KNOW THY ENEMY
Copyright 2008 by Terry Pierce
Sequel to the Combat! episode “Forgotten Front” (with references to “A Day in June”, “Retribution”, and “Brother, Brother”).
Warning: language, violence
Dedicated to Marguerite Rouffanche, Roger Godfrin, Robert Hébras, Marcel Darthout, Pierre-Henri Poutaraud, Henriette and René Joyeaux, and their families, friends, and neighbors.
He hated this.
The early hours. Waiting around so much. Being stuck in crummy France.
They had such fat heads, these foreigners with their fancy language and highfalutin ways. Always looking down on you like you were some kind of dirt. And to hear some of the ones who spoke American tell it, you’d think they were all big shots…them with their country full of busted buildings, slimy fountains, and smelly cheese.
Worse, today’s acting squad leader was one of them.
Kirby thumbed the safety lock on his M1. Back and forth, back and forth. Each time it snapped, he ticked off another thing about LeMay he didn’t like.
His stupid nickname.
The goofy hat he wore.
The way Sarge singled him out.
Take that old man yesterday. It was his own idea to rub out the Kraut to keep him from talking about the company jumping off, but what did he overhear Sarge telling the lieutenant? That Saunders had given the job to LeMay!
Kirby scowled. It didn’t make sense. The sarge seemed to be a good squad leader with a good way of reading men. Why’d he want somebody else to kill the Kraut? Didn’t Saunders trust him to take care of anything important?
Kirby glanced over at the command post where Saunders stood outside with LeMay, going over a map. Like they were best pals. Like they really were fighting a private war.
Kirby’s resentment flared. Was it his fault he hadn’t been with Saunders’ squad on Omaha beach? That he’d been with Love Company and assigned to a Higgins boat at the battalion armada’s rear?
He scratched his neck, angry that he hadn’t gotten the chance to do something great during the landing. Something like working a bangalore torpedo and blowing a hole through the barbed wire fronting the breakwall. Or grabbing a flamethrower and toasting himself a pillbox. Hell, the least he could’ve done was get his hands on a BAR and use it to chop up a Kraut machine gun nest.
But no. Things had turned out just like they had when he’d been about to hit the big time back home. The army had tripped him up again, this time making him spend too much time on the landing craft. He’d ended up seasick and puking his guts out. Then when it’d been time to disembark, the boat had dropped its ramp way too far from the beach, and he’d been forced to take a flying leap off it, hoping to avoid drowning like he’d seen a bunch of other dogfaces doing. He’d landed in a couple inches of water and nearly driven his legs right up through his skull.
At least that’s what it’d felt like at the time. Lucky for him he’d been fished out of the bloody red surf almost as soon as he’d begun howling in pain and sliding off the sand bar. Transported back to a hospital ship, he’d been examined, had his ankles taped up, and was told to take it easy.
That is, until he’d been designated ready-to-go the next day. Before he’d even managed to get that little redheaded nurse – what was her name again? Dottie? – convinced that his intentions toward her were nothing but honorable. He’d been scooped up and dumped into a new unit after being told most of his own company had been wiped out.
So now here he sat in a rotten foreign country with a sergeant named Saunders, a little kid playing doctor called Walton, a big ape who went by Littlejohn, a loudmouthed runner tagged as Braddock and – worst of all – the Frenchman he’d heard Saunders choosing to take command, Caje.
“A guy who don’t even know how to talk right,” Kirby grumbled.
“Huh?” Doc said, sitting cross-legged a few feet away and glancing up from his government issued Pocket Guide to France.
Kirby grimaced at the thought of catching Little Boy Blue Walton’s attention. Especially since the kid actually read the garbage put out by the war department. If he had any brains he’d know it wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. For crying out loud, what did it say on its second page? You will probably get a rousing welcome from the French.
“Yeah, right,” Kirby snorted. “More like nothin’.”
“Huh?” Doc said again.
“Nothin’!” Kirby snapped.
“Oh…okay.” Walton shrugged, and wrinkling his forehead in concentration, he returned to his reading.
Kirby rolled his eyes, laid his Garand across his knees, and reached into his jacket for his last cigarette. Squinting at the crumbling medieval buildings circling the heart of Rouxeville, he studied the shattered glass, shards of tiles, splintered beams, and chunks of masonry strewn everywhere. Two days of shelling hadn’t left much of this part of France standing.
It hadn’t left much of the female population around either. He’d tried to score with the few uppity babes he’d spotted late last night, but he’d struck out. The only broads he could see this morning were three or four old hags rummaging through what was left of their homes. They wore shapeless, faded shifts, drab headscarves, and bulky, colorless aprons. Their eyes baggy, their faces wrinkled, their figures whittled down by rationing, they barely resembled anything a guy could squeeze.
One white-haired dame sweeping a front stoop even looked like a haunted, old ghost. Not that that was a problem. He’d talked to her earlier – beggars couldn’t be choosers – and offered her a chocolate bar in hopes of setting up a good time later. But when she’d begun jabbering at him, nearly lopping off his head with her broom, he’d taken it as a “No, thanks.”
Right before LeMay shoved him away from her, that is.
Kirby slouched lower, leaning against the bullet-scarred WWI monument behind him and wiggling a bit to keep the obelisk’s bas-relief heralding obscure heroes from digging so deeply into his back. Where, he wondered, did the guy get off? Did LeMay think ol’ William G. wasn’t good enough for some lousy French dame? Or did the bum just figure he wasn’t going to let anyone else be the first to show her a good time?
Kirby sucked on his cigarette, then flicked the ash off its tip. Yeah, that had to be it. LeMay just wanted the field to himself. After all, the other guys had talked about the Frenchman hitting the jackpot with some looker named Marcelle he’d run into on June sixth.
Kirby shook his head and blinked. As if on that day a guy could even imagine scoring so big and so fast. What was the lout’s technique? His secret for pulling off a winning play in the middle of such a mess?
Kirby stuck a finger into his ear, waggled it around, and wiped the grime coating it onto his pants. Frowning, he looked at LeMay and Saunders again. LeMay had to have the best kind of luck to get a babe on a day like last Tuesday.
Plus he’d caught the sarge’s attention. Saunders seemed to count on him more than anyone else in the squad. LeMay must’ve gotten his chance to do something big, something important, something that caused Sarge to sit up and take notice. And that had to be why Saunders tapped LeMay to take out that Kraut prisoner yesterday.
Kirby wondered if LeMay had been ordered to babysit Doc too. Why else would the guy blow a fuse when he’d been told Doc was a kid-medic who couldn’t do anything for Sergeant MacGraw? Kirby seethed. It’d been no big deal. Nothing to get riled up about. But what’d happened? LeMay had threatened to bust his nose! Then the clown had brushed him off when he’d been threatened back.
Kirby inhaled a few last smoky lungfuls of his Lucky Strike and flipped the butt end-over-end into the air. He really hated that, right afterward, he’d been creeped-out when he’d seen the mangled bodies of Black Rook’s squad at the dye works, while LeMay hadn’t seemed to be shaken up at all. The Frenchman had only made a smart crack about it, agreeing that Walton couldn’t doctor McGraw’s corpse. Kirby resumed snapping off and on the Garand’s safety. Boy, would he ever like to deck the frog.
“C’mon, Kirby,” Littlejohn said, licking the spoon he’d been issued to assault the slop in his mess kit and then tucking it back into his haversack. He tossed away an empty C-ration can. “Will you knock it off?”
Kirby looked in Littlejohn’s direction and snapped the lock again for the hayseed’s benefit. “How ‘bout if I knock your block off?”
Littlejohn, yawning, leaned against the low wrought iron fence that flanked the monument a dozen or so paces away. The six foot six inch tall farm boy laced fingers the size of corncobs together over his broad chest, and raising an eyebrow, he smirked. “You and who else?”
Braddock, clad in camouflage and surrounded by empty candy wrappers, lay sprawled nearby. His head resting on his netted helmet, his eyes closed, the veteran goldbrick raised a hand and, waggling his stubby index finger back and forth, mock-berated the hulking Nebraskan. “Now, now, Littlejohn, you’d better be careful. You know how tough Kirby is. You don’t want to get him all worked up.”
“Who asked you?” Kirby sat up straighter, puffing out his chest.
Braddock grinned and tilted his face toward the fragile morning sun cloaked in a shimmering mist. “Nobody asked me. I just think all us boys and girls should get along.”
“I’d get along fine if you’d just shut up.”
Doc Walton turned his head, his eyes clouding over with concern. “Kirby, are you feeling okay? You’re not coming down with something after sleeping in your wet clothes all night?”
“Look, bedpan, nobody asked you to stick your nose into anything. So why don’t you…?”
“Kirby, what’s your problem?” Littlejohn asked, crossing his ankles and brushing cracker crumbs off his lap.
Braddock laughed. “Are you kidding, Littlejohn? Kirby’s problem is that he’s Kirby.”
Kirby, rising to one knee, balled his hands into fists. “I said to shut your big, fat yap, you lousy creep.”
“C’mon, tough guy,” Braddock drawled, imitating a sleepy prizefighter jabbing lazily at the air. “I’ll take you on.”
“Hey, you guys,” Doc interrupted, his eyebrows sliding up and the corners of his mouth slipping down into his customary worried expression. “Here comes the sarge.”
Braddock, Littlejohn, and Kirby turned their heads to see Saunders approaching, his jacket slung like a cape over his shoulders, his hair clean and combed and glossy as honey. He’d exchanged the grungy fatigues he’d worn back into camp last night for a spotless set of ODs. Without a helmet and minus his Thompson, he moved easily, unguarded, at a casual pace. Had it not been for the soldier trailing along behind him and studying a map, he looked like he’d decided to give the squad the day off.
Saunders drew up, settled his hands on his hips, and definitively dashed any such hopes. “Okay, you guys. Recess is over. Time to listen up.”
Kirby lowered his fists and sank back down against the monument. He noticed LeMay had showered, shaved, and changed his uniform too. As Kirby surveyed his own rumpled clothes smelling of sweat and mildew, his damp, muddy gaiters and boots, his filthy hands that matched the grime covering his face, he knew he didn’t measure up. None of the other guys looked as bad as he did. Not even that fat slob, Braddock.
Braddock, for his part, dropped his hands, lifted the brim of his knit cap, his pinkie finger delicately extended, and groaned. “What gives, Sarge?” He bobbed his chin in the direction of the CP, his face overcast with his anticipation of bad news. “Company’s ready to start the turkey shoot?”
“No, Braddock. The push has been put on hold.” Saunders gave him a grin promising blue skies and sunshine. “So today you’ve only got some sightseeing to do.”
Braddock pulled the brim of his cap back down to shade his eyes. “Sightseeing?”
“That’s right. You’re going to recon a town called Oradour-sur-Glane. Battalion’s got a report there might be trouble there, and with the advance stalled ‘til Monty takes Caen, G-2 wants it checked out. Intelligence has contacts in another village nearby and wants to make sure operations fronting our lines won’t be compromised.”
Littlejohn licked his fingertips and rubbed them absently over a stain on his pants. “What kind of place is this, uh…place?”
“Just a bunch of houses along with barns, shops, schools, a church…the usual farm village. It’s not a Kraut stronghold, so it ought to fall easy once we start our assault. All you’ve got to do is go down there and make sure it’s still a nice, quiet, little town.”
Braddock sighed and, pushing up his bulk, reached for and then battled to buckle his cartridge belt around his ample waist. Balancing himself on his knees, he sucked in his stomach and attempted to force the belt lower, closer toward his hips. His voice tight with exertion, he said, “We can handle that, Sarge. Sounds like another fun date. But don’t you think you oughta accessorize yourself with a helmet and Tommygun before we cut a rug?”
“Sorry, Braddock. My dance card’s full. I’ve got another briefing to make, so this time Caje is taking you out.”
“Boy, I’ll bet he takes us out, all right,” Kirby muttered.
Caje, giving no indication he’d heard anything, continued to scrutinize the map in his hands.
Saunders, shifting his weight onto his left leg, hooked his thumbs into his pants pockets and cocked his head. “What do you mean by that, Kirby?”
“I mean LeMay might go by the book and all that,” Kirby said, speaking louder, “seein’ as how he followed regulations on field hygiene after our swim in that stinkin’ river last night, but don’t you geniuses think he shoulda got some sleep instead?” Kirby jerked a thumb in the soldier’s direction. “Just take a look at those circles under his eyes! If he ain’t sacked out before the detail’s finished, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.”
Caje closed up the map and stashed it in his jacket. His face inscrutable, he turned his head to study the battered row of houses abutting the roadside nearest him. He slid a piece of chewing gum out of a pocket, unwrapped, and folded it into his mouth. Pulling off the beret an elderly maquisard had given him on D-Day, he put on his helmet.
Saunders’ eyes narrowed. “Kirby, did somebody ask you for your opinion?”
Braddock and Littlejohn chorused nearly in unison, “I know I didn’t!”
Doc shook his head, his gloomy expression softened by a rare smile brought on by the two men.
Kirby scowled at everyone sideways. “No, Sarge, but it’s our necks on the line, so don’t you figure you oughta pick somebody else to ramrod the squad?”
Braddock guffawed. “Somebody like you, you mean?”
“That’s right, big man,” Kirby said, curling his hands into fists again. “The squad could do a lot worse.”
Braddock snorted and struggled all the way up to his feet. He tugged at the crotch of his pants in an effort to loosen the fabric squeezing his thighs growing ever thicker on a diet of begged, borrowed, and stolen C-rations. “Worse than you taking us around in circles?” He squinted insolently at the slighter man. “And probably getting us lost?”
Kirby exploded, rocketing to his feet. “You lousy, no-good…!”
“Knock it off, Kirby.” Saunders stepped between them instantly. “No one’s got time for this. The sooner you figure out who you’re here to fight, the sooner we’ll all be better off.” He nudged Kirby backward and, turning around, warded off Braddock. “I don’t want any more garbage out of you either.” He slid himself out from between them and addressed the whole squad. “What I want is for you to get this through your heads: this mission is all that counts. You leave your packs behind, you get your gear on, you follow orders, and you do your jobs. You focus on what you’re supposed to, and maybe you’ll get this war done.”
