Based on the ABC
Television Series: Combat!
Fan Fiction Take-Off on the Episode "The Leader"
Copyright 1999 by Terry Pierce
Kirby was tired of waiting. He didn’t know how much time had passed since he’d last seen the sarge but figured it must’ve been a couple of hours. No way could he be sure. It was too dark to see his watch. Plus every minute he’d spent in the godforsaken well seemed to last forever. But two hours or ten minutes, what was the difference? It was enough already.
He was getting out.
The well had become nothing but a miserable excuse for a grave, with its rotten air and cramped accommodations. Sarge had sure talked him into a losing proposition this time. Nauseated, Kirby felt dizzy enough to faint. He figured if he stayed where he was even another fifteen minutes, he’d wind up being too sick to be able to climb out. And then what was he going to do? Call for the krauts to come give him a hand?
His eyes shut, his face tilted up, he wondered again about Caje. The guy hadn’t put in any kind of an appearance yet. And it didn’t look like he was ever going to. It was bad enough Sarge had taken forever to get back to the well before Saunders wandered off the second time, but Caje hadn’t bothered to show up at all.
Just what the hell was that joker doing?
Of course, he could’ve been shot too. Kirby hadn’t considered that before. Maybe Caje and Sarge had both stopped one when the krauts were firing earlier.
Kirby stifled a cough, then nervously scratched at his chin. He mulled over that proposition. He guessed there wasn’t any real reason why the two of them couldn’t be lying dead up there.
Opening his eyes, he stared at the small circle of daylight far above him and quietly cursed the day, the army, the krauts, and everything else in between. It was maddening not to know what was going on, where everybody was, or what he was supposed to do. And he hated the idea of taking hold of the rope in front of him, blind. But if he was ever going to get out of the mess he was in, what other choice did he have?
He lowered his eyes again and peered into the well’s inky blackness before nervously groping around for the rope. Within seconds he brushed against it, causing it to swing. Fumbling to still it once more, he braced himself for whatever the krauts might do in response and held his breath.
Nothing happened. Surprised, Kirby looked up again, cautiously moving the rope back and forth a few more times. He could hardly believe it when everything remained quiet. After all, lucky breaks like this just didn’t come along that often when it came to messing with krauts.
One had sure come now, though, so it was time to go.
He reached up to get a higher grip on the rope and hoisted himself onto it. Beginning to climb, he stretched as far as he could for each handhold and clumsily maneuvered his feet along the cord beneath him. Kirby did his best to ignore his queasy stomach and figured he’d only have to keep at it for a few more minutes before he’d have all the fresh air he could breathe. If that wasn’t enough incentive to keep him going, then nothing was.
Well, nothing except maybe hooking up with the other guys again. That’d probably do in a pinch. As Kirby’s mind wandered to Saunders and Caje once more, a growing sense of dread enveloped him. Surely, they couldn’t have been killed. That’d leave him at the house alone. And what was he going to do then? He didn’t have his rifle, didn’t know the way home, didn’t have cab fare…he stopped to adjust his grip as his stomach lurched…and didn’t think he could handle seeing the two guys he was supposed to be traveling with, dead.
Realizing the rope was swinging too much, he reached for the side of the well to stabilize himself. He was overly warm and wondered if he should’ve taken off his jacket before he started. Of course, that would’ve meant leaving his bottle behind and there was no way he was going to do that. He had a feeling he’d need it before the day was through.
And what a helluva day.
Kirby frowned at the thought of the last few hours and wished Saunders had come for him a little sooner than he had the last time the guy had been around. Then maybe the sarge could’ve had some help when all the trouble started. As it was, the krauts must’ve really caught him off guard. When they’d opened up, Saunders hadn’t even returned fire.
Minutes before that’d happened, Saunders had dropped something into the well to get Kirby’s attention and signaled him to leave whatever-it-was alone. Kirby had known the squad leader was getting rid of the map he'd used to get them to the house and, so, hadn’t touched it. But when Saunders waved at him to stay put because he was going to check on something, that had been too much. Kirby watched in apprehension as the sergeant stepped away from the well’s opening, then listened in horror as all hell broke loose.
