Based on the ABC
Television Series: Combat!
Fan Fiction Take-off on the Episode "A Distant Drum"
Copyright 1999 by Terry Pierce
Do Not Reprint or Distribute Without the Author’s Permission. All Rights Reserved.
Walheim heaved a sigh and heavily clumped his way down the steps in front of the house. He reached up to adjust his helmet, then steadied the cup of what would have to pass for coffee that he carried in his other hand. It was still dark, but the air was cool and challenged him to throw off his drowsiness. Grumpily, he wondered how four hours could have passed so quickly. It seemed he would never get enough sleep as long as this tiresome war raged on.
He sighed again and turned to trudge the distance to the barn. As he made his way across the yard, he spotted Eckherdt at his post near one of the outbuildings. The stocky sentry hunched himself lower inside his jacket and looked as miserable as Walheim felt. Walheim nodded sympathetically at him and decided guard duty was one of the things he’d miss least when his days of service in the all-glorious German army came to an end. He’d had enough of its tediousness to last him a lifetime.
He stifled a yawn, then cursed as coffee sloshed over his hand. Pausing to wipe his hand on his pants, he took a sip of the coffee to lower it to a more manageable level. In another couple of hours it would be daylight, and maybe that would dispel his desire for more sleep. In the meantime, he’d have to rely on sheer determination and the contents of this cup to get him through.
Halfway across the yard, he could just make out the hulking structure straight ahead. The barn had been solidly built, its walls crafted so well that very little light from the lanterns inside was escaping it. The old man, so meticulous about his holdings, couldn’t be too happy about the place being overrun by the Wehrmacht. Still, he’d been cooperative - even if only to minimize potential damages.
Walheim paused for another sip of coffee and pushed open the barn door just wide enough to squeeze through. Weiss stood up, his rifle at the ready, but relaxed and greeted him as soon as he recognized his relief. Walheim returned the haggard soldier’s greeting and, unslinging his own rifle, scanned the room.
The two Americans were where they’d been all night, although Kirby was now awake and sitting upright. He looked dully at the doorway but just as quickly turned away again. Walheim could see that the Ami hadn’t slept well and his bonds must be causing him some misery. It was likely he was hungry too…but that wasn’t the guards’ problem. Until the mess detail showed up, Kirby could just go on suffering.
Walheim glanced at LeMay to see what kind of shape the wounded man was in. LeMay had rolled onto his left side and had his eyes closed. Breathing unevenly, his hair wet and flopping into a face ruddy with fever, he didn’t look like much of a threat now. Walheim wondered how he’d ever let the prisoner get to him earlier. Chalking it up to being tired, he promised himself it wouldn’t happen again.
He advanced on Weiss and asked how the night had gone. Weiss told him it had been uneventful until Kirby had woken up an hour or so ago. Since then, the American had seemed to be preoccupied with trying to get into a comfortable position. As for LeMay, he just kept sleeping. A while before, Kirby had called over to him - until Weiss had put a stop to it - but LeMay hadn’t responded. Other than that, neither Ami had been any trouble.
Weiss yawned and asked if he were needed for anything else. Walheim told him no - unless, of course, Weiss also wanted to handle the next shift. Weiss rolled his eyes at that idea, then shuffled wearily toward the door.
From his place on the floor, Kirby shifted his legs for what must’ve been the hundredth time in the last hour and watched as the Kraut called Weiss left. Kirby desperately wanted to be released from the post and feared he’d crack up pretty soon if he didn’t get some relief from the rope around his wrists. Wondering what to focus on next to take his mind off his aching arms and the maddening desire to move them forward, he stifled a groan and shifted around again.
The familiar smell of sulfur mingling with tobacco caught his attention, and he turned to get a closer look at the guard who’d just arrived. Weiss had called the guy Walheim, and the Kraut looked like he was about his own age. Average-looking, he had a medium build and dark hair. He was clean-shaven and didn’t look particularly tough, but his eyes were hard and suggested he wouldn’t be too open to any ideas about giving aid or comfort to the enemy.
In fact, even as Walheim became aware of being scrutinized, he straightened up and casually pointed his rifle in Kirby’s general direction.
Undaunted, Kirby asked in a conversational tone, "Hey, you wouldn’t happen to have an extra one of those on you, would ya?"
Walheim continued to watch him but gave no indication he’d understood the question.
“You know…a cigarette," Kirby persisted. "Ein ‘cigarette-en’. Cigarette. Do you got an extra one?"
Walheim turned away to study the wall opposite him.