He watched the GIs don helmets, check weapons and canteens, fasten gaiters and jackets, and stack their packs around the monument while a couple yards away Caje stood silent, waiting, expressionless.
And Kirby was right; Caje didn’t look like he’d slept last night.
A sudden unease stole over Saunders, but he cast it off, telling himself there wasn’t really anything to worry about. Caje had gone through basic at Camp Shelby, Mississippi where he’d reportedly excelled in weapons training, bested everybody on the firing range, and mastered the manual of arms, bayonet drills, hand-to-hand combat, barbed wire and machinegun infiltration courses, close order, forced, and high speed marches, and communications training that included handling field telephones, laying wire, and operating coding devices. Less proficient at following military courtesy – a few incidents of near insubordination had been notated on his service record – he’d made a good impression on his cadre and top kick anyway. Educated and multilingual – he spoke a Cajun dialect, as well as French, English, and some Latin due to his Roman Catholic background – he’d scored high on the army’s IQ test and qualified for OCS.
It was true that he’d slacked off in Non-Commissioned Officers School and wound up in England assigned – along with his best friend Théo Beliveau – to the 361st and Hanley’s 2nd platoon, but he’d gone on to distinguish himself during additional training and maneuvers in preparation for the invasion.
He’d remained inseparable from his buddy, the two communicating in their oddball Cajun jive and spending all their spare time playing chess and checkers and going out to pubs to compete at darts, skittles, billiards, drinking, and chatting up the Limey women. Despite being new to the unit, LeMay had kept out of trouble except for a few rows with platoon members who’d sneered at his ethnicity and one quick scrape with Beliveau himself when the guy – the more outgoing of the pair – had first publicly referred to him as “Caddy”. Beliveau had told everyone his bon ami’s mère, Simone Therese Baptiste LeMay née Cadron, addressed her son by the offbeat moniker derived from his unconventional middle name, and intensely private, LeMay had nearly come to blows with him. But having grown up with Beliveau on the Atchafalaya Basin in an Acadian parish outside New Orleans, LeMay had put up with his pal’s indiscretion and afterward kept his nose clean.
Right up until the BAR man’s death during the landings last week.
After that, LeMay had bugged out briefly, then become withdrawn, sometimes sullen, bristling whenever anyone hailed him as Caddy. Realizing the nickname had to be rubbing the surviving Cajun’s grief raw, Saunders had taken to calling him “Caje”. When the rest of the squad picked up on it, the name stuck, and Caddy lay buried with Théo Beliveau, somewhere behind them near Omaha Beach.
Again a feeling of unease advanced on Saunders, and he wondered if he could really trust the PFC. Between the unpredictability of LeMay’s behavior and the fact that he hadn’t handled the Kraut prisoner the way he’d been expected to last night…
The soldier was proving to be an enigma.
Dutiful. Capable. Reliable.
Uncooperative. Moody. Insubordinate.
The question was which persona defined the real man?
Or, for that matter, any man?
Again surveying the squad as the GIs formed up into a ragtag line in front of their gum chewing, acting squad leader, Saunders turned his eyes on its newest member.
Private William Kirby was shaping up to be another wild card. Mustered into the squad four days ago, he possessed plenty of self-confidence and seemed to know how to handle himself. His record promised above average if not superior soldiering, and he was tough and street-smart. But he’d been careless and shown poor judgment during the patrol yesterday and, worse, seemed hell-bent on doing things his own way.
He’d grown up in Chicago, and it was rumored he’d trained in hand to hand combat, knife fighting, the use of small arms, and allocating supplies – via pick-pocketing, petty thievery, illegal gambling, bootlegging, and extortion – through his association with street gangs. The product of a broken home, Kirby had been fending for himself since the age of twelve. When not living with his mother and younger brother and kid sister, he’d bedded down in buddies’ tenements, church-run homes for boys, and flea-infested flophouses. Just as he’d been tapped as an apprentice to some of Chicago’s roughest elements and been on the verge of becoming an official hard case, the war stepped in to arrest his promotion in racketeering and confined him to Fort Dix, New Jersey.
Kirby had suffered through the chicken shit, dressings down, and discipline in basic, being forced to choose between following orders or scrubbing latrines, sidewalks, and garbage cans with a toothbrush. He’d eventually knuckled under and done a great job fighting his way through training, then labeled one of “Uncle Sam’s finest,” he’d been shipped to England where he’d been expected to toe the line, get used to foreign ways of living, and contribute to his unit’s esprit de corps.
Unfortunately, he’d begun floundering, despite his apparent instinct for rising above his circumstances and laying claim to excellence, and that last task especially seemed to be lost on him.
Saunders wanted a cigarette. Reaching into a breast pocket of his shirt, he pulled out a Lucky and lit it up. With Grady Long wounded and out of commission, Saunders wasn’t certain he could rely on anyone to act in his stead. Braddock, Littlejohn, and Walton were all good men, predictable when it came to performing their duties, but maybe not seasoned enough to lead – or step in between – anyone.
Which meant he’d have to depend on Caje to keep his shit together and Kirby not to pull any crap.
Not a promising thought, considering how the two got along. Saunders had seen the antagonism, heard the snide comments, sensed the bad blood between them yesterday. Too much more of that going on during today’s mission and they’d wind up ripping out each other’s throats.
Saunders, his skin prickling, shook off that disturbing vision. If nothing else, Oradour-sur-Glane was supposed to be quiet. A quick look around, a simple report back in, and the pair should be all right.
“Caje,” he said finally, forced by necessity to hold to some course of action, “move ‘em out.”
Caje nodded at the sergeant and ordered quietly, “Route step.”
The squad shuffled forward, falling in behind Caje at the head of the file. Saunders turned around to walk back to the command post. When he reached the door of the pâtisserie now empty of French delicacies but full of maps, intelligence reports, and harried officers, Saunders told himself again the men would be all right, and crossing the threshold, he didn’t look back.
Kirby tugged the sling of his Garand over his shoulder. Last in line, he glanced at Saunders disappearing into the CP and fumed that it was a damned sorry way to fight a war. How could the sarge shaft a guy just as good as anybody else? Kicking a chunk of rock out of his way, Kirby decided he’d have to figure out some scheme to show up LeMay. If he didn’t, Saunders would have him playing second fiddle for the duration.
Kirby scowled at the four soldiers preceding him and picked his way through Rouxeville’s rubble. The squad moved away from the cobbled town center toward an unpaved farm lane that led south. Passing through elements of 1st battalion dug in behind the towering walls of ancient, gnarled hedgerows, Kirby wondered how to knock LeMay down a couple pegs. The guy sure didn’t talk much. Not like Braddock who liked to shoot off his mouth. Without LeMay giving away personal intel, it’d be tough to zero in on a weak spot.
Unfortunately, nobody else seemed to know much about him either. There was the scuttlebutt about his hook up with Marcelle, sure, but the guys mostly just said he knew his stuff. And while he’d had some hometown buddy he hung around with a lot before last week, the sap got himself shot to hell on Omaha Beach, so he couldn’t be pumped.
Then again, maybe the pal getting croaked was worthy of a fact-finding mission.
“Hey, bedpan,” Kirby called and moved up a few steps to trudge alongside Doc. “How’s about if we shoot the bull together, seein’ as how we got off on the wrong foot this mornin’?”
“I don’t like that name, Kirby,” Doc said. “And I don’t know what you mean…or want.”
Kirby pasted on a smile meant to be ingratiating. “C’mon, Walton. It ain’t that I want anything. It’s just that we got some time to kill before we leave our sector, so it couldn’t hurt none to do some talkin’.”
Curiosity overcoming his suspicion, Doc shrugged. “What do you want to talk about?”
“Oh, I don’t know…somethin’ like…well, maybe…hmm.” Kirby stroked his chin, seeming to mull over a range of topics, then he snapped his fingers. “I got it. What didja think about bein’ on Omaha Beach?”
“Omaha Beach? You want to talk about that?” Doc looked uncertain before he licked his lips and shook his head. “I don’t know, Kirby. I think that’s something I’d like to forget.”
Kirby moved in a little closer, the very picture of concern and sympathy. “It was that bad for you guys, huh? You really had it rough?”
“Rough enough.” Doc dropped his gaze to the brassard on his arm, and fingering one of his chinstraps, he fell silent.
“But you came through it all right,” Kirby prompted, gesturing vaguely at the three men walking ahead.
Doc began twisting the chinstrap clockwise, then counterclockwise, then clockwise again. Eventually he agreed. “Yeah, I guess some of us did. We managed to hang on.”
Kirby wondered if this was what it was like to pull teeth. He pinched the bridge of his nose and prompted again, “Did the squad take a lot of casualties?”
Doc released the chinstrap, dropped his hand, and sighed. “We lost a guy named Beecham before we even made it onto our LCV. He fell into the channel and nearly drowned. Then Gardello, our radioman, got killed by a machine gun, and three more good guys – Long, Kelly, and Nelson – were WIA by an artillery round.”
“That sounds pretty bad,” Kirby murmured sympathetically, calculating. “But at least only one of you guys died.”
“I didn’t say that.” Doc’s voice dropped lower. “Cadd…I mean, Caje’s best friend, Théo…”
“Théo…?” Kirby urged with maybe a bit too much eagerness. He winced.
Walton, busy remembering, apparently someplace else, didn’t seem to notice. “Yeah, Théo Beliveau…our BAR man. He’d been giving us all cover to climb up a cliff so we could get off the beach. But…I don’t know…the Krauts just targeted and tore him up once he displaced to follow us. We looked back and saw…Caje saw…”
Doc swallowed once, twice, then said, “Kirby, I don’t think I want to talk about this any more.”
Kirby felt an odd tightness in his chest, but he blundered forward. “He got ripped to shreds, huh?”
Doc took a full minute to answer. “Yeah, he got killed.”
“And how’d LeMay take it?”
Doc looked away and Kirby had to strain to hear him. “Pretty bad. He kind of lost it. I wasn’t sure he’d be able to go through with the patrol, to recon the farmhouse.”
Kirby looked away too, overcome by the sudden strange impression that maybe, somehow, it was wrong to overstep a guy’s bounds. But he managed to shake off the feeling, and moving in a little closer, he prodded, “So what happened then?”
Doc reached absently again for his helmet’s chinstrap. “The Krauts shelled us all the way to the objective, and I think the shock of that plus Théo’s death just pushed Caje over the edge.”
“Over the edge?”
Doc turned to look forward again, his eyes strangely bright in the morning mist. “I mean, he…uh, when we reached the farmhouse he just sort of, well…he took off.”
Stunned, Kirby stopped in his tracks.
Doc advanced another few feet before he realized he was walking alone. “Kirby?” he ventured, looking back.
Kirby, his mind reeling, wiped his face on a sleeve. He might as well have been shelled himself….or handed a million bucks. The news that LeMay had chickened and turned tail just a measly five days ago was a real bombshell.
“Kirby?” Doc said again, this time taking a step back.
Kirby pulled himself together and drew on a poker face. “You go on, Walton,” he said, peering past the medic to see Caje on the point, a good distance beyond Braddock and Littlejohn who’d fallen in next to each other. “I gotta tie my shoe.”
Doc glanced at Kirby’s boots. Confused by the pronouncement, he seemed ready to say something more, but Kirby waved him off, making it obvious the conversation was over. Doc, puzzled by the dismissal, turned around and walked on.
Kirby crouched and played his hands over his bootlaces. So LeMay wasn’t such a big man after all. He just had these other third string patsies conned. But the sarge…how could Saunders be so snookered? Didn’t he realize the obvious? Didn’t he know that once a guy acted like a heel he’d always be a bad risk?
An ugly smile spread across Kirby’s face. Maybe nobody else wanted to call a spade a spade, but William G. Kirby didn’t have that problem. He’d never in his life run from a fight. If LeMay was a coward but going around now like some kind of hotshot, then it was high time somebody called him on it.
Kirby straightened up and got to his feet. All but left behind, he had to jog to catch up to Doc. His heart thumping with exhilaration, he wasted no time figuring out a strategy and shouldered the medic out of his way.
“Shove over, bedpan,” he said, knocking Doc into a dense bank of Norman earth and snarled roots and briars. “I wanna move up.”
“Hey!” Doc yelped and jerked up his arms to ward off a tangle of thorny branches.
Kirby, angling for big stakes, left him behind in the dust. He dropped in between Braddock and Littlejohn, pulled his rifle off his shoulder, and cradled it in his arms. Swaggering, his chest swelling, he made a show of clearing his throat to announce his presence.
Braddock jerked a thumb at the new arrival. “Well, well, well. If it ain’t our best friend.”
Littlejohn glanced at Kirby and rolled his eyes.
Kirby, looking ahead and considering the best way to clip LeMay, decided to open up with the pair. “That’s right, suckers. I’m your new best friend. And you know why?” He adopted a superior tone, eager to play his hand. “‘Cause with us out on a dangerous patrol, you’ll be needin’ a real leader.”
Braddock groaned. “Oh, no. Not again.”
“Kirby,” Littlejohn said, “can’t you lay off? We’ve already got an acting squad leader.”
“‘Acting’ is right, you bumpkin, ‘cause you know what we got out in front of us ain’t the real thing. He’s just a two-bit player who’s got the sarge bluffed.”
Caje didn’t react, and Kirby wondered if the guy was too far ahead of them to hear anything.
Braddock adopted the tone of a long-suffering martyr. “Let me take this one, Littlejohn.”
Littlejohn nodded gravely. “Be my guest.”
“What in hell, Kirby,” Braddock tipped back his helmet so he could scratch his forehead, “could you possibly be talking about?”
Smug in the knowledge that he was dealing with a stacked deck, Kirby said in a louder voice, “I’m talkin’ about that fake out in front of us.”
“Fake? Fake what?” Braddock threw Littlejohn a puzzled look over Kirby’s head.
Kirby increased his volume as he gleefully laid down three of a kind. “Fake squad leader. Fake soldier. Fake hero.”
Braddock peered curiously into Kirby’s face. “Fake squad leader. Fake soldier. Fake hero. I gotta tell you, little man, you’re not making a whole lotta sense.”