Shots were fired and a whole lot of shouting had gone on. Saunders had hit a snag, and Kirby's heart sank. Then realizing the Germans might've seen the sergeant signaling to him, Kirby flattened himself against the side of the well, fully expecting to be the shooter’s next target or the recipient of a grenade toss. But things had quieted down fairly quickly, and soon there’d been nothing but silence.
At first, he’d welcomed the quiet since it reassured him the krauts didn’t know where he was. When it continued to go on and on without end, the well had become nothing but a torture chamber. If he didn’t escape it now – with or without somebody’s help – Kirby was sure he’d wind up a Section 8, smartly turned out in a strait jacket.
Looking up to squint at the daylight, Kirby decided he had to be better than halfway to the well’s opening. His arms were beginning to complain, but the air was becoming lighter, fresher, and he tightened his grip to stretch even farther for his next handhold. With any luck he’d be topside in another second.
He felt a draft, and his heart rate increased along with his excitement…and fear. What if the krauts were standing outside in the yard, waiting for him? Maybe they had seen the rope and were preparing a little welcoming committee even as he worked his way up.
Kirby froze. He swallowed thickly and looked into the darkness beneath him. He hung suspended in uncertainty, trying to decide what to do. He didn’t like the idea of being helplessly exposed to the enemy but absolutely detested the thought of returning to the depths below. Chewing on the inside of his cheek, he realized he was only prolonging the inevitable either way – the krauts would kill him no matter where he was.
Why not get it over with?
He resumed his climb and reached the top of the well. As he hauled himself up into the light of day, his eyes watered at the sudden brightness. He braced himself for the bullet he half-expected to receive in the back and swung his legs over the well’s rock wall. Wondering where everybody was, he rapidly fed the rope through his hands and eased himself up over the stones and out onto the ground. It was awkward going and pretty unnerving, but he finally managed to escape with nothing more than a few scrapes and bruises.
He reached to stop the swinging of the rope and squatted in the weeds next to the well to give his eyes time to adjust to his new environment. Gratefully taking in the cool, clean air, Kirby noticed a breeze had picked up since he’d last been in the yard. It looked as if a front was moving in, and he supposed he should’ve expected to get rained on before the day was through.
Becoming aware of noises coming from inside the building at his back, he ducked his head lower and listened carefully. It wasn’t long before he realized what he was hearing, and he finally understood where the krauts were. They were busy in there working somebody over, and it wasn’t too hard to guess who it was. From the sound of it, the rotten creeps were doing a pretty good job of it too.
Staying low, Kirby checked for his BAR in the weeds surrounding the well, but he found nothing. He knew that Saunders had probably taken it with him when he’d first left the well. Kirby wondered what Sarge had done with it before he and Caje had been grabbed. There was no telling where to start looking for the thing. Then again, maybe the krauts had it now if they’d picked up the other guys with it in their possession.
Damn. It was going to be awfully tough to pull off a rescue mission unarmed.
Kirby scanned the area around him. Seeing nothing, he decided to get under better cover to think things through. He raised his head a bit to see the house and, determining no one was coming, turned, and keeping low, sprinted for the woods. Upon reaching the wall, he threw himself over it and landed squarely on top of a clump of thistles. He took a moment to curse, then picked himself up and scrambled to get deeper into the trees.
Once concealed, he began picking thorns out of his clothing and tried to figure out what to do next. There had to be some way to help the other guys, but what was it? And how many krauts was he up against? And how long would they let Sarge and Caje live before finishing them off? And why the hell did he have another one of these no-win situations to deal with by himself? Wasn’t one per war enough?
Kirby sighed and wished he could have a drink. He knew, though, that he’d better not. He had some thinking to do. Looking toward the cottage once more, he shook his head in disgust. Then not for the first time, he cursed the day, the army, the krauts, and everything else in between.
Bittenhurst was becoming more and more uncomfortable. He couldn’t figure out what else the others might need to know and wished he could return to his post at the rear of the building. He didn’t particularly care for Americans but didn’t want to witness any more of this brutality either. Bittenhurst considered requesting permission to leave but, not knowing the captain, decided he’d better not risk it. The last thing he needed to do was to draw attention to himself.
It sure had been a mistake to consider himself lucky when he’d been detailed for special duty that morning. He and his best friend, Schweizer, had been looking forward to a day off from another probable patrol. But when they’d seen to whom they’d been attached, Bittenhurst had known right away they would’ve been better off out in the field.