"Yeah," Kirby said in resignation, “I figured as much." Adding, "You creep," he pulled up his legs and rested his forehead on his knees. His mind skittered crazily, and he forced himself to take some deep breaths to calm down. After all, falling apart wouldn’t exactly make things any easier.
He began to move his fingers back and forth, absently counting how many times he raised and lowered each one in turn. Tiring of that, he flexed them in time to a tune which had taken hold in his mind and was now repeating itself endlessly.
"I’ve been workin’ on the raaailroad, all the live long day…"
Closing his eyes, Kirby indulged his thoughts in the monotony of it.
"I’ve been workin’ on the raaailroad, just to pass the time away…"
For a while, the rhythm of the song was engaging, and he managed to soothe himself with it, but as the novelty of the piece began to wear off, he became edgy once more and abandoned the exercise.
Instead, with his eyes still closed, he impulsively called out, "Hey, Fritz! Did I ever tell you the one about the priest, the rabbi, and the bartender?" Kirby paused and, chuckling mirthlessly, continued, "Oh, yeah…I hear you Germans ain’t interested in rabbis. Well, that’s okay. We’ll just come up with somethin’ else then." He leaned his head back against the post and thought for a moment. "Huh. Well, let’s see…how about a CO? Think that’d work? Yeah, me too. Okay, so this priest, this CO, and this bartender are all talkin’, y’see, and they get into this argument…"
"Halt den mund!" Walheim snapped.
Startled, Kirby opened his eyes. "What’s the matter, Kraut? You don’t like jokes?"
He turned his head to see Walheim rising to his feet and raising his rifle.
"Oh, yeah…okay." Kirby straightened up and, in as soothing a voice as he could muster, tried to placate the guard. "I hear ya. Just take it easy. Hell, I didn’t mean nothin’ by it." Turning his head away again he muttered, "Jerk."
At the same time, Walheim grumbled, "Idiot."
Kirby sighed and decided right then and there that the very next Kraut he got his hands on he was personally going to strangle – that is, if his arms still worked after this. He shifted around again, crossed his legs, and tilted his head forward. After examining his boots, he silently began to name as many bars and taverns in Chicago as he could remember. Unfortunately, this amusement proved short-lived too, since few were coming to mind.
Mercifully, the door to the barn opened, providing a welcome diversion. Two soldiers entered, juggling bundles and their rifles. One was also holding a small, steaming pot, and Kirby detected the faint aroma of ersatz coffee from it as the German passed by. Kirby recognized him as the blond from yesterday and was relieved to see the guy had decided to leave the high-strung redhead at home this time around. There was no telling what morning roll with him would’ve been like. Still, it was hard to say whether or not the blond and his new partner were up to no good, so Kirby became wary.
Walheim spoke, acknowledging the newcomers. They nodded at him, and the blond – who turned out to be named Rieger – asked a question. Walheim shrugged and walked forward. He and Rieger wound up in a conference while the Kraut they called Hauptmann took the bundles and pot and set them on a nearby shelf.
The three Germans turned their attention to Kirby. He was surprised at his nervousness and hoped it wasn’t showing too much. Hauptmann circled around behind him, and Kirby wondered what they were going to do now. He watched with growing apprehension as Walheim raised his rifle again and aimed it at his chest.
Without warning, Kirby felt the blade of a knife being plunged into the rope around his wrists. The rope grew more and more taut as Hauptmann sawed into it, and Kirby couldn’t help wincing as his bonds dug deeper into his already raw flesh. He turned his head and bit his lip to keep quiet as the pain grew more intense. When he thought he couldn’t stand it any longer, the rope fell away, and he found himself free of the post.
Not knowing what was expected of him, Kirby didn’t move. Hauptmann grabbed him by an arm and hauled him to his feet. Kirby gasped at the pain that shot down the length of both his arms as they suddenly rotated in their sockets. Dizziness seized him, and he feared he might fall.
Hauptmann let go and, unslinging his rifle, raised it to Kirby’s back and growled something Kirby couldn’t understand. He pushed Kirby forward with a hard jab to the spine. Kirby stumbled but regained his footing and reluctantly allowed himself to be prodded toward the door.
Walheim stepped out of the way to let Kirby and Hauptmann pass. As he watched them go, Walheim wondered if Kirby would give Hauptmann any trouble. If he did, the Ami was liable to find out Hauptmann wouldn’t put up with any monkey business. Kirby would do well to relieve himself and forget about anything else.
Cradling his rifle, Walheim went to retrieve his coffee cup. He scooped it up, walked toward where Rieger was working at the shelf, and reached past him for the pot. As Walheim poured himself a refill, Rieger asked how things were going. Walheim shrugged again, then reported that, except for moments of sheer tediousness, it was all pretty dull. His friend chuckled at that before hinting it might be an exciting change of pace to serve their guests breakfast. Now it was Walheim’s turn to laugh.