“Yeah, Kirby,” Littlejohn interrupted. “You wanna just give it to us straight?”
By now Doc had caught up to the trio, flustered, out of breath, and holding a hand to the bloody scratches on his face.
Kirby, ready to play his ace, spoke as loud as he could. “I’m talkin’ about Sarge sendin’ us out on an important mission with that lousy, stinkin’ coward!”
Shocked, the men around him froze.
Caje turned his head to the side and slowed.
Kirby planted his feet and went for broke.
“You guys know I’m right,” he said. “You were there. LeMay ran away right in the middle of the squad’s first action. And I’ll bet he took off like a scared jackrabbit. Which means Saunders shoulda never picked him to be our actin’ squad leader. He ain’t fit to command a field kitchen.”
Doc looked as if he’d been dealt a physical blow.
Braddock and Littlejohn stared at one another over Kirby’s head.
Caje spat out his gum, shrugged his rifle off his shoulder, and turned around.
Everyone simply gawked at him.
Caje frowned and, raising his right hand, circled it over his head.
Braddock said, “We’d better go see the Man.” He shuffled his feet, uncertain, looking at Doc and Littlejohn. “He’s signaling us to assemble on him.”
Kirby, wondering what Caje had up his sleeve, cautiously trailed behind.
The squad formed up around Caje, and he said in a flat voice, “We’re heading into ‘no man’s land’, so keep your eyes open. We don’t know the enemy’s strength or disposition in or around the objective, so I’ll lead. If I make contact and the Krauts commence hostilities, withdraw to the assembly area on the double, and tell the sergeant whatever you saw. I’ll follow you in. Our orders are not to engage, so don’t do anything stupid.”
He didn’t direct this last statement to anyone in particular, but Braddock, Littlejohn, and Doc noticed he was looking at Kirby.
Kirby noticed it too, and coloring, he blustered, “You’re gonna be a real big shot out in front of us now, huh? Not like last week?”
Caje continued to gaze at him, his eyes unfathomable, but he said nothing.
Kirby, his confidence dwindling as his tactics failed, tried again to draw him out. “Go on. You look like you wanna say somethin’. Why not get it off your chest?”
Caje lifted his M1 and unlatched its lock.
Kirby fell back, startled, and raised his own Garand.
Braddock, Littlejohn, and Doc each sucked in a breath.
Caje glanced around at the three and warned, “Don’t bunch up,” then turning his back to them, he walked away.
When Caje was out of earshot, Braddock whispered, “You’re a moron, Kirby,” and he brought his own M1 up into a ready position.
“Or maybe crazy,” Littlejohn observed, raising his rifle too.
“And that’s another fight he just ducked,” Kirby sneered, exhaling deeply and tugging open the collar of his shirt.
Braddock and Littlejohn didn’t bother to respond except for twisting their faces in disgust and falling in behind Caje.
Doc, his nose wrinkling as though he’d finally caught a real whiff of Kirby, edged past him to follow Braddock and Littlejohn.
Kirby found himself alone again, at the back of the line.
“Oh, no you don’t,” he muttered, wondering how he’d overplayed his hand and been bumped so fast. He double-timed to catch up to Doc, and dropping in beside the medic, he asked, “So what’s up with those guys? Didn’t they see what LeMay did again? Why’re they goin’ along with a guy who’s such a chicken?”
Doc, his face reddening with uncharacteristic anger, launched into a barely contained tirade while straining to keep his voice down. “What’s up with you? Don’t you know what you’re doing? Why did you tell them Caje bugged out?”
“What’re you talkin’ about? I didn’t tell ‘em nothin’ they didn’t already know. I was just lettin’ LeMay in on the fact that I know he’s no hero.”
“I’ve never heard Caje claim to be a hero,” Doc snapped. “And Braddock and Littlejohn didn’t know. No one knew but me, Lieutenant Hanley, and Sergeant Saunders!”
“Whattaya mean, ‘no one knew’?” Kirby threw out a hand in exasperation. “Of course they did! They were on that detail last week.”
“Littlejohn wasn’t with us once we got off the beach, and Braddock and the other guys on the patrol didn’t see Caje leave!”
“Well, didn’t any of ‘em figure out LeMay took off when they noticed him missin’?”
Doc shook his head. “Caje was only gone for fifteen or twenty minutes! And when he returned, he had Marcelle’s Maquis cell and a cache of British-dropped arms with him. If he hadn’t brought them back and then fought alongside everybody else to take out a German tank and its infantry support, the whole squad could’ve been lost!”
Kirby stopped in his tracks for the second time.
“That’s right, Kirby,” Doc said over his shoulder, chopping the air with his hand. “You had only half the picture. And I would’ve never told you anything about what happened last Tuesday if I’d known you couldn’t keep a confidence!”
Kirby wasn’t sure what ‘keep a confidence’ meant, but he did know when a situation was becoming FUBAR. He made a face, pulled on his lower lip, and said, “Okay, Walton. So I was wrong.” He trotted forward to fall into step beside Doc again. “But I think you oughta gimme a little room on this.”
“Why? Why should I do that?”
“Because when you told me what you did, it didn’t make no sense to me that LeMay oughta be leadin’ us on this patrol this mornin’ or put in charge of killin’ that ol’ Kraut yesterday.”
Doc slipped on a patch of gravel, and stumbling over Kirby’s words, he spluttered, “What?”
“Whattaya mean ‘what’?” Kirby waved off the medic’s question. “It just didn’t seem right to me that he should be holdin’ our lives in his hands.”
“No, I mean what you said about the German!”
Kirby turned his head. “Hell, Walton, you forgot already? That mission yesterday. The one at the dye works on the Vire. Caje killed the Kraut so he couldn’t go around blabbin’ about when we was gonna attack.”
Doc slammed a fist into his palm, and before Kirby could react, he stomped off and squeezed between a surprised Braddock and Littlejohn, to bear down on Caje.
Caje wheeled around, his Garand thrown up into his shoulder.
Doc skidded to a stop, jerking up his arms again.
“Doc!” Caje yanked the rifle’s muzzle away from the medic’s face.
Doc, breathing heavily, perspiration standing out on his upper lip, lowered his arms and demanded, “What happened yesterday?”
“What’s the matter with you, Doc?” Caje wiped away a sudden swath of sweat glistening on his neck. “I told you we’re getting into hostile territory.”
Doc advanced so close the two men stood nose to nose. “I want to know if you killed the German prisoner.”
Caje backed up a step, his face darkening.
Braddock and Littlejohn arrived, each wondering what was going on.
Kirby reached everyone else and said, “What in hell…?”
Doc stayed focused on Caje, his words full of bitterness. “That’s what you meant yesterday, wasn’t it, when you said you had to agree with Kirby.”
Braddock and Littlejohn gaped at each other in astonishment.
Kirby noticed and began, “So what if he…?”
“I want an answer!” Doc blurted. “I want the truth, Caje. Did you murder a man in cold blood?”
Caje took another step backward, his eyes smoldering.
“My sweet mother…” Braddock murmured.
“Yeah,” Littlejohn breathed.
Kirby squared his shoulders and yanked on Doc’s sleeve. “Hey, Walton, the German had to be rubbed out. He was trouble, a no-good pest who’d just louse us up. My idea was a good one. The best.”
“It was barbaric!” Doc spat. “And Caje, you’re as heartless and ruthless as…” he jerked a thumb in Kirby’s direction, “he is!”
“I didn’t kill him!” Caje snapped.
Braddock and Littlejohn jumped.
The last of the mist lingering over the farm lane had begun burning off, and the men of the squad stared at each other, stunned, confused, and wary.
Finally Kirby uttered, “Whattaya mean, you didn’t kill ‘im? You told the sarge you went along with me! And last night I heard Saunders tellin’ the lieutenant you did.”
Caje released his rifle so that it hung down at his side, loose in his right hand.
Kirby glared, resentment, betrayal, and disbelief playing over his face until understanding dawned on him and he gasped.
“Son of a gun, you really didn’t knock off the kraut, did you? You didn’t because you couldn’t! And you couldn’t because you really don’t have any guts!”
“Je vais casser ta figure,” Caje growled, his fingers curling into the palm of his left hand.
“You hear me, you guys?” Kirby crowed. “This yellow belly let the enemy go!”
The haymaker connected so lightening-fast with Kirby’s jaw that he never saw it coming. Slammed backward, Kirby tumbled ass-over-teakettle and landed sprawled in the dirt.
Caje loomed over him, shaking with fatigue and fury. “You have no idea who the enemy is!”
A voice higher up barked, “Weapon!”
Caje jerked up his rifle again. “Throat!”
Four more pairs of eyes followed his line of vision to a shadowy figure standing atop the hedgerow, loose-limbed and shaggy but deadly serious with his own M1.
“Y’all guv’ment issue?” the disheveled Dixie boy asked, still suspicious. “Y’all don’t sound like a Joe.”
Caje lowered his Garand and bypassed the query prompted by his Acadian accent. “We’re K Company, second platoon, first squad. Out on reconnaissance.”
“Well, y’all better keep it down, Mac. Y’all’re makin’ it nigh impossible ta run a listenin’ post over thar in that next row o’ bushes. An’ we just had Hitler on the horn, whalin’ on us all the way from Berlin, tellin’ us y’all’re keepin’ ‘im from gettin’ a wink o’ sleep in.”
“What’d he just say?” Braddock asked, tilting his head to signify he meant the Southerner and scratching his forehead again.
Caje shook out then flexed the fingers of his left hand and nodded an acknowledgement. “Okay, soldier. We’re moving out.”
The GI eased up on the trigger, tossed off a two-fingered salute, and disappeared back down the other side of the hedgerow.
Caje lowered his gaze and said tersely, “It’s over. What I said before still goes. Kirby, you’re in my back pocket. The rest of you follow him at intervals and hold your distance at ten paces.”
“Keep your friends close but your enemies closer, eh, Caje?” Braddock said, trying to lighten things up.
Caje looked at him with dead eyes.
“Right, chief,” Braddock said, beginning to back away, a hand raised to ward off a more serious response. “I’ll, uh…I’ll just…” he glanced around quickly, “…fall in behind Littlejohn here. Okay? Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll just fall in right back here.”
Caje raised his rifle to port arms and turned away.
Red-faced, chagrined, forced momentarily to concede defeat, Kirby grabbed his rifle and scrambled to his feet. With as much dignity as he could muster, he made a futile show of dusting himself off. Thrusting out his chin in defiance, then wincing in pain, he silently dared anyone to say something before he about-faced and followed Caje.
Littlejohn, Braddock, and Doc, unsure about what was going on, simply avoided each other’s eyes and, retreating into the ordered formation, fell into step behind.
The squad eventually abandoned the farm lane to cut through an apple orchard shelled days before. Clods of earth, exposed boulders, and yawning craters marred the orchard floor. Birds and squirrels lay scattered, lifeless, reminiscent of the dead fish littering the landing beaches. The soldiers wove their way around fractured trees leaning crazily on roots laid bare, and reaching another wall of shrubs, they moved along its length and veered farther southeast.
The carnage of the last few days unfolded before them in a series of macabre tableaux, each more ghastly than the last, all framed by the ubiquitous hedgerows. A wheat field sheltered a hastily dug enemy cemetery, the decaying limbs of those buried protruding from shallow graves desecrated and disturbed by the concussions of artillery rounds. Another patch of earth farther on pastured cattle butchered by shrapnel, leaving the Guernsey cows lying bloated, dismembered, disemboweled. A plot of tender young tobacco plants savaged by the crash landing and turbulent slide of a US glider now embedded in a hedgerow was strewn with mangled corpses, splintered weapons, and pieces of the aircraft’s wings and ruptured fuselage.
The pall and stench of it all shrouded the bocage landscape, assaulted the five men’s eyes, and threatened to breach their mental defenses. Kirby, Braddock, Littlejohn, and Doc all mumbled, “Rotten krauts,” “SNAFU,” and “Another crummy misallocation of military resources.” Caje kept his thoughts to himself.
By the time the GIs had viewed a dozen more such scenes and neared a crossroads marked with signs labeled Oradour-sur-Vayres and Oradour-sur-Glane, they’d put in a good, long morning of walking eventually slowed to a crawl by the need for caution. Caje signaled them to take five and led the way into some woods where he crouched and pulled out his map. Littlejohn, Braddock, and Doc settled nearby while Kirby sat alone farther away.
“It’s good we haven’t run into any Germans so far,” Doc whispered.
“Yeah, so far,” Littlejohn agreed, pulling out his canteen and unscrewing its cap.
“So maybe Sarge was right,” Braddock said, his hands roaming through his pockets for a fruit bar, a tin of cheese, a couple of Chiclets, anything. “Maybe we will get outta this with nothing more than a suntan today.”
“I don’t think so, Braddock,” Littlejohn said, gurgling through a swig of water. “It smells a little smoky around here. And the sky’s already been overcast.”
“Okay, okay. So no suntan. But getting home without seeing anything would be fine too.” Braddock cast a furtive eye around the woods, wondering if something edible could be found growing despite it being too early in the season.
“Yeah, just a nice, quiet, little town,” Doc said hopefully, sitting cross-legged again, his elbows on his knees, his chin in his hands.
“Hey, Caje,” Littlejohn said in a low voice as he snugged the canteen back into place on his belt. “How do you say the name of this place we’re going to again?”
“Oradour-sur-Glane,” Caje said, checking contours, working out the squad’s best route of approach.
“Does the name mean anything?”
Caje glanced at him.
“I mean, do the words stand for something in French?” Littlejohn clarified.
Caje returned his attention to the map. “The town’s on the Glane River. Sur means ‘on’ in French.”
Littlejohn waited expectantly, then eyed Braddock and Doc who, although also interested in hearing more, only shrugged.
Littlejohn prompted, “And ‘Oradour’?”
Caje pushed up a sleeve and looked at his watch. “That’s from a Latin word, oratorium, which means an altar where you pray for the dead. The Romans used to bury their dead near crossroads when they conquered Gaul.”
“France, Braddock,” Caje murmured, now surveying the drab leaden sky past the treetops.