The SS men were thugs, plain and simple. As far as Bittenhurst was concerned, they weren’t worth the material of the uniforms they wore. But he’d been careful to do exactly as he was told – nothing more and nothing less – and so far had managed to stay out of trouble. He supposed it wouldn’t do to appear soft or sympathetic toward the American sergeant named Saunders while in the presence of the SS, so he tried his best to look unaffected. Still, he couldn’t help wishing he were someplace else.
Captain Nussbaum had called him in a little while ago to ask where, exactly, Saunders had been when Bittenhurst had stumbled across him. Bittenhurst didn’t understand the significance of that but had thoroughly explained what he’d seen. Saunders had been to the left of the well, four or five feet from it, heading toward the corner of the house. Bittenhurst had spotted him while coming around the opposite side of the building and shouted at him to stop. Saunders hesitated and Bittenhurst fired a couple of warning shots to convince him of the gravity of the situation. Nussbaum’s men had come running and, of course, Saunders was quickly subdued. Beyond that, there was nothing to tell.
Bittenhurst hadn’t seen where Saunders had come from nor did he know whether or not the sergeant had arrived on the premises alone. Nussbaum’s men had conducted a second search of the area after Saunders’ capture but didn’t find anyone else. Bittenhurst told the captain he didn’t think any more of the enemy could’ve escaped without his knowing it, although he knew he’d never admit to the possibility of such a thing happening anyway. He surely didn’t want to end up on the floor like Saunders.
The sergeant had been taking a beating for some time now and appeared to be in pretty bad shape. He was lying on his side, with his legs drawn up, his face to the floor, his hair matted and wet with perspiration. He’d been stripped of his jacket before they’d started working on him, making it easy to see the rapid rise and fall of his chest as he labored for air. His hands were bound securely behind his back, with baling wire that had been found underneath the wagon in the yard, and his shirtsleeves were bloody at his wrists. A deep gash above his left eye was also bleeding, and bruises ran the entire length of his jaw line, even though his handlers were, more or less, trying to stay away from his face.
Nussbaum’s men had been directed not to do anything that might interfere with Saunders’ ability to talk nor, in fact, to inflict any serious damage on him yet. Nussbaum wanted Saunders to last. The most recent prisoner they’d questioned in regard to the missing classified material had been prematurely killed. That wasn’t supposed to happen with this one – although as a source of information, Saunders wasn’t showing much promise. The only thing they’d managed to elicit from him so far was a fair amount of groaning, and Nussbaum’s ire had increased along with Saunders’ unrelenting stubbornness.
"Sergeant Saunders," Nussbaum’s tone no longer sounded as accommodating as it had been previously, "I want to know what brought you here. Why are you here?" He waited a moment, then added, "We can go on with this for some time. Is that what you want?"
Saunders made no attempt to respond. Nussbaum nodded at his henchmen standing over the downed soldier. Two of them stooped to pull Saunders back into a sitting position and turned him to face the captain. The third one kneed the sergeant in the back to get him to straighten up. Saunders grunted at this, but his head continued to droop forward. He seemed unwilling – or unable – to raise it. Nussbaum gestured impatiently at the man behind the sergeant to bring his face back up, and Saunders was forced to look at his interrogator once more.
Bittenhurst could see that Saunders was at the end of his strength. It was obvious he wasn’t going to last much longer. He looked disoriented, his eyes were nearly closed, and his expression was slack with exhaustion. Were it not for Nussbaum’s man holding him, Saunders would undoubtedly topple to the floor. Bittenhurst marked him as a fool for not simply cooperating. Nothing could be worth enduring all this.
Nussbaum also seemed to know he didn’t have much time before he’d be unable to question Saunders further – at least until later. He leaned forward to say with undisguised impatience, "I see no reason for your continued stupidity, Sergeant. You had better explain yourself if you want to go on living. Where are the men who accompanied you here, and how many of them are there?"
As always, Saunders showed no sign he intended to answer anything. He only gazed at Nussbaum through hooded eyes until the severe angle in which his head was being held apparently became too much for him. Suddenly coughing, then choking, Saunders began to struggle feebly against the man causing his distress, in an attempt to open his constricted airway. The other SS men moved in to hold him still, and he quickly lost consciousness. One of Nussbaum’s men leaned forward to slap him a few times, but Saunders remained slumped and unresponsive.