He turned and glanced at the prisoner in the corner. LeMay hadn’t moved since the watch had begun. Walheim asked Rieger about the Ami’s prognosis.
Rieger turned to get a look at the wounded man too and said that LeMay would probably be all right in a couple of weeks - the old doctor had done a pretty thorough job on him. The Frenchman must have given the American quite a painkiller though. It seemed as if LeMay should’ve been lucid by now - not that it mattered. This way keeping an eye on him was only that much easier.
Walheim was about to reveal his own thoughts as to how it could be made easier when the door opened again. Hauptmann was returning with Kirby. Rieger motioned Hauptmann to bring Kirby over, and Walheim stepped aside.
Kirby felt a hand on his arm again, steering him toward Rieger. Drawing near, Kirby could see the food the Krauts had brought, and he wondered if he’d be able to get anything down. Rieger stepped back and pointed to a canteen and a plate that held several thin slices of coarse black bread spread with something Kirby couldn’t identify. Pointing past Kirby, Rieger made it obvious these things were to be taken over to Caje.
Kirby nodded his understanding and reached forward. His hands were still numb, and it took several tries before he was able to lift the meal from the shelf. Finally getting it in his grasp, he turned to cross the room with Hauptmann in tow and wondered why Caje was still out of it. It seemed like the guy should’ve been showing some signs of life by now. It was a good thing the Krauts wanted him to have some chow. If nothing else, taking Caje food was a chance to see how he was doing.
Reaching his side, Kirby hesitated, then turned to ask whichever Kraut cared to answer, "S’okay if I help him with this?" He moved the canteen back and forth several times between himself and Caje to show what he meant.
No one responded until Rieger waved at him to go ahead. Hauptmann, still at Kirby’s back, stepped closer, and Kirby knew his every move was going to be scrutinized. Moving carefully, he knelt next to Caje and set the plate in the straw several feet off to the side. He put the canteen at his own knees, leaned forward, and briefly studied the still man. Gently laying a hand on Caje’s arm, he spoke to him quietly.
"Caje? C’mon, it’s time to get up. You need to drink somethin’."
He received no response for his effort.
"C’mon, Caje," Kirby insisted. "Come out of it. You gotta get somethin’ to drink."
He waited a moment before slapping Caje lightly on the cheek a couple of times. "Caje, it’s me…Kirby. C’mon, I don’t have much time. You gotta snap out of it."
Caje groaned and murmured, "Kirby."
The word came out slurred, but Kirby was pleased to hear it.
"Yeah…yeah, it’s me," he encouraged. "You want somethin’ to drink? I got some water here." He waited again for a response, but Caje lapsed back into silence.
Frustrated, Kirby reached around the soldier to center a hand on Caje’s lower back and, placing another one on the scout’s ribs, carefully rotated him so that he was facing up.
Caje groaned again, then mumbling, "What do you want?" attempted to push the offending hands away.
"Caje," Kirby urged. "Caje!" He leaned forward and, putting his own face close to the wounded man’s, pleaded, "C’mon, you can hear me, can’t ya? You’ve got to come out of it."
"Hanley…" Caje was becoming agitated. "Il n’est pas ici…"
Kirby heard the sound of feet shuffling in the straw behind him, and a vision of the impatient redhead quickly crossed his mind.
"No!" he said sharply, cupping Caje’s face in his hands. "Caje, you gotta wake up! It’s me, Kirby. Kirby!"
Caje’s eyes fluttered open. He peered at the man above him for several seconds, then said, "Kirby?"
"Yeah," Kirby confirmed with relief. "It’s me. Caje, you gotta take a drink of water. Here…" He slid an arm around Caje’s neck to lift his head and brought the canteen up to his lips.
Caje obliged him by taking a little but, after a moment, pulled back from it. "No, I …" it came out as a sort of sigh, "…it’s enough." He closed his eyes again and brought a hand up to his chest.
"Caje," Kirby rushed the words, "how do you feel? Do ya think you’re gonna be all right? There’s some food here if you want it." He lowered him once more and reached for the plate.
"Non." Caje’s voice was almost inaudible now. "Je n’ai pas faim."
"What?" Kirby tried to control his growing frustration. "You gotta talk English. You know I don’t get that ‘par-lezz-voo’ stuff."
"No…food," the other man breathed. He turned his face toward the wall and fell silent.