“You think there’re dead people around here?” Doc whispered uneasily, lifting his head. “You know we’re still by that crossroads we just passed.”
“Doc,” Braddock chided gently, “there’re dead people all over. Remember? The war?”
“Huh,” Kirby huffed, getting sick of their conversation and stewing over not being a participant. “You jokers just gonna sit around all day, yakkin’ about the war, or are we gonna start fightin’ it?”
“Kirby,” Littlejohn said, still being careful to keep his voice down, “why are you always spoiling for a fight?”
Braddock, gliding a pudgy hand over his rumbling belly, offered his own explanation. “It’s because our resident eager beaver hasn’t pulled off any action himself. His introduction to the war in ‘Recon Patrol 101’ yesterday didn’t pan out, so he’s still looking to become a hero by bagging himself a Kraut.”
“Yeah, sure, since I’m not a hero like you big time veterans are,” Kirby scoffed, tossing his bruised chin, his lips puckering in disdain. “You guys who, in less than a week, have already seen and done it all.”
“Seen and done enough, Kirby,” Doc corrected quietly, surreptitiously examining Caje after noticing the soldier looked more tired. “Seen and done enough.”
Caje, putting away the map, interrupted the quartet. “The break’s over.” He rubbed his eyes, blinked a few times, and then rose. “Let’s go.”
The men climbed to their feet, Kirby rising last. Everyone waited for him to resume his place at Caje’s back, and muttering a curse, Kirby grudgingly acquiesced. He then reluctantly kept pace with the soldier as Caje threaded his way through clusters of trees, wove around jagged stumps, sidestepped rotting logs, and skirted knots of brush.
Having escaped being shelled, the quiet stretch of forest stood cool and deep. The rich, earthy fragrance of loamy soil, clematis, and honeysuckle overpowered the acrid odor of smoke wafting in ethereal layers between huddled trees. Providing a shortcut, offering defilade, the woodlands were a welcome respite from navigating around hedgerows.
The GIs hiked several hundred feet before Caje jerked up his right arm, his hand closed in a fist. Kirby froze, his senses immediately on high alert. Every tree, every stump, every depression in the ground became an instant threat. No one moved and nothing was said. Kirby’s pulse pounded and his nerves twitched. Caje extended his arm, rapidly waving down the squad, and Kirby dropped onto his belly to lie prone in a patchy carpet of moss and ferns. His eyes wide, his ears pricked up, he strained to hear something other than his heart banging against his ribs. Caje lay a short distance beyond him, communicating nothing else, but cocking his head to listen to something he alone apparently heard.
As the minutes passed, Kirby became impatient. He wondered what was going on now. Wasn’t there a threat? Weren’t Krauts closing in? What in hell was LeMay doing?
Kirby had just begun crawling forward to find out, when Caje slipped off his helmet. Kirby paused and watched as Caje also laid aside his M1.
Completely puzzled, Kirby flashed back to what Walton had said about LeMay on the patrol last week and wondered if the Frenchman was turning ‘nervous in the service’ again. Maybe he was planning to surrender? Why else would he lay down his weapon?
Kirby, his eyes narrowing, slowly lowered himself back to the ground. He raised his rifle and rested his cheek along its stock. This was something he’d take care of, a situation he knew somebody better damn well do something about.
He squinted through the rifle’s rear sight, slid his finger into the trigger guard, and panned the forward sight along Caje’s legs, letting it ascend the soldier’s back and travel up his neck. Hearing the hushed sounds of someone creeping along the forest floor, swishing through the foliage a bit to the right, he raised his aim, lifting it above Caje’s head. He listened to the footsteps growing closer and, holding his breath, prepared to fire.
Caje lunged forward and grabbed the intruder. With a squawk, a boy seven or eight years old threw out his arms and then, flailing, started beating his fists against Caje’s shoulders. Caje scooped the child in closer and, wrapping his arms tightly around him, began rapidly chanting in French.
“Ca va, ca va, petit…tu as la sécurité avec nous…shhh, shhh…tu vas bien…nous sommes les américains, nous sommes tes amis…ca va, ca va…”
The boy eventually stopped resisting but continued to tremble violently. He made no further sounds except to gulp air between expelling choked sobs, and Caje took advantage of the moment to summon Doc.
Kirby squeezed his eyes shut, trying to catch his breath, willing his heart to resume beating. He thought he’d been set to blast away Krauts. The last thing he’d expected to run into out here was some kid. He could just imagine Saunders finding out he’d plugged an ankle biter and then really busting his chops.
He opened his eyes to see Caje cautiously releasing the boy into Doc’s care. Doc stroked the child’s tousled, coppery hair, smiling and speaking gentle greetings in English. The boy allowed Doc to examine him briefly but said nothing, did nothing except continue to quaver, his russet-colored eyes wide and frightened. Covered with scratches, missing one shoe, his clothes resembling some sort of school uniform smudged with dirt and grass stains, his snagged woolen socks coated in burrs and bits of leaves, he appeared to have been wandering the woods for some time.
Kirby got up and crawled forward. He could hear Littlejohn and Braddock behind him doing the same thing. When he got in close, Kirby rose onto his haunches, leaned against his rifle, and blew out a breath.
“Now that you caught ‘im, smart guy,” he groused, annoyed that Caje had unwittingly bested him again, “whattaya expect us to do with ‘im?”
The boy flinched, and Doc rubbed the child’s back.
“Kirby, keep it down, will you?” Doc said. “Can’t you see the kid’s shaken up?”
“Tiens, petit,” Caje soothed, ignoring Kirby. “Il ne te fera pas mal. Il parle seulement trop fort. D’accord?”
The boy didn’t respond or look at anyone, but neither did he resist Doc’s comforting ministrations.
“What’d you tell him, Caje?” Braddock asked.
“That nobody’s going to hurt him.” Caje scanned the woods and reached for his rifle and helmet.
“What do you think he’s doing out here?” Littlejohn queried.
“I don’t know,” Caje answered, ducking under his helmet and pulling its brim low.
“How’d you know he wasn’t a Kraut coming toward us?” Braddock next asked.
“His footsteps were too light. He didn’t sound heavy enough to be an adult.”
Hearing this, Kirby grumbled, “Lucky guess,” under his breath.
Caje went on ignoring him and patted down a few pockets. “Doc, you got a candy bar on you?”
“Of course! I should’ve thought of that myself.” Doc shook his head and reached into his jacket for a Hershey bar that he unwrapped partially and held out.
The boy dropped his eyes to the candy but otherwise didn’t move.
“It’s okay, little guy,” Doc assured him. “It’s good. You’ll like it.”
“C’est du chocolat,” Caje said in a soothing voice, “pour toi. C’est bon. Tu as faim?”
The boy reached for the chocolate and clutched it against his chest.
“Comment t’appelles tu, petit?” Caje said.
The boy hesitated, continuing to grasp the Hershey bar, still unwilling to look at anyone, but he whispered, “Rousel.”
“Rousel,” Caje repeated, smiling. “Qu’est-ce que tu fais ici?”
Rousel blinked rapidly, his lips quivering, just before he began crying.
Doc gathered him into his arms to hug him protectively.
Braddock frowned and, unsure where to look, what to do, dropped his troubled eyes to the candy bar. “Man, somebody sure did a number on him.”
Littlejohn, uncertain how to help, hunching in on himself, concerned his size might be intimidating, only nodded.
Kirby, having witnessed about all the coddling he could take, thrust a grimy index finger in the boy’s direction. “Like I said, whattaya expect us to do with ‘im? He’s dead weight.”
Caje patted Rousel’s shoulder, assuring him again that he was safe and all would be well, then surveying the forest again, his expression grim, he stood. “Doc, I want you to stay here with the kid. Oradour-sur-Glane’s just past these woods. We’ll go in and take a look around, then come back here and figure out where he belongs.”
“What? You’re leavin’ Walton here with some pint-sized civilian?”
Caje finally gave Kirby his attention. “You want the kid to go his own way and maybe let any Krauts around here know he saw us?”
The two men’s eyes met, and Kirby’s face reddened.
“Or are you telling me,” Caje twisted his lips in contempt, “that you suddenly got a problem with leaving Doc behind?”
Kirby’s color deepened, and he turned away.
For the second time in two days Doc looked at the pair, puzzled over their comments about him, but he quickly returned his attention to Rousel and pulled out a canteen.
“Take care of him, Doc.” Caje ruffled the boy’s hair. “Whatever he’s been through, it’s been rough.”
“Okay, Caje.” Doc patted the ground, bidding a sniffling Rousel to sit while he offered the child water. “He’ll be all right ‘til you get back.”
Caje nodded and massaged his temples. “The rest of you guys, on your feet and into a diamond formation,” he said. “Littlejohn and Braddock, you’re at my back. Kirby, you’re tail-end Charlie. There’s a cemetery just beyond these trees, and the town’s right past it. We’ll be there in another few minutes.”
He dropped his hand, swiped a forearm across his face, and ducked under a twisted canopy of vines to weave his way between more beeches and poplars. Littlejohn and Braddock trailed him, walking abreast of one another and a few yards apart, their eyes roving over clutches of scraggly shrubs. Kirby, watching the squad’s flanks and batting away a low-hanging branch, chewed over the day’s events.
Nothing added up. LeMay had been put in charge of everything even though he seemed to be a screw up. And worse, he kept coming out on top. The patrol on D-Day, the crack about Walton not being able to patch up McGraw, the way to take care of the Kraut prisoner, the challenge over today’s command, the kid creeping around out here…how’d the Frenchman pull it all off?
Kirby rounded a jumble of boulders and, approaching a fallen tree leaning against another one, vaulted over it. Back home a guy got ahead by undercutting his rival. Finding his weak spot and exploiting it. Showing him up in front of the boss. It was simple to figure out the rules: it was every man for himself. But here there seemed to be another system in play. Some system that he couldn’t, to save his life, figure out.
He’d have to though if he were going to get in on LeMay’s action. The question was whether he’d get another chance. Too many more boneheaded plays, too much more slipping up on this new squad’s turf, and Saunders would write him off.
Kirby frowned. He’d been written off before. Once, a long time ago when the old man had walked out. The guy had just pulled up stakes and disappeared, as if his wife and kids didn’t count for much.
His father had ditched them with nothing but their clothes, a couple sticks of furniture, fifteen bucks crumpled inside a chipped cookie jar, and a few faded photos jammed into a cigar box. The guy hadn’t said anything, explained himself, made sense of the unimaginable. He’d just abandoned them, left them high and dry, lost inside the emptiness of a seedy tenement.
Kirby remembered his mother’s hysterics and how he leaned out a window to catch the old man’s shadowy figure striding past battered garbage cans lining the sidewalk strewn with cigarette butts, windblown trash, empty gin bottles and the bums who’d drained them, his father’s camel-colored fedora pulled low, his flannel shirt collar turned up against the vast city night. Kirby called to him until he thought his lungs would burst, pleading with him not to go, not to leave him behind, but the old man didn’t answer, didn’t even turn his head.
Kirby did his share of crying. That night. The next day. The day after that. Then he stopped, telling himself he didn’t need James W. Kirby. He could make it on his own just fine, figure out what it took to be a man, all by himself.
His Ma continued her own crying jags but found a job at Gallagher’s Diner. She also all but left home, working long hours, days and nights. His brother, George, and sister, Ruthie, disappeared into the care of the neighbors – the Kopacheks – and Kirby saw them only when he was hanging around with his best pal, Eddie. He’d known Eddie Kopachek since the two were eight years old, and they spent a lot of time playing Kick the Can, shooting marbles, and throwing a baseball. Then Eddie’s old man pushed him to do better in school, and the kid began staying inside, cooped up with pencils and papers and books. Kirby, left on his own to cope with arithmetic and spelling, let his own studies slide. As Eddie went on to high school, then college, joined the army’s ATSP program and graduated from OCS, Kirby fell in with a punk he met hanging around Sharkey Gillespie’s pool room.
At first Kirby liked Tony Cain as the two hustled pool and played poker for penny ante stakes. They lifted wallets from pimps and grifters or filched cigarettes and bottles of Schlitz beer from crates stacked behind the Red Rose Lounge after deliveries every Tuesday afternoon. Scoring a pocketful of cash, pulling off a little caper, let Kirby know he could take care of himself. And he and Tony had some good times balling around with other freewheeling fellows in the neighborhood. That is, until Tony began cheating at cards, rolling drunks, snatching purses, and breaking into slummy brownstones to steal the meager possessions of local families. When Tony copped a radio from Butch Wilson’s Ma, then tried to blame the theft on Snooky Doyle and his pals, Snooky knifed Tony in a back alley near O’Keefe’s hardware store.
Kirby, feeling sorry for his dead buddy’s mother, stayed on with the family to help with funeral arrangements and doing the chores until he couldn’t take any more of Tony’s snotty kid brother. Kirby knew he’d miss Tony’s Ma nearly as much as his own, but he struck out for bigger action south of the railroad yards. He found his way into Sal Marcus’ bookie joint and, looking older than his years, got a job as a runner. Making contacts and connections – all the while watching his back – Kirby graduated to riding shotgun on deliveries of rotgut booze to gin mills, cat houses, and gambling dens. Later, he picked up work collecting dues for some of the ‘protection’ the Chicago Outfit forced on shady enterprises along the docks. He caught the attention of Paul ‘The Waiter’ Ricca’s underboss, Tony “Big Tuna” Accardo, and Accardo dispatched one of his lieutenants to recruit Kirby into racketeering. Offered the chance to become Accardo’s youngest protégé, Kirby agreed to learn the ropes by leaning on a local union president.
That same day Kirby’s draft notice caught up to him. Figuring he was the target of a practical joke, he decided to play along with it. He reported in to the processing center, learned it was no joke, took the AGCT, was issued his uniforms, and became an official conscript of the Armed Forces of the United States. Busted down in basic, then shipped overseas, he now found himself tromping through a miserable French forest and, completely out of his element, resenting everyone in the lead.