Nussbaum frowned and, turning away, began to pace. No one moved until he ordered his men to let go of Saunders and take a break. At that, Saunders was dumped on the floor. One of his tormentors stepped over him to approach the captain for a conference while the other two relaxed, talking casually. Bittenhurst hoped he’d be able to leave soon.
He felt a trickle of sweat slide down his spine as he remained standing at attention. Nussbaum summoned him forward, and swallowing, Bittenhurst complied. Asked again to pinpoint the exact location of Saunders’ position when the American had been discovered, Bittenhurst carefully repeated everything he knew. He did his best to answer all the captain’s questions and apologized for not being able to offer additional information.
Nussbaum seemed annoyed but finally released him to return to his post. Hugely relieved, Bittenhurst saluted, turned, and strode toward the door. Fumbling for its latch, it was all he could do to stifle an audible sigh as he took his leave of the place.
Outside, he saw Schweizer look up from his position near the vehicles. Bittenhurst shot him an exaggerated look of relief to be away from their associates, and Schweizer gave him a nervous smile in return. Pulling his rifle off his shoulder, Bittenhurst nearly jogged around the side of the cottage before anyone changed his mind and called him back into the house. It was too bad for Saunders he had to stay, but that was the sergeant’s problem.
Bittenhurst rounded the building and entered the area behind it. Taking up a position near the wagon, he composed himself to resume his watch. For once, he was grateful for the solitude of standing guard, and he decided the next time anyone wanted volunteers for anything, he was going to keep his mouth shut.
From his position in the woods, Kirby was lying low, still trying to recover from the shock of seeing the German swing around the back of the house. The sentry had caught him by surprise just as Kirby was rising to go back into the yard to search for his BAR. Kirby knew that if the guy had appeared a few moments later, he would've had him dead-to-rights out in the open.
Kirby calmed himself, then decided he’d better try to put a little more distance between himself and the kraut. He got up onto his hands and knees and backed his way farther into the brush until suddenly he heard a twig snap. Startled, he nearly cried out, but a hand clamped itself over his mouth and someone hissed, "Stay still," into his ear. Kirby did as he was told, not moving a muscle as the hand was cautiously withdrawn and someone slid in next to him. But when Caje asked, "Where’s Sarge?" Kirby promptly collapsed.
"Son of a…!" he sputtered as he dropped onto his stomach, his limbs giving way to the sudden release of tension. "Caje! You’re gonna kill me, I swear! One of these days I’m gonna have a heart attack, and it’ll all be on your head." Kirby closed his eyes and moaned, managing to pull off a pretty fair imitation of a candidate for a stretcher team.
Caje couldn’t keep the amusement out of his voice. "You’re not glad to see me, Kirby?"
"'Glad to see me’ the man says." Kirby raised his head and opened his eyes. "The only thing I’ll be glad to see is…" He stopped speaking, hiked himself up on his elbows, and gaped at the scout.
The entire right side of Caje’s face was a mottled red, black, and blue. His right eye was puffy, and an odd-looking mark resembling the partial imprint of a human hand was clearly visible on his swollen cheek. Dried blood was encrusted along his split lower lip and smeared on his chin, and one of the sleeves of his jacket was stained with it as well.
Caje quickly became uncomfortable with Kirby’s attention and looked away.
Kirby continued to gawk. "Wow, you really got clobbered,” he said. “How’d you ever manage to get out of the house?"
Caje peered through the trees ahead of them, trying to determine where Saunders was and what Kirby was talking about. "I wasn’t in the house. I had some trouble in the woods."
"You mean you ran into a tree?"
Caje turned back to him, and the two men looked at one another in silence.
Finally Kirby said, "What?"
Caje shook his head. "How did you get out of the well and where’s Sarge?"
Kirby’s face immediately clouded over. "I thought you were with Sarge. You mean you weren’t?"
"No, I wasn’t with him. He was with you."
"Me?" Kirby frowned. "He wasn’t in the well."
"I know that," Caje said, wishing Garcia had given him some extra aspirin. "He was waiting to get you out of there."
"Yeah. With you," Kirby said, wondering why Caje wasn’t making any sense. "You two were the ones up here."
Caje stared at him, then spoke very carefully. "Kirby. How did you get out of the well? And where’s Sarge?"