"Aw, Caje," Kirby said helplessly. He frowned and wondered how they were ever going to get out of here. There couldn’t be much time left to slip away, and if they were taken any deeper into Kraut territory, it’d no longer be a simple matter of ‘duck and run’ to get to safety.
"Can’t you…?" Kirby began as he laid a hand on Caje’s arm again, but Hauptmann interrupted him.
Kirby scowled at Hauptmann, then glanced past him at Rieger. Wearing an unreadable expression, Rieger signaled it was time to get up. Reluctant, Kirby got to his feet and, moving carefully so as not to upset anyone, stepped away from Caje. Hauptmann waved him forward, and Kirby grimly obeyed.
When Kirby had advanced a few yards beyond Hauptmann, the German commanded him to halt. Kirby froze and waited for additional directions. He noticed Walheim approaching and holding another length of rope. Kirby’s heart dropped as he realized he was to be tied again. He closed his eyes, tilted his head back, and wondered briefly if it would be better just to let the Krauts shoot him now and get it over with. Then shaking his head to clear it, he opened his eyes and watched as Walheim advanced to the post.
Hauptmann shoved him forward, and Kirby also headed to the post. Walheim met him there, and Kirby could see the Kraut’s expression was a mix of distaste and pure hatred. His own anger flared, and he fought to keep it under control. It’d be too easy to give in to impulse and provide Walheim with the excuse to kill him - and why let the creep have the satisfaction?
Besides, Caje might still need help at some point.
Kirby gave Walheim a dirty look, and both enemies’ eyes locked, the air becoming heavy with tension. Neither man moved until a sharp voice from the side of the room barked at them. Startled, the pair looked at Rieger, and Walheim nodded an acknowledgment of Rieger’s command.
Walheim took hold of one of Kirby’s arms and yanked it forward past the wood. Reaching for the other one, Walheim circled it to meet the first and clamped them together, winding the rope tightly around Kirby’s wrists. Kirby felt pain during this, but he managed to maintain eye contact and kept his expression as neutral as he could. When Walheim finished, he dropped Kirby’s hands in disgust and moved away from him once more.
Kirby inspected his wrists, then stood still, uncertain about what to do next. Although he wasn’t comfortable by any means, he was relieved to have his arms in front of him this time and grateful he wasn’t tied directly to the post.
Rieger gathered up a plate and cup from the shelf and came toward him. Getting to within a few feet, Rieger waved Kirby down to the floor. Kirby dutifully sat in the straw and watched as Rieger set the food and drink within reach. Straightening up, Rieger turned, tossed off a salute to Walheim, and beckoned to Hauptmann. Hauptmann fell into step behind Rieger, and the pair disappeared through the door.
Kirby turned his attention to the food but opted for the drink. Hugging the post to his chest, he extended his arms toward the coffee cup and was able to retrieve it with only minor difficulty. Its delicate fragility surprised him, and he wondered if it was one of the Window Box family’s finest. As he began to maneuver it up to his lips, he tried to guess how many Krauts the old man was putting up with in his kitchen this morning.
Kirby took a sip of the coffee and grimaced just as a rifle reported from somewhere close by. Startled, he spilled some of the lukewarm liquid on himself, then he froze. More shooting began, and soon it sounded as if a whole company was opening up on the compound. Kirby’s mind raced as he considered this, and he looked with a bit of uncertainty toward Walheim. Walheim, turning pale and clutching his rifle, also appeared uncertain.
Caje moaned and drew up one of his legs. Both men across from him started at this, and Walheim sprang to his feet. Kirby put down his cup and looked from Walheim to Caje and back again. With growing anxiety, Kirby twisted his hands to test the security of the knots holding him. Walheim took a few steps in Caje’s direction but hesitated when his comrades outside began returning fire.
Walheim seemed to consider things, then he strode toward the door. Pulling down the lantern hanging there, he extinguished its flame. He crossed to the opposite side of the doorway and positioned himself along the wall. From there, he could keep an eye on his prisoners and have the advantage of being behind anyone who might decide to enter the barn.
Filled with nervous energy now, Kirby attempted to get to his feet, but Walheim shouted, "Bleib Sie sitzen!" and motioned at him to stay down. Frustrated, Kirby forced himself to do as he was told. He listened to the firefight raging outside and watched Walheim growing increasingly nervous. Occasionally, a bullet would find the barn, and its impact would startle both men. When the jarring noise of mortar fire joined in with the din of the small arms, Kirby’s adrenaline level soared. Again he strained at the rope holding his wrists.
