war.
One particular scene near the end of the street made Caje smile; lamplight showed an older man sitting at a table finishing his wine while a woman cleared the dishes from an oil-cloth covered table.
Thank God, he thought, reflecting on the news Hanley had just given him.
Just a few minutes ago, seeing Caje hesitating at the door, the lieutenant had motioned him in with an impatient wave of his hand.
“You’re back. And you’re going back to Saunders’ platoon.”
“But that’s not why you’re here, is it?”
“No, sir.” Caje hesitated. He knew Hanley was starting to wonder what was up with him hanging around the OP, but so far, the lieutenant hadn’t done anything but stare questioningly as he cornered the occasional civilians entering. “I was just wondering, sir, if anyone…”
“Yes, I think I know what you were wondering. An old man brought a British pilot in earlier. Apparently he was one of the men from that plane that went down earlier this week. Funny thing, this airman had your dog tags with him.” Hanley paused and shoved some papers around on his desk. Finding the desired objects, he tossed the tags to Caje. “The Brit couldn’t tell us why he had your tags—too out of it. May lose his leg. So we asked the old man. Said his name was ‘old Pierre’.”
Caje started. “Is he still here?”
Hanley looked at him closely. “No, he’s gone. But he said that he thought the old doctor and his family who took care of the Brit had taken care of another soldier. Figure it must have been you.”
Caje rubbed his tags between his fingers thoughtfully. Old Pierre had never seen him, but Bertrand or Louisa must have talked. Or maybe someone had given Pierre a message for him.
“Did he say anything else, Lieutenant?”
“No, he didn’t. But Captain Jampel did ask him to thank the old doctor and his family, and he said he would. Said he was heading back to some chateau in Santenay. Does that mean something to you?”
Caje continued staring at his dog tags, and nodded. It was not the confirmation that everyone was okay that he wanted to hear, but if Old Pierre was heading back, and agreed to take the message, then...well, things couldn’t be all bad with Bertrand and his family.
“Yes, sir. It does mean something to me.”
“Good. I’m glad.” The sarcasm was not lost on Caje. “Do you want to tell my why you have been using my OP and the Maquis as your own personal mail service?”
“Sorry, Lieutenant. The people who helped me out—I just wanted to find out if they were okay. Thought maybe someone in the Maquis would know.”
“Hmmm, I see. They, uh, took good care of you?”
“Yes, sir. The doctor’s here at the field hospital said that the old man cauterizing that infection may have saved my life.”
Caje met Hanley’s eyes without flinching. He was careful to make sure that there was nothing in his demeanor to indicate any more or less to the story than what he just offered.
“Okay, you’ve got what you wanted. Dismissed. But remember, don’t get too involved. We’re already here doing all we can do.”
Bringing his thoughts back to the present, Caje realized the mist now had put out his cigarette as he paused. Time to move on, he thought. The old man inside was now pouring another glass of wine. Caje hoped Bertrand was somewhere doing the same.
As he continued down the street, Caje decided the Lieutenant was wrong. No, not necessarily wrong. He just didn’t follow the current situation all the way to its conclusion. The Allies may be doing all they could here for the government, for the French army and those of the other occupied countries, but the people themselves were doing all they could, also. Continuing to put food on the table, continuing to love, holding their families together in the best way that they knew how among all the violence and destruction that had fallen on them. Maybe they had contributed to what occurred in some small way, but each individual on their own did not create the war. It was up to each person, though, to determine how they would survive the war. And surviving was beyond still living and breathing when this conflict was finally over. It was about still being able to enjoy a good meal, the laugh of a child, the warmth of a woman—without recriminations or regrets.
Bertrand seemed to understand some of this, Caje thought, and maybe he—and Claire Marie--were on their way. But they would have to help themselves, and face the tough issues, whether they had created them or not. Tonight, Caje resolved, he would write Angelina and Armand. It would be a start. Sarge, though, and what they had talked about earlier…he wasn’t sure how he would approach that.
The street ended abruptly at another one that ran perpendicular. Caje spied the icehouse on the right, and made his way over. The light of a fire drew him to an old docking platform, where the ice had once been slid onto the backs of waiting wagons. There was no ice tonight, but the fire and slight shelter of a remaining overhang provided the illusion of warmth from the chill outside. The men of the platoon were spread around the bay; McCall, Littlejohn, and Knight off to the side arguing over poker, Doc and Kirby tending the coffeepot. Saunders and a guy Caje didn’t recognize were talking over to the side.
Doc caught sight of him first.
“Caje! Welcome back.”
Caje came up to the fire. The weather was deceptively mild at first, but the cold definitely set in after the few minutes walk from the OP. He stretched out his hands.
“Looks like fall’s here.”
“You’re not kidding, buddy.” Kirby grinned. “Aren’t you glad to get out of that warm bed and come out and enjoy it with us?”
“Yeah, sure Kirby. Who’s the new guy joining us?” He motioned over to Saunders and the other soldier.