“About time,” he muttered when Caje finally pulled up behind a copse of trees. Braddock and Littlejohn took positions on Caje’s right, and Kirby slunk into a spot off to his left. In silence, Kirby pulled a clot of spider webs away from his pants and, along with the others, took his first look at the day’s objective.
A weathered stone wall situated a few yards away bordered a cemetery. Dull gray obelisks, blocky family mausoleums, granite sarcophagi, and coffin-sized marble slabs resting on stone catafalques or set at ground level stood in rows within the wall’s confines. Drifts of smoke hovered between the tombs, shrouding them and nearly obscuring Oradour-sur-Glane enveloped in darkness, silent, and farther away.
No people could be seen anywhere, and Kirby realized there didn’t seem to be animals around. Not a single cow or horse grazed the field between the cemetery and village, and there weren’t any dogs or cats in sight. Nor could he hear birds calling and squirrels and chipmunks making their nerve-racking noise. He shivered in spite of the growing June heat and wondered what was going on.
“It’s hard to believe it’s only 1030,” Littlejohn whispered to nobody in particular.
“Yeah,” Braddock answered, moving closer to him. “Feels kinda like night around here.”
Kirby coughed into his sleeve, blinked, and in spite of himself silently agreed with the pair.
“I don’t get it,” Littlejohn went on. “Sarge said there might be trouble in the area, but I don’t think he meant anything like this. It seems like the town’s been shelled, and bad enough to be wiped out.”
“Yeah, but how’d the Krauts do it without G-2 knowing?” Braddock wondered aloud.
“Good question.” Littlejohn pressed an index finger against his lower lip. “Maybe it happened after we left Rouxeville.”
“I dunno.” Braddock stroked his jowls. “Seems like we would’ve heard something. Besides, why shell it? There’s not supposed to be anything around here.”
“Yeah. Nothing of strategic importance anyway...” Littlejohn mused.
He and Braddock exchanged looks while Kirby absently played his fingers over the bruise on his chin.
Braddock and Littlejohn finally turned worried eyes on Caje, and Kirby, frowning, looked his way too.
Caje, still gazing at the village, simply picked up the dog tags lying on his chest and lowered them inside his T-shirt. He pulled a few branches out of his way and, ordering quietly, “Come on,” slipped out from between the trees. Crouching and moving left, he began a stealthy advance along the cemetery wall.
Littlejohn swallowed and, glancing at Braddock again, ducked beneath the poplars to follow Caje.
Braddock ran a hand over his mouth and, hunkering down, trailed Littlejohn.
Kirby, squinting at the wavering outlines of stone buildings in the smoky distance, lowered himself and also left the woods.
He found it easier to travel the hard-packed earth quilted with moss and lichen and forming a natural pathway behind the cemetery. Although tree branches hung overhead, they no longer impeded his progress, poked him, or blocked his view. Kirby slogged through mats of damp fallen leaves black with decay and, put off by their unfamiliar musty odor, began sipping air.
He peered at the cemetery wall, then at the line of trees on his left, reminded of the alleyways back home, just as dark and narrow as this natural route but stinking of garbage, gasoline, and the grease poured out the back doors of flyblown diners. Shady business deals, shady contacts, they all had their place in Chicago. He couldn’t really say he was happy there, but at least he knew the life, lived it like he lived in his own skin.
Turning his head toward the wall again, he flinched, hopped backward, skipped left. He barely missed colliding with a striated dun snake poking its way through a cleft in the rocks. Adrenaline goosing him, he high-stepped toward the tree line. The allée might have the feel of his old haunts, but he sure wasn’t in Chi-town.
He reached Braddock and moved to pass him just as the portly goldbrick ducked unexpectedly to the right. Surprised, Kirby stumbled and lost his footing but gained traction on fear and also dove off the path. He saw Littlejohn flinging himself to the ground farther ahead and Caje, on the point, waving them all up against the cemetery wall.
Hunkering down next to Braddock, Kirby peered apprehensively at the stones above him. If a snake or anything else dropped on his helmet, he’d have a heart attack. His skin crawling, the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end, he wondered if praying would help. Unable to come up with anything pious, he hoped French snakes were afraid of Americans, and leaning around Braddock, he tried to see what was going on.
Caje was down on one knee, unmoving, staring up the allée. After a minute or two, he threaded his right arm through the sling of his Garand, twisting his hand in it to anchor the rifle in his grip. Getting the M1 snug at his shoulder, he rose and advanced again, alone. Shadows and haze soon hid him from view, and Kirby, letting his temper, impatience, and anxiety get the better of him, silently called down fire and brimstone.
Aloud he grumbled, “What’s LeMay gonna do? Leave us here all day while he carries out the mission?”
Braddock, his clothes splotched with perspiration, his breathing heavy, didn’t respond.
“Or is he just grabbin’ another kid,” Kirby went on, “so’s he can start a boy scout troop?”
“Kirby, why don’t you shut up?” Braddock said without turning his head. “You’re giving me a pain.”
Kirby pulled a face and, looking up again, drew in his rifle, hunched lower inside his jacket, and fought off the urge to bolt to the other side of the pathway.
Suddenly a string of French sounded in the distance. “Qui est là? Qu’est-ce que vous faites? Montrez vos mains. Montrez vos mains!”
Snakes instantly forgotten, Kirby snapped back against the cemetery wall, squeezing his Garand, wishing he could understand LeMay’s gobbledygook.
“Mettez-vous debout!” Caje’s voice came low but harsh. “Maintenent!”
“Ne tirez pas!” a feeble voice cried from somewhere farther on. “S’il vous plait…mon Dieu. Ne tirez pas!”
Kirby swallowed air, itching to move up, every muscle in his body tense.
The French ceased, the forest fell silent, and the path ahead remained clear. Seconds ticked by and no one moved. Kirby watched Littlejohn staring into the distance, waiting for a signal, a word, a direction to go on. Braddock sat on his haunches, perspiring, doing the same thing. Kirby glanced to his left, saw nothing but the pathway back, then he looked right again. More moments crawled by, each one endless, and Kirby squirmed, gnawed on a fingernail, picked at a clump of moss.
Finally he had enough. “I’m gonna see what’s goin’ on,” he said.
“No you’re not!” Braddock grabbed Kirby’s arm.
“Whattaya mean I’m not?” Kirby huffed. “You plan to wait back here all day?”
“All day,” Braddock mimicked, his tone dripping scorn. “Caje has been gone five minutes.”
Kirby tossed his head in exasperation. “Five minutes is a long time. He could be up there doin’ anything. He could be smokin’ a cigarette. He could be askin’ for directions. He could be yakkin’ with a French chick.” Kirby seemed to consider something, then his eyes glinted wickedly. “Or he could be doin’ what he did last week. How do you know he ain’t buggin’ out on us?”
Braddock yanked Kirby in close with such force he nearly spilled him into his lap. “Because I’ve seen the work he does,” Braddock snarled. “And I’ve seen him – in the worst situation any of us’ll ever be in – go on and do what he’s supposed to, prove where his loyalty lies. So whether you like it or not, I’m gonna trust him.”
He let go of Kirby’s arm and, turning his back to him, said over his shoulder, “And that’s a helluva lot more than I can say for you, my friend.”
He waved at a startled Littlejohn that everything was okay, and Kirby, his face flushed, straightened his helmet and tugged his jacket back into place.
Caje appeared out of the gloom and motioned them all forward.
Braddock rose and smirked at Kirby. “C’mon, Johnny-come-lately. You gonna just laze around all day?” He snickered at getting in the last word and turned to trot after Littlejohn while reaching back to hitch up his pants.
Kirby got up and decided he should’ve tried for some kind of deferment when he got his draft notice. Maybe gunning down the draft board would’ve made a difference.
He and the others reached Caje, and the soldier turned silently to lead them forward. Despite his mysterious dialogue, he offered no explanations and no one asked him about it. They didn’t need to. In seconds they could see who he’d encountered.
Near the end of the cemetery wall, a bedraggled civilian sat slumped, a ragged strip of his tattered blue shirt tied around a wound in his left thigh, his hands and pants bloody, his face pale and stubbled and tear-streaked. Just beyond him lay another man, slack-jawed, probably in shock, his skin ash gray, his hair matted and littered with twigs and straw, his legs also bound in blood-soaked strips of clothing. Since the two men were covered in grime, like the boy, Rousel, it was impossible to ascertain their ages.
“Braddock and Kirby, security,” Caje said. “Littlejohn, I need you to give me a hand.” He shouldered his rifle and, stepping forward, knelt in front of the seated civilian. Again speaking French, this time in a soft, melodious pitch, Caje pulled the canteen off his hip and uncapped and guided it to the man’s mouth.
Littlejohn slipped his own rifle across his back and maneuvered his way around Caje. Squatting in front of the other noncombatant, Littlejohn began examining him. Braddock skirted the whole group, grimacing as he stepped in the dried blood on the path. He reached the corner of the wall and peeked around it. Relieved not to see anything more than a dirt track running down the side of the cemetery, he settled in to keep an eye out for Germans. Kirby, sweeping his eyes over the woods and allée, craved a cigarette while watching everything else.
The man wearing the blue shirt finished drinking and began to speak. His words came slowly at first, but he soon became animated, agitated, and poured forth a torrent of French. Caje put the canteen back on his belt and interrupted him, laying gentle hands on his shoulders, speaking to him in calm, measured tones. The man relaxed, took several deep breaths, nodded. Caje continued talking, soothing him, asking questions, until the man seemed coherent again and in control of himself.
Caje released him and, sitting back on his heels, said, “Je m’appelle Paul LeMay. Comment vous appelez-vous?”
The man wiped tears out of his eyes and answered, “Rémy Hébert.”
“Et votre ami?” Caje asked.
Hébert pointed a trembling finger at his companion. “Lui? Il s’appelle Mathis Delaflote.”
Caje patted Hébert’s good leg. “Une seconde, eh?”
Hébert nodded again.
Caje moved over to Littlejohn. “How’s this guy look?” he asked quietly.
Littlejohn, just finishing up his check on Delaflote’s dressings, shrugged. “I don’t know, Caje. He’s in bad shape and pretty much out of it, but at least he doesn’t seem to be losing any more blood.”
“You think he can travel?”
Littlejohn pursed his lips. “He’ll have to be carried. He’s been shot three, maybe four times in his legs.”
Caje frowned. “He’s got burns on him too.”
“Yeah. Must’ve got ‘em in the barrage.”
“There wasn’t a barrage.”
“It seems the Krauts were in the town down there yesterday.” Caje laid a hand on Delaflote’s forehead. “They rounded up everybody who lived in it and separated the women and kids from the men.” Caje lifted his hand, leaned forward, and peered into Delaflote’s eyes. “They marched the women and kids off someplace else – Hébert, the guy in the blue shirt, didn’t see where – then they separated the men into smaller groups and took them to different buildings.” Caje touched Delaflote’s neck, took his pulse at the carotid artery, and straightened up. “Hébert says he and his buddy here and over fifty other guys wound up in a barn and got machine gunned. The Krauts set it on fire and then left. Hébert and five others managed to get out, and they hid behind some kind of cages for rabbits…”
“Yeah, that’s it. They left town once it got dark, and these two got as far as here. Hébert didn’t see what happened to their friends or the men in the other buildings, but he heard a lot of shooting, and he says he saw a lot of places burning.”
Braddock, his face pale, asked over his shoulder, “Does he know where the Krauts are now?”
Caje unzipped his jacket. “They must’ve left. He keeps insisting everybody’s gone.”
“Everybody?” Littlejohn queried.
“That’s right,” Caje said, shrugging his way out of the coat. “Not only the Krauts but the women and kids too. He hasn’t said what happened to the women, but maybe the Krauts wanted to relocate them, deport them…I don’t know.”
Caje turned toward Hébert and asked a question. Hébert nodded and wiped more tears off his face.
“Yeah, he says all the women and kids are gone.”
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Kirby interrupted. “You said somethin’ about these French guys travelin’. Are you plannin’ to have us lug ‘em somewhere?”
“Hébert can walk. Delaflote’ll need a litter. Braddock and Littlejohn, you can handle it.”
“But Caje,” Braddock said, “you want us to take these men back into Oradour-sur-Glane?”
“No, I want you and Littlejohn to get Hébert and Delaflote and the kid that Doc’s watching back to Rouxeville. They need more aid than we can give them, and they’ve got intelligence about whatever happened here. Kirby and I can recon the town.”
“What if you run into Krauts?”
“It won’t be any different than before. We'll pull out.”
“But,” Littlejohn interrupted, his eyes sliding toward Kirby, “don’t you think I oughta go into town with you? What if you need…?”
“What if he needs what?” Kirby demanded, not appreciating the insinuation barely disguised as questions.
Caje gave Littlejohn a faint smile and palmed the big man’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Littlejohn. I want Kirby with me. And I want the civilians to get back to Rouxeville.” He looked into Littlejohn’s eyes, conveying more than he’d said, and held out his jacket.
Littlejohn accepted it, but he frowned.
Caje turned back to Hébert, and gesturing at Delaflote and Littlejohn and Braddock, he informed him of the plan.
Kirby hunched his shoulders and gave Caje a suspicious look, but he said nothing else and resumed standing watch.
Littlejohn peeled off his own jacket, appraised some of the smaller trees standing nearby, and rose to retrieve a couple of saplings. Cutting the trees to lengths of eight or so feet, he stripped them of branches, stretched his and Caje’s coats over the trunks, and tied them in place. Tugging on the jackets, he pulled them every which way, and satisfied with his handiwork, he summoned Caje.
Caje held up a finger to Hébert, signifying he’d be back in a minute. He turned to help Littlejohn load Delaflote aboard the stretcher, making sure the civilian was reasonably comfortable. He asked for Kirby’s coat, ignoring the soldier’s sour look as it was handed over, and laid it on top of the wounded man.
Caje waved Braddock over to help Littlejohn pick up the litter. As Braddock complied, Caje turned his attention back to Hébert and helped him to his feet. He steered Hébert toward the litter and, guiding his hands toward one of its crude poles, had him hold onto it for support.
When Hébert was situated, Caje stepped out of the way and said to Braddock and Littlejohn, “You two can get back to Doc okay?”