Walheim became more and more jumpy. At one point, he took several steps toward Caje, then looking distracted, returned to his place at the wall. Kirby wondered if the Kraut wanted to vacate the building but couldn’t figure out how to do it with his prisoners in tow. As Walheim wiped perspiration off his face and resumed alternately squeezing and loosening his grip on his rifle, Kirby watched him with growing apprehension.
A few minutes later Walheim moved toward Caje again, but apparently changing his mind once more, he crossed over to the other side of the door to position himself next to it. Putting a hand on its latch, Walheim cautiously eased the door open a few inches and peered out into the dim light.
Kirby strained to catch a glimpse of what was going on but knew realistically he wasn’t in a position to see anything. He’d have to settle for reading Walheim’s face to figure out how things stood. Within seconds, Walheim gave him an answer.
Walheim drew himself back in, and Kirby could see the German was furious. Red-faced, Walheim looked wildly in Kirby’s direction before turning his eyes on Caje. As Walheim stood fuming, it was obvious he was trying to make up his mind about something. Then throwing his rifle to his shoulder, Walheim moved toward the corner like a man possessed.
Alarmed, Kirby scrambled to his feet and senselessly demanded to know what the guy thought he was doing. Walheim ignored him and all but skidded to a stop in front of Caje. Shaking with anger, Walheim pointed his rifle at the defenseless man’s face.
Kirby shouted in horror, desperate to distract him. He frantically yanked away from the post, trying to break the rope that was holding him there. For a moment, the commotion he was making worked - Walheim turned to see what was going on across from him. But once satisfied he was safe from any interference, Walheim turned back to Caje.
Kirby felt as though he’d stepped into a nightmare. Could it really be that his friend with whom he’d lived, worked, talked, laughed, and shared meals was about to be murdered in front of him while he stood by helplessly and watched? Panicked, Kirby looked around for something - anything - he could use to put a stop to what was happening. Spying the coffee cup still at his feet, he awkwardly scooped it up and heaved it for all he was worth.
The throw resulted in a direct hit. The cup careened into the left side of Walheim’s face, causing him to cry out in surprise. Lowering his rifle, he lifted a hand to probe at his cheek and spun around to get a look at his assailant. For a brief moment the two men simply stared at one another in disbelief. Then, enraged, Walheim aimed his rifle at Kirby.
Kirby’s heart leaped into his throat as he realized what was about to happen. Although a part of him couldn’t accept it, he knew realistically his time was up. He’d finally gotten himself into a mess that he couldn’t get out of. It looked like the only thing left to do was to face his killer with as much courage as he could muster. After all, why let the Kraut enjoy himself any more than was absolutely necessary?
Pushing away regret and mounting terror, Kirby forced himself to look squarely into Walheim’s face - or what he could see of it - and he tensed in anticipation of the bullet to come. He hoped it wouldn’t hurt too much and that it would all be over quickly. A bitter smile traced his lips as he realized he was depending on a Kraut to know what he was doing. The last thing he needed was a poor shot.
Suddenly, the unimaginable happened. Walheim jerked his head up, his eyes wide with horror, the blood draining from his face. His mouth worked in a silent scream, and the muscles in his neck bulged. He dropped his rifle, and it fell into the straw in front of him. Doubling over, he clawed wildly at his groin before crumpling into a writhing heap on the floor.
Caje dove on top of him and drove the knife in his hand deep into Walheim’s neck. With the blade up to its hilt, Caje yanked it through Walheim’s throat before pulling it out and quickly wiping it on his pants. Still using his left hand, he pushed himself off and away from his victim’s body. Then watching intently, he waited as Walheim twitched spasmodically, gurgling, until he suddenly lay still.
Satisfied, Caje allowed himself to drop back into the straw to recover from the exertion of his kill. Gasping for breath, he looked at Kirby and said, "Good…good plan you had…there."
"I, uh…" Kirby was still trying to comprehend what he’d just seen. "Huh?"
"Get…getting yourself killed…" Caje paused to gulp more air, "…to give me the time I needed to…to put my plan into action. Thanks, buddy." He gave Kirby a lopsided grin and leaned forward to retrieve Walheim’s rifle.
Kirby tried to order his thoughts into some kind of coherent pattern. "You…I…" he sputtered before finally managing to get out, "where’d you come from?"
Caje grunted as he tried to pull the weapon from under Walheim’s body. "I was…conserving my strength."
He tugged at the Mauser for a few moments longer, then frowning, placed a foot against the dead man’s side in an attempt to shove him off the rifle. The corpse wouldn’t budge, the weapon remained wedged beneath it and, at that point, Caje gave up. He picked up the canteen that had been brought to him earlier and shakily got to his feet. Staggering the few steps to the lantern behind him, he put it out, then started across the room toward Kirby.