“Mitchell’s his name. We requested one more like McCall than Knight over there, but you know supply can’t ever get anything right.”
“What, Kirby, you didn’t ask for another one like me?”
“Well, I heard you were coming back. Doc here told me. ‘Sides, it takes a special requisition to get a fighting Frenchman.” Kirby laughed, then frowned as Doc kicked him on the shin. “What? Hey, Caje ain’t no Frenchman, right, buddy? He’s a Cajun.”
Kirby looked up defensively at Caje, but the other man was staring speculatively at the sergeant.
“I was trying to explain to that to Sergeant Danvers the other day.”
Caje turned his attention back to Kirby and Doc. He sat down with them near the fire, pulled out his cup, and helped himself to the last of the coffee.
“Explain what Kirby?”
“What I just said. You know, about you being Cajun.”
They were interrupted as McCall and Littlejohn approached the fire, the game ended for the moment.
“There some of that coffee left? I’m freezing.” McCall reached over to grab the pot.
“I think we’re gonna’ have to make some more.”
“Well, this time you’re not making it Doc. That stuff is about the worst I’ve ever tasted.” Kirby emptied his into the fire. “What I could go for is a real cup of joe, like I used to get at this place Maggie’s down the street back home.”
Littlejohn, who had clapped Caje on the back in a welcoming gesture, chimed in. “Yeah, and a doughnut. We had a place back home where everyone would come in on Saturdays—market days—and just line up for the coffee and doughnuts.”
Caje listened to the conversation and smiled to himself. It seemed he had had a similar conversation just a few days ago, when he hadn’t thought about such things in years.
“Yeah, I could go for some café au lait and beignets myself.”
“What’s that?” McCall accompanied the question with his hand outstretched.
Caje shook it in acknowledgement of their first real meeting and answered the question. “It’s what I grew up on, chicory coffee with milk and sugar, and a type of doughnut.” He didn’t notice Saunders pulling up closer to the fire with the new guy.
Kirby rubbed his chilled nose. “Hey, I don’t need any fancy coffee…but one of them bei…whatevers would be good. You see any place that in town? This place is in pretty good shape.”
Caje shook his head. “No…they wouldn’t have beignets, anyway. They’re not French.”
“Who’s not French?” Kirby was confused.
“The beignets. They’re not French. They’re from home.”
“Sounds French to me.” Kirby shook his head.
Caje laughed. “I think this is what we were talking about a minute ago, Kirby.”
McCall reached in for the pot. “I’ll make some more.”
Doc smiled up at him. “That’s real obliging, McCall. If we wait for one of these fellows to finish exchanging recipes, it’ll never happen.”
Kirby shrugged. “Aw, Doc. We’re just catching up. Haven’t had ol’ Caje around for a while. He’s been lazing around and hanging out with Hanley, bucking for an aide position, I think.”
Caje retorted, “Actually, I think I would rather be out here even with you, Kirby, than be Hanley’s aide.”
Littlejohn leaned over and rubbed his hands hear the warmth of the flames. “What you been hanging round Hanley for?”
“I haven’t been hanging round Hanley. Just trying to find out something.”
Kirby added, “He’s been trying to find out ‘bout that family that helped me take care of him, right? That old doctor back with the Resistance, and there was an old woman, a kid, and a cripple.” He looked to Caje for confirmation.
“What did you learn, Caje? Anything?” Doc asked, but Caje barely heard him.
Caje stared into the fire. He felt his anger rising at the reference to Claire Marie, but was suddenly aware of Saunders hanging back in the shadows. He could sense the sergeant’s eyes on him. He took a deep breath. It was no good.
“Kirby, your mother should have strangled you at birth.”
“What’d I say? What’s your problem?” Kirby leaned in toward Caje.
Caje took another deep breath, but Saunders interrupted before he could answer—or do anything.
“Caje! Over here.”
Caje stood abruptly and with a cold flicker of his eyes at a still startled Kirby, went over to where Saunders and Mitchell stood. Saunders perfunctorily introduced them, then sent Mitchell over to the fire with a nod of his head.
The question was casual, but Caje felt there was more to it, and remembered the sergeant’s comment back at the hospital about listening. He thought about Doc’s question, about what he had learned. Yeah, he had learned a lot over the past few days but it seemed, despite his resolutions of just a while ago, there were a few things in life he may not be able to change. Like his temper.
He looked ruefully at Saunders. “Yeah, Sarge. Kirby can just be…annoying sometimes.”
Saunders stared at Caje. “I didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary.”
“I don’t suppose you did, Sarge.”
They looked at each other, then both nodded in acknowledgement of what hadn’t been said. Saunders knew there was more to Caje’s reaction to Kirby’s question, but Caje wasn’t going to tell. And Saunders really didn’t want to know.
“You ready to go out tomorrow?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be, Sarge.”