“Sure, Caje, no problem.” Braddock adjusted his grip on the poles. “Me and Littlejohn got it in the bag.”
“The question is will you get back?” Littlejohn wanted to know.
Caje unfastened half the buttons on his shirt and wiped perspiration off his face. “Just tell Saunders, when you get in, that he owes the squad a round, okay?”
“Okay, Caje.” Littlejohn’s expression matched the solemnity of his words. “Sarge buys us all a beer.”
Caje tipped his head and took another step backward to give him and Braddock room to move out. Delaflote lay silent and semi-conscious between them, a pitiful burden bobbing on a khaki pallet. Hébert hobbled alongside his friend, clutching the litter and murmuring a heartfelt litany of Gallic thanks.
Kirby, who despite his reluctance to surrender his jacket was damp with sweat and rolling up his shirtsleeves, exchanged muttered insults with Braddock as the paunchy soldier plodded past.
Startled, Kirby turned toward Caje.
“You’re on me.”
Kirby crimped his lips, annoyed to be stuck with LeMay but glad to be rid of Braddock. He tipped back his helmet and mockingly slid an index finger off his brow. “Go ahead, General,” he said. “Nothin’ I like better than playin’ Follow the Leader.”
A muscle in Caje’s cheek twitched, but he said nothing and disappeared around the cemetery wall. Kirby, baring his teeth in the semblance of a smile, dogged his steps a few yards behind. He entered the dirt track running alongside the wall and followed Caje toward Oradour-sur-Glane.
The two soldiers soon emerged past the wall and onto the field fronting the town. They veered right to travel a tree-lined lane leading from the cemetery to the village. Almost immediately they spotted a civilian on the western shoulder of the road, lying on his side, in a tangle of weeds and wire fencing. Crossing the lane, climbing an embankment, and advancing from tree to tree, they closed ranks and cautiously approached him.
Caje reached the man first and, kneeling, checked him for a pulse. He rolled the civilian over, got a better look at his face, then climbed to his feet. Kirby, keeping his finger on the trigger of his M1, noticed the corpse was shot in the abdomen and legs. He swallowed hard and darted his eyes back and forth. Dread stirring in the pit of his stomach, he tailed Caje back across the lane and moved toward a row of smoking ruins.
The air seemed to thicken with the odor of charred wood and something else Kirby couldn’t identify. He took shallow breaths to avoid choking. Reaching the structures situated on a sloping curve, he slipped in beside Caje already flattened against a sooty wall of the closest building.
Both men stood motionless, scanning their surroundings. Then Caje, holding his rifle up against his chest, sidled up to a burned-out doorway. He paused, listening, before peeking around the doorjamb. He pulled back, waited a moment, then peered into the opening. Straightening up, he turned and waved Kirby on. Kirby edged around him, dashed past the doorway, and also took a look inside.
Nothing of the building’s interior resembled the home or business it had once been. Beams that had held up the structure’s roof had fallen and crushed everything below. Portions of collapsed walls and shattered roof tiles lay scattered over blackened husks of furnishings. Ashes and embers swirled in lazy eddies rising from smoldering debris.
Kirby pulled his head back, and Caje motioned him forward. The two soldiers repeated the process of searching each subsequent building, sometimes managing to get inside. They found the same desolate destruction time and again.
Leaving the first group of ruins and progressing farther into town, they discovered the cemetery lane intersected another route identified by a nearby sign as Le Champ de Foire. Off to their right was a commons area ringed by more buildings destroyed by fire. A well stood within it, the only structure remaining mostly unscathed. Through hot vapors shimmering off stone and asphalt, they glimpsed an abandoned automobile parked at the far end of the grounds.
Straight ahead, past another empty car, the lane narrowed and veered left.
Caje and Kirby continued to follow the lane’s course, creeping through silence growing more ominous, an atmosphere more foul. They saw farming implements strewn across the roadway and around a large, smoking edifice standing diagonally across from them. Weaving their way past plows, a threshing machine, riggings, yokes, and wheelbarrows, they approached what appeared to be a barn. Roofless and with no walls left intact much higher than its gaping doorway situated atop a short slope, it belched cinders and a sickening odor into the air.
Caje slipped up to one side of the doorway. Kirby stole toward the other and stood in front of a wooden sign attached to the barn’s rock wall and hand-lettered with the word ‘Laudy’. Taking a deep breath, Caje swung himself around the opening. Kirby did the same, then staggered backward, coughing and gagging in spite of his best efforts to keep quiet.
Scattered all around the doorway were large caliber bullet casings along with charred and exploded jerry cans reeking of petrol. Beyond these lay a sizeable pile of corpses incinerated nearly to the point of leaving them unrecognizable as human beings. Off toward the back and sides of the barn were more dead men felled near the doors and windows through which the victims had undoubtedly tried to escape. And here and there sprawled a few boys riddled with bullets, their pitiful forms giving evidence as to why the Germans had aimed their machine guns low.
Shaken and wide-eyed, Kirby saw Caje turn away, the soldier’s face pale, his rifle clutched in white-knuckled hands. Caje had been told about the crime perpetuated in the barn, but it hadn’t inoculated him against its obscenity. Kirby lowered his gaze to the tinder-dry grass at his feet, and covering his mouth and nose, he backed away to shadow Caje.
The pair of GIs rounded the barn, then paused as a swirl of ash and smoke obscured the rest of the lane. Once the haze blew past, they moved forward again, scrutinizing more buildings consumed by flames. They strained to see Germans and kept an eye out for townspeople in hiding. The cemetery road soon ended at another avenue, and the soldiers, huddling beneath the street sign bolted to the corner of a house, looked off to their right.
The Rue Emile Desourteaux appeared to be Oradour-sur-Glane’s main street. Bordered by the same type of destruction that lined the cemetery lane, it also harbored smoldering cafés and shops, among them an épicerie, a pharmacie, a boucherie, and a boulangerie. Another structure bore the words Le Garage de Emile Desourteaux painted in yellow and black letters on its side. Tram tracks ran up the north side of the street canopied by overhead cables held up by wooden poles. Strewn with the discarded contents of looted homes and businesses, rimmed by the stone façades of gutted buildings and derelict chimneys, the avenue had the forlorn look of a graveyard.
To the left, the street curved around another devastated barn situated directly across the intersection. Kirby, running a hand down the front of his shirt, accompanied Caje who was already approaching it. In moments, he wished he hadn’t.
A second mass execution had been carried out inside this barn already reduced to shambled walls surrounding a smoking funeral pyre. Although fewer men had died within its confines, the scene had all the murderous earmarks of another small-scale genocide. Scattered shell casings, discarded gas cans, broken furniture and splintered boards used as kindling lay in a charred heap over cremated human remains. Caje fell back, into the street, and Kirby did the same.
Retreating to the far side of the avenue, just south of its intersection with a Rue des Bordes, they turned and nearly stumbled over several people lying near bicycles. Each rider had been shot at point-blank range. Clad in casual day clothes, the cyclists had apparently been touring the countryside but arrived in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the wrong place at which they’d arrived was the southern entrance to the town, opposite the church of Oradour-sur-Glane. Once a haven for pilgrims and the weary of soul, the church was now scorched black all around its arched windows and doors and emitting spirals of smoke and ashes from its roofless bell tower.
Kirby didn’t want to go near it. He’d never been much of a religious man, but he’d already seen enough things he’d have a hard time forgetting once he and LeMay left this place. Why go inside a church and get an eyeful of the altar trashed, the pews and icons burned, the statues and candle stands wrecked? Kirby remembered a couple of Fathers back home who’d helped him when he was a kid, and knew he didn’t want to see any of their brethren here bumped off.
Caje didn’t give him a choice. Sprinting left, Caje took cover at the foot of a retaining wall shoring up a berm running along the front of the church. Kirby grimaced and followed. He reached Caje’s side, then cursed under his breath as the soldier advanced along the embankment to go up toward the sanctuary.
Caje passed the end of the wall and dashed over a low rise to turn and run back along the top of the berm. Kirby rounded the wall himself and saw him kneeling beside a woman lying on the strip of ground below a trio of shattered, stained glass windows. Caje swept shards of glass out of the way, then gently turned her over. Kirby could see she’d been shot dead. Worse, a baby lay nearby, probably hers and also killed. Kirby averted his eyes and, clutching his rifle against his chest, wondered if now he and LeMay would leave.
Caje rose, a grayish cast to his face. He backed up to the wall of the church and stood in its shadows. Kirby did the same, wishing his stomach would settle. When Caje made no move to retreat up the Rue Emile Desourteaux, Kirby glanced his way to see when he’d recover.
Caje was studying the ground, sweeping his eyes back and forth over the patch of grass and a line of shrubs planted along the top of the embankment. Looking up, he craned his neck to get a better view of the church towering overhead. He peered at the trio of windows nine or ten feet above the ground, then stepped out from the shadows to regard another window positioned higher. Looking left, he surveyed a tall stone wall running from the corner of the building to a presbytery a dozen yards away.
He turned back around to lean against the church. Cradling his rifle in his arms, he closed his eyes. He remained that way for nearly two full minutes before he twisted suddenly, and slipping around Kirby and the opposite corner of the building, he disappeared.
“Dammit,” Kirby muttered and followed him. He also rounded the church and caught sight of Caje already stealing up to a shadowy doorway.
“LeMay,” he called as quietly as he could. “We need to get back to Rouxeville.”
Caje paused next to the recessed opening.
Kirby caught up to him and said, “We’ve seen enough. The French guy said everybody’s gone, and you said yourself he can tell G-2 what happened. There ain’t no reason to go in here.”
Caje peered into the shallow alcove.
“What are you?” Kirby demanded. “Some kinda sick bastard or somethin’?”
His words hit a nerve. Caje stiffened, and then he pulled back. Standing rigidly against the side of the church, he closed his eyes once more, the muscle in his cheek again twitching.
After a few seconds, he said, “I don’t want to go in here either, but I think that woman back there was hiding in the church and tried to get out through those windows when it started to burn. I think someone else got out with her but somehow made it past the Krauts. Since more people could’ve been trapped inside, I’m going to find out if any of them are still alive.” He opened his eyes. “Unless you’re in a real big hurry to bug out.”
Stung, Kirby said nothing more, unwilling to risk it. Caje slid into the alcove that had once framed a door but was now almost completely blocked by rubble and fallen timber. He tried without much success to push some of it aside, then he crept on, past a tall metal crucifix, to climb a stone staircase leading to the church’s main entrance at the base of the bell tower.
Kirby hesitated, fiddling with the bayonet lug on his rifle. He noticed a number of prams and strollers scattered here and there, off to the right. Considering the open courtyard situated between the church and what was left of a Milord hotel and some market stalls squashed beneath a collapsed roof, he figured the Krauts must’ve loaded all the women and kids onto trucks here. And that meant a couple of them could’ve escaped into the church, to avoid being deported.
Maybe LeMay was right. Maybe someone in there did need help. Chewing on the inside of his cheek, Kirby made his own way to the bell tower.
He scaled the staircase, brushing against its handrail, to position himself opposite Caje at the other side of the torched double doors. Caje looked surprised to have backup, but he said nothing to Kirby and Kirby said nothing to him. Instead, the two men reached for and pushed open what was left of the doors. Then with a last wary glance at each other, they entered total darkness.
At first, Kirby could barely see the stone font right next to the doorway. He nearly collided with an iron cross standing a few feet away in a corner of the narthex. But as his eyes adjusted, he was able to make out the surprisingly small interior of the church situated just past a gothic archway on his left.
He and Caje stepped into the nave. Only a smoky bit of daylight penetrated its narrow windows and partially collapsed roof, leaving everything in deep gloom. The soldiers squinted at a shambles of burned pews, kneelers, and beams, blackened roof tiles, chunks of mortar, granite, and broken statuary. Through two low Roman arches on the left side of the sanctuary were shadowy transepts, the back one furnished with a wooden confessional box somehow miraculously intact, the front one with an altar. On the nave’s right side were two more transepts, the rear one fitted with a baptismal font, a second altar, and a large stone plaque honoring World War I dead, the front one hosting a third altar reduced to rubble. At the front of the church, beyond an elaborately tooled communion rail twisted by intense heat, was the chancel. Inside stood a sooty high altar supporting a tabernacle backlit by the trio of shattered stain glass windows.
Caje and Kirby’s eyes continued to adjust to the murky atmosphere, and they saw numerous bullet holes in the walls, altarpieces, and decorative objects. Blast damage from grenades was evident too, the shrapnel leaving behind jagged holes in stone and marble, as well as dismembered images of saints and cherubs. Then as the soldiers began discerning bodies of women, children, and babies, they realized they were looking at a holocaust, hundreds of innocents all lost in an unimaginable orgy of violence.
Staggered, Kirby put a hand out against a nearby wall and stayed in the back of the nave, keeping watch, as Caje, also shaken, moved unevenly toward the first transept and its confessional box. Caje paused, then using his rifle, he moved aside a curtain. Two young boys sat slumped inside the box, each one dead from a gunshot wound to the neck. Horrified, Caje fell away.
He turned his head and stumbled over the wreckage leading to the chancel. Kirby looked in the same direction and saw a pile of corpses heaped up against a small door on the opposite side of the church. Obviously the victims of the massacre had tried to escape through the transept containing the destroyed altar, only to be blocked by the weight and wall of their own bodies. Most had then been targets of the grenades and gunfire.
Kirby shuddered and asked in a quavering voice, “Where’re you goin’?”
Caje’s own voice, rough with emotion, floated back on the smoke, rock dust, and swirling ashes. “To see if anyone’s still alive and trapped under those windows behind the altar.”
Kirby watched as Caje reached the front of the church. Caje spotted a splintered door hanging ajar on his left, and he pulled it all the way open to discover a sacristy completely destroyed by fire. He then caught sight of a bullet-scored door on the opposite wall of the chancel. Crossing to it, he tugged on the handle and looked out into a dooryard, the walled-in property between the church and presbytery. Finally approaching the altar, he stepped over and around the melted frames of baby carriages, smoldering pieces of chairs, and the charred remnants of a lectern. He sidled up to the back of the altar and looked into the narrow space between it and the wall.