He managed to get halfway to the post before losing his footing and going down on one knee. He would’ve toppled forward completely, but he dropped the canteen to catch himself. Breathing heavily, he shut his eyes and tried to regroup.
"Come on!" Kirby urged. "Caje! We gotta get outta here!" Muffled explosions continued to punctuate the gunfire outside, and he couldn’t help trying another futile pull against the rope.
Caje reached for the canteen and struggled to his feet. He swayed in place before lurching forward and stumbling the rest of the way to the post. Sinking to his knees, he deposited the canteen in the straw and slid the knife from his right hand to his left.
“Hands,” he gasped.
Kirby knelt to hold out his wrists, and Caje slid the knife under the rope. Sawing back and forth, Caje strained to apply enough pressure to force the blade through the thick fibers, but his wound was making it difficult for him, and several times he had to stop to readjust his grip on the knife’s handle. Between that and the blade’s small size, his progress remained slow.
"Boy, oh boy," Kirby said through clenched teeth due to the pain flaring at his wrists. "There’s never a bayonet around when you need one. Where’d you get that thing anyway?"
"Monsieur Bertrand," Caje said simply. He shifted his weight to relieve the pressure on his shoulder and lost control of the knife. It slipped suddenly and punctured Kirby’s hand.
Kirby reacted instantly. "Hey! What’re you doin’?" He jerked his arms away and peered at the small wound that had been inflicted on his lower right palm.
Looking appropriately embarrassed, Caje shrugged.
"Hell," Kirby sulked, "I thought you were supposed t’know what you’re doin’ with that thing." He studied the wound intently, soon becoming absorbed by the small amount of blood trickling toward the smears of it already staining his wrists.
Caje became impatient. "Well?" he demanded.
"Huh?" Kirby continued to stare at the cut until another explosion jolted him from his reverie. Thrusting his hands forward, he said, "Here! What’re you waitin’ for? You’re gonna get us both killed!"
Caje almost said something he knew he’d regret later, but hearing more mortar rounds exploding close by, he wrestled the knife back into the rope instead. He struggled to work the blade back and forth, and severing strand after strand of the rope, he finally got Kirby free.
Kirby sprang to his feet and, reaching down, yanked his rescuer up onto his. Caje gasped at the rough treatment but didn’t bother to protest. Instead he made a chopping motion at the lantern on the barrel, and Kirby understood his partner’s meaning. Leaving Caje to lean against the post, he sprinted for the lantern and put out its light. Then using one arm as a shield in front of himself and holding out his other one to feel his way back, he collected Caje and started for the door.
"Wait," Caje said, locking up his legs and skidding to a stop.
"What is it?" Kirby asked breathlessly.
"The canteen." Caje turned his head. "Kirby, I’ve got to have some water pretty soon."
"Oh, yeah." Kirby quickly considered the matter. "Water. Okay." He let go of Caje’s arm. "Here. You wait here. I’ll go get it."
Caje swayed in place as Kirby cautiously traced his way back to where they’d been a few moments before. Sweeping his hands over the floor in the general vicinity of the post, Kirby located the canteen. He called out, "Caje?"
"Yeah?" came the reply from the dark somewhere ahead.
"Okay," Kirby said, getting his bearings. "Just checking."
He kept an arm extended in front of himself as he made his way back to his comrade. Before long, Kirby sensed Caje’s presence just ahead of his own position, and he was pleased that, for once, something had gone right – he’d managed to retrieve the water and find his way back without bumping into or falling over anything. Maybe things would finally begin to go their way after all.
Kirby took Caje by the arm again and groped his way toward the door. When he had it located, he put Caje to the right of the doorway and told him to stay put while he took a look outside. Caje willingly allowed the wall to support him as Kirby fumbled for the latch. When Kirby found it, he opened the door wide enough to peer out.
His first impression was that it was still surprisingly dark outside. He couldn’t see the farmhouse – or too much of anything else, for that matter. Then he realized that a lot of smoke was adding to the normal early morning gloom. Some of the nearby outbuildings were on fire, giving off massive clouds of churning black soot. Kirby’s eyes watered as he squinted into the haze, but he was able to detect flashes of light off to the west, and he decided most of the shooting was going on between the house and the road. To his right, maybe forty feet from the barn, he could just make out the woods. There wasn’t any noticeable activity going on over there, so that looked like the best place to take cover.
Turning his attention back to the yard in front of him, he was startled to see the bodies of two men lying on the ground, a short distance away. They’d been obscured a few minutes before by the smoke pouring into the area. As Kirby stared at them, he realized what must’ve triggered Walheim’s rampage.