Saunders watched Caje go back to the fire. The guy was an enigma—hot headed in temperament, cold blooded in killing, with a surprising soft spot for old women, children, and others who couldn’t help themselves. From what he had just heard, the family who had offered the soldier help this past week had had all these things. Perhaps that’s why some personal area in the private seemed to have been pried just the slightest bit opened this morning, some area that Saunders until now had not even known for sure existed. Not that he had tried to find out—he didn’t want to wrestle with anyone’s demons but his own. If someone else wanted to deal with Caje’s demons, that was fine. As long as it didn’t interfere with the squad or its mission. For now, Saunders thought, he had what he needed. Caje was ready to go back out.
Two month later.
Martin Christopher stared at the dresser where the box lay. Tonight was the night. If, he thought with irony, he didn’t loose his nerve.
Sheila had been there for him ever since he had arrived back in England, minus one leg. And she didn’t seem to mind, didn’t seem repulsed or overly considerate. As she had been from the moment St. Claire introduced them, she had been the perfect woman. She accepted with just the correct amount of seemly grief St. Claire’s death, and had, surprisingly, been the rock for Martin in his wallowing in guilt over his own survival.
He didn’t think St. Claire would mind, under the circumstances, his proposing to Sheila. It just seemed right. But there were two things he had to resolve before he could do it. And he had been putting them off for weeks now. First, he had to decide what to do with the ring. He had gone out and bought another for the proposal tonight. It would just be—well, it would just be too much to use the same one, though he thought with regret that Sheila would have made out better along those lines in the original proposal.
The second thing was the letter. The old lady had thrust it on him with some dog tags at the French farmhouse where he had been hidden after the crash. It had been surprising, waking up to a voice that sounded remarkably like that of his aunt Minnie. He had thought for brief instant that he was a child back in Cornwall. He still had no idea of what a Cornish woman was doing in the middle of the war in France, but had been grateful for her ministrations, the change of clothing she had brought, and her explanation of the plan to get him back to his own lines to try to save his leg. He remembered the promise he had given her, and the haunted look in her blue eyes when he had tried to explain that what had happened was not their fault. That there must have been some confusion over the drop time. She had just looked out the window, thoughtfully, and continued holding the cool cloth to his forehead.
When he had wakened three days later he was back in Allied territory. The dog tags were no longer in his possession nor the letter, but the ring remained, along with the contents of his wallet. Several days later, after examination by S2, the letter was returned, but by then his leg was gone and he was on his way to England and an honorable discharge.
But somehow, he felt it would not be fully honorable—the discharge—if he did not keep his promise to that old lady who had helped save his life. She had explained briefly the contents of the letter—some GI and her niece. And now he had it in his head that if he did not do something to let this soldier that someone care for him….well, he remembered that last conversation with St. Claire before the fateful flight. About knowing how someone felt about you, and that being what got you through. Maybe if St. Claire had proposed to Sheila that night, maybe he wouldn’t be lying in some field in France.
He shook his head. It was rubbish, and he knew it. But the letter sat there, with the ring, just staring at him. He really didn’t want to go to HQ, to see the pitying faces of the other men as he limped down the hall with the il-fitting leg and cane. But there was no other way to find out how to get rid of the letter. He couldn’t throw it away—he felt it would somehow affect the whole Sheila thing. If not the actual proposal, then the marriage itself.
The dog tags were gone, but someone that fateful night had inquired about a missing GI before the plane had taken off. St. Claire had brushed it off, nodding acknowledgment and then clearly putting it out of his mind. It had to be the same person. And now Martin getting up his nerve to propose to Sheila was somehow tied up in this damn letter to that same soldier and his own promise to the old woman. Not that Martin was the least superstitious…
Saunders stared at Caje, who was focused on shoving his eggs around on his plate with the tip of his knife. It still did not make sense.
“You mean, you never, uh….?”
“No, Sarge, I’m telling you, it wasn’t like that.”
“But you’ve been thinking of this girl continuously for uh, let’s see, nearly ten months?”
Caje looked up and squinted at the sergeant. The sun was finally at the point it could reach over the buildings of the narrow street, brightening the small sidewalk café. His head was pounding, from alcohol, excitement, and the effort of dragging into the open very personal feelings. And doing the latter in front of Saunders…
“No, Sarge. I’ve been thinking of staying alive for the past ten months. Like everybody else. Let’s just say, I didn’t really know why.”
Saunders raised his eyebrows.
“No,” Caje shook his head, “I didn’t say that right. Let’s just say I didn’t realize why the reasoning changed after I met her. You know,” he pointed his knife in emphasis, “that before I went missing that time, I was…uh, maybe a bit careless.”
Saunders nodded. “Yeah. I thought you and Kirby getting lost, then what happened, maybe you ended up a little smarter.”
Caje looked at the sergeant curiously. “Do you remember the conversation we had in Loire after I came back?”
“Yeah. Some. Why?” Saunders was starting to wonder where this conversation was going to finish, and where his duty to these men was going to end. He had kept what he could of them alive, and fulfilled his missions to the best of everyone’s ability. He had made sure of that. But they didn’t have a mission now, just to go home. And put it all behind them. As much as they could. And he wanted Caje to do fall into line, to do the same.