“No…” he said, backing up, all the blood draining from his face. “Non…”
“What is it?” Kirby blurted, his heart racing, his own face chalky. He watched Caje turn and lurch toward the door on the right side of the chancel. “What is it, LeMay?”
“Kids…” Caje mumbled, staggering through the doorway and out of the sanctuary, “caught in between…”
That was enough for Kirby. If there were a bunch of kids back there and LeMay had turned away…
Kirby abandoned the church through the main entrance. Descending the stairs on shaky legs, he stumbled over to the nearest corner of the building and leaned against it. He hugged his rifle against himself, hunched in on himself, hoped he’d get a hold of himself. He breathed deeply, long, drawn out breaths, breaths that would fill his lungs, clear his mind, keep him sane. He willed his heart to stop pounding and his pulse to quit racing and his thoughts to slow down.
He had to pull himself together. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be able to get through all this. And he had to get through it, just like he got through everything else.
He’d put what he’d seen behind him. Put it behind him and go back to taking care of number one. There wasn’t anything he could do about a bunch of dead civilians. And besides, what did the French have to do with him?
Kirby shivered in spite of the heat. Sweat plastered his clothes to his skin. Gritty ash coated his mouth, and he spat it out.
He’d have to find LeMay. Find him and tell him they’d finished the recon. If LeMay thought he’d win the war by hanging around here, trying to save someone, he could do it alone.
Kirby straightened up and pushed away from the church. He wobbled around the back of the bell tower, watching for Germans and hoping he wouldn’t see anything worse. Reaching the sanctuary’s north side, he passed a narrow rectangular window, a closed wooden door, and a larger arched window. He made it to another high rock wall connecting the building to the presbytery and aimed himself toward an archway at its far end.
As he neared the archway, he could hear Caje speaking French. Kirby paused. Now what? Was the guy talking to himself? Or having a powwow with somebody else about who-on-earth knew what?
Kirby frowned and moved on. He heard a second voice, then a third, and suddenly realized it might be the church’s priests. And if it were, maybe they were busy in there talking some sense into the frog.
Kirby sidled up to the archway and peeked through. He could see what appeared to be a small yard. At its rear stood a statue of Mary surrounded by roses, a curved stone bench flanking its right side. Although he couldn’t see to the left of it, he figured another bench and Caje and the priests would be there.
Kirby lowered his rifle and walked through the archway. Ambushed by surprise, he gasped and ducked in Caje’s direction, toward the church. He threw his Garand to his shoulder, its sling flipping over his left hand, and trying to untangle himself, his fingers fumbling for the trigger, he hollered, “Krauts!”
The two SS soldiers standing in front of Caje snapped their heads around. Instantly, they threw their hands into the air, their faces white, their eyes bugging out. They stumbled backward, past the religious shrine, until up against the wall of the presbytery they faced Kirby. Shouting in French, they were pleading frantically for mercy.
Caje was shouting too. “Kirby, don’t shoot!”
The SS soldiers became hysterical, yelling louder.
Caje lunged at Kirby. “Put the rifle down.”
Kirby dipped and dodged him. “The hell I will.”
Caje tried again to grab it. “I said to put it down!”
Kirby turned his head. “I don’t care what you said!”
The brunette SS-Mann panicked and made a break for the archway. Kirby, catching sight of the movement, swung his rifle, and squeezed the trigger. The brunette slapped a hand against his neck and pitched forward. Terrified, his blond companion also bolted for freedom, but faster, Kirby shot him down.
Stunned and frozen in the sudden silence, neither Caje nor Kirby said a word.
Then muttering, “Son of a bitch,” Caje pushed past Kirby and strode toward the dead men.
Kirby, lowering his rifle and prickling at Caje’s reaction, sneered, “What’sa matter? You gotta thing for Krauts?”
Caje leaned over the blond, put two fingers against the man’s neck, then withdrew. Glancing at the brunette obviously killed instantly, he straightened up and spun around. Grinding the heel of his right hand into his temple, he growled, “They weren’t Germans.”
“Whattaya mean they weren’t Germans? Don’t you think I know Krauts when I see ‘em?”
Caje dropped his hand, and hunching his shoulders, he lowered his head. “They were French-Alsatians rounded up by the Krauts and conscripted into service.”
“Okay…okay,” Kirby blustered, caught completely off guard. He didn’t know what to do with the information, hadn’t expected it, but he could still justify his actions. “Maybe so, but they’re here in this town. They’re here, and they helped do all this!” Kirby swept out a hand, gesturing at the ruined village.
Caje was breathing hard. “They’re here, but they had nothing to do with what happened. They were in the presbytery, hiding since yesterday, and wanted to go north, to turn themselves in to our guys.”
Kirby shook his head and took a step backward. He couldn’t have made another mistake. He couldn’t have. He looked at the blond, looked at the soldier with the brunette hair. He stared at Caje.
Maybe it was true. It could be. There was a chance. But he wasn’t going to play the fool again. No one would blame him for coming down hard on a pair of sad sacks who looked like the enemy. And how was he supposed to know who they were? God only knew the difference.
Besides, weren’t they in a place they shouldn’t have been? Getting in the way? Maybe another couple of problems like the kid and two wounded Frenchmen?
“Okay!” Kirby blurted, his eyes flashing, his throat constricting, his chest so tight he felt he might suffocate. “Okay, so maybe I didn’t know. But who the hell cares? They’re just two more dead people and off our hands.”
Caje dropped his rifle and charged him.
Kirby lost his own rifle as, tackled, he slammed into the wall of the church. His helmet flew off, his head snapped back, and his arms jerked up. Pain burst inside his skull, jolted through his neck and exploded in his back. For a moment he hung suspended, the wind knocked out of him, the world going dark. Then unable to breathe, his lungs compressed, he threw out his hands and began struggling to shove Caje off. He twisted and turned, bucking against the wall, but unable to gain traction, he couldn’t free himself.
Caje continued to press his weight into him, one arm against Kirby’s chest, the other across his neck. He snarled, “It just so happens those ‘two dead people’ who are ‘off our hands’ told me who did all this, maybe in reprisal for some SS big shot named Kämpfe who was kidnapped by the Resistance. Those ‘two dead people’ said it was part of the 2nd SS-Panzer Division Das Reich commanded by a Kraut named Diekmann. And those ‘two dead people’ also wanted to come back with us, to give G-2 a lot more intelligence. They knew where their unit’s headquartered, where it’s going next, what route it’s taking north, what its strength is. On top of that, they saw which of the Krauts were responsible for butchering these civilians and planned to finger them at a war crimes trial. Which is really something if you think about it, Kirby.” Caje leaned into him so hard that Kirby’s vision blurred. “Because one of them was seventeen years old and the other, only sixteen.”
Caje pulled back suddenly and let him go, his face a storm of outrage and fury. “But you know everything, right? You know who’s ‘scum’, who should live, and who should die! You know who’s lousing things up, who’s in the way…who should be in charge.
“So go ahead, coo-yôn! Do things your own way. Take over the command! In the end – if you play your cards right – you’ll be just like the other top dogs, the guys who have it all over the rest of us, the ‘supermen’ who murdered all the ‘no-good pests’ in this town!”
A figure appeared in the archway. Startled, Caje dropped, and he dove for his Garand. Kirby had no time to react. A bullet slammed into the stones over Kirby’s head just as Caje fired the M1.
A German soldier fell backward, out of the dooryard, drilled twice through the chest.
A panicked voice beyond the wall yelled, “Schenck! Ostheim! Kessler! Los, los, los!”
A German farther away picked up the cry.
“Kirby!” Caje barked, scrambling up and sprinting for the archway. “The Krauts are still in town! Get out of here. Get to Saunders. Tell him about the SS!”
Sputtering for air, dizzy, disoriented, Kirby simply stared.
“Get to Rouxeville!” Caje shouted. “Tell Sarge what we saw, what I told you about Das Reich!”
Kirby blinked. He rubbed the back of his head and stumbled toward his rifle. Scooping up his helmet along the way, he slipped on bullet casings, his own and German shells, and nearly tripped over the M1.
What did LeMay say? That he was like the SS? The lousy, stinkin’ Krauts? The filthy, rotten …what were the words Walton had used earlier…heartless, ruthless…
Kirby paused, his tongue thick, his face hot. He looked back. Caje stood firing his rifle, pulling its trigger as fast as he could, pausing to fumble at his cartridge belt.
“Kirby, go!” Caje ducked, ramming another clip into the Garand’s chamber. Bullets slammed into the stone wall, raining rock dust on him. “Go now!”
Kirby, his thoughts a jumble of anger and confusion, picked up his rifle and looked for a way out. He spotted a hole made by a grenade blast in the lowest portion of wall closest to the church and got his legs moving again.
As he reached the wall, he heard the gunfire increasing, and he ducked down to the hole. Shoving his rifle through, he dropped onto his belly. He wormed his way into the opening and out the other side. Grabbing his rifle, he pushed up and cast his eyes around for the next way to go. Ahead of him and around a bend lay the Rue Emile Desourteaux. To his right perched a mill beside the River Glane. To his left loomed the church, a chamber of horrors. Behind him stood Caje, holding off Krauts so he could escape.
Him. The lone ranger from Chicago. The guy who didn’t need anyone, who could make it on his own.
Kirby’s vision narrowed suddenly, tunneling in until he could see nothing but a man alone. A man walking away from him. A man in a fedora and a flannel shirt, taking the easy way out.
His father had lived for himself. He’d been a cold SOB who hadn’t cared about anyone else. He’d shirked his responsibilities, turned his back, and let his whole family down.
Kirby felt light-headed and put a hand out, on the wall of the church. Was he his father’s son? Who was he living for? Was it anybody else?
More rifle fire crackled behind him, and Kirby snapped out of his reverie. There was no time to lollygag. He had to decide now. Was he a heel like his old man? Or a good guy like Eddie? A double-crosser like Tony? Or a team player like his squad leader?
He’d have to decide fast. LeMay was in trouble. And the guy would never make it on his own back there.
LeMay…who’d given him orders, told him to get to Rouxeville. Kirby rubbed his jaw. He was supposed to go back, get to Saunders, tell him what he knew.
But what did he know? The names of a couple Kraut bosses? And a baby-killing Nazi outfit?
Hell, he couldn’t remember all that. He couldn’t even pronounce the words. If LeMay wanted someone to tell Saunders about Ora…whatever the name of this town was, he’d have to do it himself.
Kirby smiled grimly and threw his rifle across his back. Maybe he couldn’t make heads or tails of all the foreign stuff, maybe he didn’t have LeMay’s smarts, but at least he could think fast on his feet. And William G. Kirby still had it all over LeMay on that.
He flopped onto his stomach and peered through the hole in the wall. Caje was still in the archway, fighting off Germans. As Kirby began elbowing his way back into the opening, Caje spun suddenly, lost his helmet and rifle, and dropped.
For a split second Kirby thought LeMay was dead. Blood was in his hair, spattered across his face, and dripping down his neck. But Caje twitched, then flipped onto his side, and clutching his head, he curled in on himself.
LeMay had a head wound. A bad graze along the left side of his skull but nothing fatal. He could still make it out of town.
Kirby threw himself forward, scrambled up, and sprinted across the yard.
“C’mon, LeMay,” he said, skidding to a stop in front of the fallen man. “We’re gettin’ outta here. You gotta get up.”
He grabbed Caje’s arms and hauled him to his feet. Caje arched his back, squeezing his eyes shut, but didn’t resist. Kirby pulled him in toward himself, got the soldier’s left arm around his shoulders, and shrugged him upright. He considered trying to retrieve LeMay’s Garand but decided against it. If he lost his balance and dropped the guy, he’d have to start all over again.
And the Krauts would storm the dooryard…
Kirby lurched forward and picked up speed the nearer he got to the hole in the wall. Caje stayed with him, moving his legs by instinct, moaning due to their jarring gait. Kirby knew the guy needed a bandage and wondered if there’d be time to take care of it.
A grenade sailed into the yard, landing just inside the archway, and that answered that question.
Kirby skidded into the wall, hastily lowered Caje, and dove through the hole. Turning back around, he reached for Caje, latched onto the soldier’s shirt, and yanked him through. Caje tried to protect his head, throwing a hand up and over his wound, but Kirby snagged his arms and, dragging him to his feet, pulled him over the berm and toward the Rue Emile Desourteaux.
Caje staggered along beside him, his hair flopping into his eyes, blood running down his face, but he finally gasped, “Non…arrête. Lemme go.”
“Not a chance,” Kirby panted, spotting a stone shed of some sort still mostly intact and attached to a tumble-down house across the street. He tightened his grip on Caje and aimed for it. “You dragged me into this? You’re seein’ it through.”
He forced Caje to keep running as the soldier lost momentum. Kirby hoped he’d find a car or truck that wasn’t burned. He strained to keep Caje going and barreled through the shed’s singed double wooden doors. Sliding through dirt, gravel, and oil, he and Caje collided with a dusty green Citroën.
“Look, LeMay,” he puffed, lowering the wounded man to the floor. “We got us some wheels. Gimme a minute or two, and we’ll get the hell out of here.”
Caje slumped against one of the car’s whitewall tires. Kirby yanked open the driver’s side door. Not surprised there wasn’t a key in the ignition, he tossed his Garand into the backseat, ducked under the dashboard, and fumbled around the steering column. He located the wire he needed and fused it to the starter circuit. Sliding back into the driver’s seat, getting the engine running, he cranked down the window, then sprang out of the automobile. He rushed toward Caje and, planting his feet, lugged him up again.
“Rise ‘n’ shine, LeMay,” he said. “That’s enough of a rest.”
Kirby dragged him around the car, ignoring Caje’s groaning, and piled him into the front passenger seat. He leaned Caje against the seatback, slammed the door shut, and high-tailed it around to the driver’s side. Diving into the car, he yanked his own door shut, glommed onto the steering wheel, and hit the gas.
“Hang on!” he yelled. “We’re makin’ a getaway!”
Kirby drove the sedan through the partially opened garage doors, banging them back against the building’s scorched façade. Making a hard right, he spun the Citroën onto the Rue Emile Desourteaux.