Above the ruin of what had once been the face of one of them was a shock of blond hair, most of it now soaked with blood. The man was lying on his back, one arm flung out from his side, the other one thrown up alongside his head. His rifle was under him, still slung across his back, and from the look of it, he probably hadn’t known what hit him when he died.
Kirby pulled back into the barn and shut the door. He was shaking as he leaned against the wall and afraid he might be sick. His face felt hot, and he tried to swallow the lump in his throat. He told himself it wouldn’t do to grieve over a Kraut, but he couldn’t push the picture of what the blond’s face had once looked like - and what it looked like now - from his mind. Kirby could still see the soldier as he’d been when he was holding Caje, remembered how the guy had pulled his own partner off an enemy, thought about how Rieger had given water to a couple of prisoners for no other reason than to be kind.
The German had seemed to be real person…a man…a human being.
Kirby shut his eyes and tilted his head back against the wall. He wondered what was the matter with him. Maybe he just needed more sleep. He was so tired…
"What’s wrong?" Caje asked in concern. "What is it?"
Kirby didn’t answer but tried to refocus on the problems at hand. He and Caje had to get out of the barn. They had to get to cover. They had to try to hook up with whoever was out there assaulting the compound - without getting themselves killed in the process. And they had to do these things now.
He lifted a hand to his eyes and rubbed away the moisture there before answering, "Nothing. It’s nothing." He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and began to tell Caje about the woods.
As Caje listened, Kirby pulled him around to ready him for their run. He lined up Caje’s body with his own and, taking hold of the unsteady man’s left arm, looped it around his own neck. Circling an arm around Caje’s waist while still clutching the canteen, Kirby asked him, "Ready?"
Caje drew in a breath and said, "Yup."
Kirby cautiously nudged open the barn door and quietly urged, "Then go!"
The two men catapulted themselves into the unstable gloom of the barnyard. Keeping as low as they could manage, they veered to the right and, half-running, half-stumbling, projected themselves toward the tree line.
The firestorm raged just behind them, the noise deafening. The ground shook with the concussion of the mortars, and Kirby desperately hung on to Caje to keep from losing him. The jarring motion of their gait was causing Caje an unbearable amount of pain, and he moaned with every breath he managed to take in. As Kirby had feared might happen, Caje stumbled at one point and started to go down. Determined to keep him going, Kirby tightened his grip and all but dragged him along.
The pair breached the tree line and crashed through the woods beyond. Ducking and weaving wildly, they careened through the brush for a distance before suddenly plummeting over an embankment and into a wooded ravine. Kirby lost his hold on Caje, and skidding and pitching from side to side, he finally tumbled forward and bounced and bumped his way to the bottom.
When at last he slid to a stop, Kirby found himself on his back, nearly buried in a cluster of bushes next to a tangle of fallen trees. For a moment he did nothing but breathe and take stock of himself to be sure he was all there in one piece. Above him he could see just a hint of the evolving blue sky that would usher in the day. With an involuntary groan, he turned onto his stomach and peered up the hillside to look for Caje.
Several minutes passed before Kirby was able to see him a bit farther up. It looked as if Caje was managing to work his way down the ravine’s side, grabbing on to whatever he could to slow his descent. Every now and then his feet would slip, and Caje would lower himself to stop his forward momentum, but he seemed to be pretty much in control. Considering that, Kirby decided to wait for him at the base of the ridge.
Eventually Caje slid the last few feet to the bottom, and landing off to Kirby’s right, he panted, "In a hurry, huh?"
"Very funny," Kirby said, untangling himself from the bushes and sidling over to him. He reached for Caje, dragged him behind one of the fallen trees, and helped him into a sitting position. Without further ceremony, Kirby dropped onto the ground, at his side.
For a while neither man said anything but continued to recover and listen to the distant sounds of the battle going on above and behind them. While both appreciated being outside and away from the barn, they knew they weren’t entirely safe. Each of them carefully watched their surroundings, not having forgotten how they’d wound up where they were in the first place.
Finally Kirby spoke. "What should we do now?"
Caje pressed a hand to his head. "I don’t know. What do you think?"
"Well…we can start workin’ our way around to our lines over there. Those guys can’t lose with all that noise they’re makin’ up there. I think our best bet is to hook up with them."
"Yeah, I think so too. But I’m not up to it, Kirby. Maybe you could go and send somebody back for me." Caje looked into his shirt to examine his chest. A tell-tale stain was spreading on the bandaging there, and touching it, he knew most of the blood was fresh. "Yeah, I’d only slow you down."