A cry went up from the Germans. Shouts of surprise, disbelief, and outrage rang in Kirby’s ears. He glanced into the rearview mirror and saw half a dozen SS scattering across the church grounds. More Germans spilled out from behind the ruined barn straight ahead. Bullets whined around the Citroën, and Kirby wondered if the Krauts had returned to town for the Alsatians, thinking they’d left the deserters behind.
One of the backseat windows shattered and Kirby ducked. The car bucked and shuddered as it scaled a jumble of rocks and tiles. Kirby righted the four-door, straining against gravity, and narrowly missed hitting a tree. He threw the car into third gear, wrenched the sedan left, and headed northwest.
He sped up the street, passing the lane that led to the cemetery. He fought to keep the Citroën – pulling right as it suddenly rattled over the tram tracks embedded in the asphalt road – from colliding with the poles holding up the trams’ overhead cables. Swerving left, he battled not to drive onto houses’ front stoops and staircases that were jutting out onto sidewalks. It wasn’t until Caje groaned again that Kirby remembered he had a passenger.
“Don’t worry, LeMay,” he shouted. “We’ll be outta here in a minute.”
More shots shattered the sedan’s back window, and Kirby warned, “Just keep your head down!”
Kirby stomped on the brakes then, and the car skidded into an intersection. Caje pitched forward, nearly falling off the seat and onto the floor.
Kirby grabbed Caje’s collar and tugged him backward. “Not that far down!” He looked off to his right, at the other end of the road leading into the town’s fairgrounds. Making a quick decision to stay on the main street, he propelled the car forward. “Take it easy, LeMay, huh?”
Caje, his head lolling, dipped and lurched with the rocking of the car as Kirby threw it into second, then third, then fourth gear. “S’okay, Théo,” he said, his words slurring together. “Everyone knows you call me Caddy.”
“No, it ain’t Théo, Le…it ain’t him, Caje.” Kirby pushed Caje up against the passenger side window, hoping the soldier would find some support and stay put. “It’s a different guy – Kirby. Kirby! Remember?”
He yanked the wheel and barely avoided jumping the curb and driving onto the sidewalk. Sideswiping a farm cart, he narrowly missed colliding with the town gas pump standing in front of a devastated smithy.
“Kirb…?” Caje fell left, reached for the door handle on his side of the car, couldn’t find it. “You…” He dropped against Kirby, sounding punch-drunk. “You still here?”
“Yeah, Caje.” Kirby pushed him back toward the window. “I’m still here.” He pulled the wheel again, swinging the car around a flame-ravaged bakery. “But if you don’t find somethin’ to hang on to, you ain’t gonna be.” He floored the gas pedal and rode the Citroën forward, jouncing in his seat, his teeth rattling. “Try grabbin’ that strap hangin’ next to your head, will ya?”
Caje gave Kirby a blank look and nearly toppled forward again.
“Up by your head, Caje,” Kirby urged. “On the ceiling, next to the window!”
Caje tried to raise his eyes, but blinded by pain, he groped around for the strap instead. Finally locating it, he struggled to thread his hand through. He managed to anchor himself, and bouncing and swaying in his seat, he stayed put as Kirby continued driving the gauntlet of the Rue Emile Desourteaux.
Kirby wove around a toppled hotel, then the burned-out shells of cars, a cluster of prams, and a line of bicycles parked outside the tram station and the town hall. He drove over scattered rubble and sped past a ruined post office. He suddenly saw a group of SS running around a house that hadn’t been torched, near the edge of town. Shouting and raising weapons, the Germans began shooting. Kirby aimed for the ones in the roadway and sent them scattering.
“Feels just like back home, Caje,” he shouted, flinching as bullets shattered his side-view mirror, burst the taillights, and thunked into the sedan’s trunk. He flicked sweat away from his eyes and, bearing right, charged the rest of the way up main street. “Just like when I was runnin’ rum!”
“Gotta lose the cops,” Caje mumbled, his head falling against his chest. “I don’t wanna go back to the pen…”
Kirby nearly ran into a signpost, but he jimmied the wheel and kept the Citroën on course. He threw a surprised look at his companion and then plunged the car onto the Rue de la Lande and out of town. Straightening up, he shook his head. Maybe once they got through all this, he’d have to stop giving Caje so much crap.
Kirby settled into the seatback after the car hurtled past the woods they’d hiked, and he began to watch for landmarks. Soon he spotted things he recognized – a quiet pond lined with plane trees, a vine-covered abbey lying in ruins, a farmstead pocked by bomb craters, and a series of churned up fields, marshy grasslands, and murky streams leading to the maze of bumpy dirt lanes walled in by the suffocating hedgerows.
Kirby slowed the car and peered up each lane, rotating his head in every direction. When he finally caught sight of his quarry, he whooped and turned the Citroën in the small party’s direction. He nearly laid on the horn to announce his arrival, but realizing it would alert any Kraut patrols in the vicinity, he simply roared the car up behind the little band of men.
Doc, Littlejohn, and Braddock snapped their heads around, surprise and anxiety on their faces until, recognizing Kirby, they broke into smiles.
“Kirby! How’d you…?”
Throwing the car into park, Kirby hopped out. “No time for gabbin’, Littlejohn!” He pulled open a rear door. “We gotta get that kid and those French guys in here.”
The soldiers hustled toward the car. Kirby and Doc swept the backseat clean of glass and assisted Littlejohn and Braddock as they loaded Delaflote aboard. Raising Delaflote’s head, Kirby directed Hébert to sit in the car next to his friend and Doc to grab the jacket lying on the litter, ball it into a pillow, and put it in Hébert’s lap. Kirby then lowered Delaflote’s head onto the coat, and Hébert cradled the wounded man. Next snagging Rousel’s hand, Kirby trotted around the back of the sedan and opened the other rear door. He smiled and patted the sliver of seat showing beyond Delaflote’s feet, and understanding, Rousel climbed up onto it. Kirby cranked down Rousel’s window, made sure the boy was safely out of the way, and slammed the door shut.
“Doc, get in the front seat through the driver’s side door,” Kirby ordered. “Littlejohn, reach through the kid’s window and roll down the one next to Caje. Braddock, you and Littlejohn get on the running boards and hang on.”
The soldiers followed his commands, and Kirby, throwing a last glance over his shoulder, jumped into the car, behind Doc.
Doc saw Caje and the blood all over the unconscious man’s face, neck, and chest, and pausing he exclaimed, “Kirby! Is Caje…?”
“Naw, Doc, he ain’t answered the last muster.” Kirby nudged the medic farther over on the seat. “He just fell asleep like I told you guys he would.” Kirby depressed the clutch, grabbed the gear shift, and threw the Citroën into first.
“But he needs bandaging!”
“Well, that’s your job.” Kirby tromped the gas pedal and the car shot forward. “You’re the medic!”
Doc braced himself against the dashboard, and pitching back and forth, he struggled to release Caje’s badly chafed wrist from the hand-strap. He hoped neither the wrist nor forearm was broken, and he caught Caje as the soldier slumped forward. Unable to operate further in the rough conditions, Doc simply held on and tried to keep him secure.
Littlejohn and Braddock, their arms laced through the open windows, hung onto the car for dear life.
Rousel, Delaflote, and Hébert bounced around in the backseat.
Kirby, trying to avoid the worst of the farm lanes’ ruts and potholes, zigzagged his way north. He eventually caught sight of a smashed-in glider’s nose poking through a hedgerow on his right, and he wheeled the car in that direction. Barreling up the lane running alongside the ruined tobacco field, he hung a left to skirt the pasture full of dead cattle. He sped up another road bordering the wheat field-cum-German cemetery until he braked hard at the edge of the bombed out apple orchard.
“Braddock, get off the car so I can get out,” he yelled and leaped from the driver’s seat.
Brushing past the white-knuckled soldier standing shaken in the road, Kirby jerked open the rear passenger door and snatched up his rifle lying on the car floor.
He reared back and with a “Gimme a minute, then we’ll get goin’ again,” he spun on his heel, slipped through an opening in the hedgerow surrounding the orchard, and disappeared.
The Citroën’s passengers stared after him, their mouths hanging open.
Finally, a tiny voice asked, “Est-ce que c’est un bon soldat?”
Startled, Littlejohn and Braddock pulled their rifles off their backs and stood watch, Doc retrieved a dressing and bandaged Caje, and a nodding Hébert answered the question.
“Oui, Rousel. C’est un si bon soldat.”
Doc finished tying the bandage around Caje’s head just as Kirby reappeared, red-faced and out of breath. Kirby tossed his Garand to Braddock and flung himself back into the driver’s seat. Braddock and Littlejohn shouldered rifles and hopped onto the running boards while Kirby released the brake, gunned the motor, and peeled off.
Muttering, “I knew that corn-fed yokel was gettin’ ready to call mortars down on us,” Kirby aimed the sedan for 1st battalion’s sector. The Citroën screeched around the apple orchard and soon tore past the shaggy soldier again standing atop the end of the hedgerows leading into Rouxeville. While Braddock and Littlejohn fought not to fly off, Kirby manhandled the car into the outskirts of town. He sent dogfaces, civilians and a few loose chickens scattering, then he swerved the car into the village square.
“Sarge!” He coughed and waved his arms around to dispel the cloud of dust he’d raised once the Citroën came to a full stop beside the heroes monument. Unlatching the door, he fell out of the sedan. “Sergeant Saunders! You here somewhere?”
A crowd of GIs quickly gathered, blocking his view. Doc crawled out of the driver’s side door and began directing the soldiers standing nearby to extract Hébert and Delaflote and get them over to battalion aid. An unusually pale Littlejohn opened Rousel’s door and, lifting the boy out of the car, handed him off to a kindly corporal.
Doc stepped around the car, and Braddock, toddling on rubbery legs, trailed behind him. Littlejohn sidled over and opened the front passenger door, and Doc leaned in to retrieve Caje. As Braddock put a shaky hand against the sedan to support himself, Kirby spotted Saunders pushing his way through the crowd.
“Hey, Sarge!” he called. “Sarge, we’re over here!”
Saunders reached them, and sweeping his eyes over the car, he took a quick inventory of his men. Spotting the bruises on Kirby’s face and neck, he blurted, “You all okay?”
Kirby shrugged. “Sure, we’re okay. Well, all except for…” he walked around the Citroën to stand with everyone else, “…all except for Caje in there.” He hooked a thumb in the soldier’s direction. “He took a bullet upside the head.”
“Doc?” Saunders said, alarmed instantly.
“He should be all right, Sarge,” Doc said over his shoulder as he made sure Caje’s right arm wasn’t broken or dislocated. “I think it’s just a bad graze.”
Saunders looked relieved. “And Oradour-sur-Glane?”
Kirby’s eyes turned flinty, his expression grim. “That ain’t gonna be all right, never again. A lot of French civilians got killed in there, and Caje knows the name of the murderin’ Kraut outfit and son of a bitch CO who done it, so he can tell you that. But I gotta tell you, Sarge…I, uh…well, I…it’s just that I…”
“Okay, Kirby,” Saunders said, taking his measure of the man and putting a hand on Kirby’s shoulder to calm him. “Okay. You can tell me after you’ve caught your breath. Huh? Just take it easy right now. You’ll be all right. You’re here with us.”
Kirby blinked a few times, and then becoming self-conscious, he wiped his eyes and nose. “Yeah, okay, Sarge. I’ll be all right.” He forced a smile and began patting down his pockets. “You got a smoke on ya?”
“I got it, Sergeant,” Braddock interrupted. He reached into his jacket and extracted a pack of Camels he’d intended to trade for rations. Handing it to Kirby, he grinned. “With my compliments.”
Saunders lifted his hand from Kirby’s shoulder and pulled out a lighter. “So you men did okay,” he pronounced, lighting Kirby’s cigarette.
Braddock nodded. “Turns out we had someone along with a great head on his shoulders.”
Kirby, his eyes on Doc and Littlejohn just pulling Caje out of the car and struggling to thread his arms around their shoulders so they could get him upright, said, “Yeah, and…hey! Take it easy with him, huh?”
Saunders clapped Kirby on the back. “I don’t think you have to worry about him,” he said as he winked at Braddock and smiled. “It looks to me like he’s gonna be in good hands.”
Know Thy Enemy is based on true events. On June 10, 1944 – four days after the D-Day landings of the Allies on the beaches of Normandy – the town of Oradour-sur-Glane, located in southwest-central France near Limoges, was destroyed and 642 of its inhabitants massacred by a detachment of soldiers from the Der Führer Regiment of the 2nd SS-Panzer Division Das Reich – which might have mistaken the town for another nearby village that was harboring the French Resistance standing in the Germans’ way of reaching and repelling the invasion forces.
Although much too far inland to have been reconnoitered by a squad of American soldiers who’d just landed on Omaha Beach mere days before, I chose Oradour-sur-Glane for the setting of my story since its tragic history is profoundly moving and, I believe, lends itself to an exploration of the human heart.
Some facts about the town have been altered for the sake of the story (the boys’ bodies weren’t found in the Laudy barn but rather in the Bouchole barn at the southern edge of town, the small garage containing the Citroën, as well as the walled-in dooryard between the church and presbytery as described, didn’t exist, etc.). Also, all of the characters in the story, as well as their activities, are completely fictional. Nevertheless, I hope my readers will find that I’ve treated the subject matter with the respect, dignity, and reverence that it deserves.
For more information, videos, and photographs that relay the story of Oradour-sur-Glane, please see the following links:
NEW LINK (you’ll have to cut and paste this one into your browser, but it’s definitely worth it):
(Please see the many excellent photos on the site listed above, and be sure to click on “home” for more information.)
(Please be sure to scroll down to the bottom of the page listed above, in order to arrive at the website’s homepage and detailed information about the massacre.)
History is most provocative, most poignant, when it relates the stories of human beings – human beings perpetuating evil, human beings overcoming it, human beings caught in the middle. It is said that to forget history is to be doomed to repeat it. But even if repetition were not a threat, history would matter. Because it is an accounting. It is a legacy. It is an identity.
It is us.
T. Pierce – February 2008