Kirby frowned, not liking the idea of Caje being left alone when the guy was unarmed and in such bad shape. "Aw, I don’t know about that…"
Caje interrupted him. "The water…you got it?"
"Uh…" Kirby looked around. Effectively distracted, he patted through the weeds, then said, "I’ll be right back."
He worked his way down to the end of the tree and looked past it to study the place where they’d landed. The canteen was nowhere in sight. He scanned the side of the ravine and knew he’d probably dropped it up there on the way down.
He turned to look at Caje and signaled him he was going back up. Caje nodded, and Kirby crawled out into the open. Elbowing his way over the short distance to the slope, he began to climb.
It was slow going as he reached for handholds in the surrounding vegetation. For the first time since he and Caje had started out yesterday, Kirby appreciated the brambles and shrubs everywhere. He placed his feet carefully on whatever level surfaces he could find but several times lost his footing and slid down until he could catch himself again. He wondered how he’d managed not to break his neck earlier.
As he went along, Kirby continued to search for the canteen. He began to suspect that he’d lost it at the top of the ravine. And that would just about figure since it would’ve been much too easy to find the canteen near the bottom. Everything always had to be the hard way in this lousy, no-good war.
Kirby became so absorbed in his task that it took a while before he realized the noise from the compound had waned. Gunfire was sporadic and only an occasional explosion roared. Considering this, he decided to take a little extra time to see what the situation was at the farm since he’d be up there anyway. With any luck, maybe the good guys would have everything under control and he and Caje could finally get a little help.
As Kirby neared the top of the hillside, he looked to see where they’d first stumbled into the ravine. By searching carefully, he was able to locate the skid marks showing where they’d begun their descent. He groped around in that area and soon found the canteen just below the lip of the drop off.
He tipped it back and forth to gauge how much water it held and decided he’d better wait to have a drink until Caje had a go at it. Maybe there was a water source somewhere nearby, though. After all, the French guy had to have something going if he’d had animals at one time. Kirby decided he’d have to look for it. Clutching the canteen, he scrambled up the last few feet and over the side of the hill.
Cautiously, he made his way forward and began to encounter thick patches of smoke filtering into the area. He figured it was just as well Caje had stayed in the ravine - at least the guy would be clear of all this. Kirby crouched low, then lower as he advanced, as much to dodge the noxious fumes blanketing everything as to avoid being spotted. Eventually the air became so thick with toxins that he had to lie down altogether until the wind shifted and cleared some of it out.
At last he could see the barn, and it appeared to be completely engulfed in flames. Black columns of smoke roiled into the sky above it, and the heat was intense. Kirby knew he’d have to move down the tree line if he wanted to stay safe. The knowledge that he and Caje would’ve been dead in there if it hadn’t been for the old man wasn’t lost on him, and he fervently hoped the guy was all right. This was one Frenchman he supposed he wouldn’t mind kissing.
If he had to.
Kirby bypassed the barn, crept to the edge of the clearing, and hugged the back of the largest tree he could find. From there he had a decent view of what was left of the compound. Nervous and feeling vulnerable, he surveyed the area to see how the battle had ended and who’d won.
Things turned out to be better than he’d hoped. GIs were milling around everywhere, and he couldn’t remember when he’d ever seen a more beautiful sight. Near the farmhouse was a cluster of German prisoners being watched by American guards. Gratified to see the tables turned so completely, Kirby grinned from ear to ear.
Then he noticed the Frenchman was standing by the house, alongside an elderly lady who, although crying, appeared to be safe. The old man was jabbering away at an American captain and, as was his habit, wildly gesturing to illustrate every word.
Kirby laughed and set off as the bearer of good news. He sprinted along the way he’d come and, with only a bit more care than the first time he’d done it, got himself down the side of the ravine. Racing the last few yards toward the jumble of fallen trees before skidding around them, he could no longer contain himself.
Caje’s eyes were closed, but he opened them at Kirby’s grand entrance.
Kirby exclaimed. "Our guys won!" He threw back his head and
laughed exuberantly before crowing, "So how d’ya
like that? The whole damn army rendezvoused with us!"
Caje blinked. "Yeah,” he said after a moment. “Yeah, I like it. I like it just fine."
Kirby reached for him, extending his arms one last time.
Caje clasped Kirby’s right hand and allowed the BAR man to hoist him into place at his side.
As Kirby adjusted him for their final climb, Caje said, “Kirby?”
"Yeah?" Kirby said.
"There’s just one thing I want to know."
"Yeah? What is it?"
"What were the priest, the CO, and the bartender arguing about?"
Kirby’s expression didn’t disappoint him, and Caje laughed.