Kirby hesitated, uncertain as to whether he was being set up, then he answered with equal care, "I climbed out." When Caje said nothing but continued to look at him expectantly, Kirby turned toward the house and continued, "None of them krauts was out back at the time ‘cause they was all busy over in there takin’ the sarge and…well, the sarge apart. And if you wanna ask me, I’d say he’s gotta be in pretty bad shape."
"How did they get him?" Caje asked, his voice suddenly tight.
"I don’t know. I had a lousy view from that hole in the ground."
"Did you try to help him?"
"From down there?" Kirby asked, his voice scornful as he turned back to Caje.
"Come on, Kirby," Caje said, becoming grievously tempted to throttle the BAR man. "I meant once you got out."
Kirby became defensive. "Well, no. Just what was I supposed to do about the krauts? Throw rocks at ‘em?"
"Throw rocks at…?” Caje repeated before he suddenly realized what Kirby meant. He twisted around to study the woods behind them, then said, “Stay here.” Lifting himself, he began easing himself backward into the weeds.
Kirby instantly clamped a hand on Caje's arm. "Where the hell are you goin’ now?" he demanded, his irritation and anxiety plainly showing on his face. He was fed-up with being stranded on his own and wasn’t about to sit still while someone else left him behind.
"I’m going to get your rifle," Caje said, starting to back up once more.
"What? And leave me here? Nothin’ doin’, pal." Kirby retained his grip on Caje, making it impossible for him to move.
Caje frowned. "What are you going to do, Kirby? Take on the krauts with that mouth of yours?"
"Oh, yeah. Sure. That’s real funny," Kirby said, not amused in the least. "That’s just what I’ll do while you go wanderin’ off again and forget about what it is that you’re supposed to be doin’ back here."
Caje tugged his arm away. "Look, I’m only going over there a little ways," he tilted his head in the direction to which he was referring, "to the place where I last saw the sergeant. He had your gear and might’ve stashed it there. I’ll get it and be right back."
Kirby looked less than confident.
Caje fought off impatience. “Would it make you feel any better if I left my rifle with you?”
Kirby agreed instantly. "Yeah. Gimme that thing."
Caje handed over the M1, and Kirby hugged it against himself
"Okay?" Caje asked.
"Yeah." Kirby felt less vulnerable now that he was armed, but watching Caje leave, he blurted, "Hey, one more thing."
Caje stopped and looked up. "What is it now?"
"Don’t be doin’ any more of that sneakin’ up on me. I don’t like it."
Caje looked as if he might laugh, but with a quick nod of his head he replied gravely, "Sure, Kirby. Whatever you say," then he vanished into the undergrowth.
Kirby turned back around and watched the trees screening the cottage, appreciating the weight and feel of the rifle in his arms. He looked forward to doing something about Saunders now that Caje had arrived on the scene. Surely they’d be able to come up with a way to give the sarge a hand. And if it involved killing all those krauts over there in that house with him, then so much the better. A bunch of creeps like that…whatever they got, they had it coming to them.
The bottle of Calvados was becoming uncomfortable to lie on, and Kirby reached a hand inside his jacket to reposition it. As he wrestled to move it out from beneath his ribs, he became enticed by the thought of the liquor inside and soon decided that a little nip was in order. After all, it wasn’t as if he hadn’t earned it.
Quickly looking around to verify he was still alone, Kirby pulled out the bottle and put the cork between his teeth. He bit down and wrenched the cork free from the bottle's opening, then put the Calvados to his lips. Suddenly realizing how stupid and selfish he was being, he hesitated. He had to admit that if he was the one who needed rescuing or help to rescue someone else, the last guy he’d want to depend on for it would be some liquored-up bum. How could he saddle Sarge and Caje with one?
Lowering the bottle once more, Kirby eyed it regretfully before jamming the cork back into its neck. He sighed deeply and shoved the Calvados into his jacket. Until they were all safely on their way home, it would have to wait.
Krauts. Whatever they got, boy, did they have it coming to them.
Kirby kept still, watching and listening and wondering when Caje would return. It wasn’t long before Caje made his presence known with a whispered warning. Caje crawled up and held out Kirby’s helmet and rifle, and Kirby traded in the Garand.
"That’s more like it," Kirby said as he caressed the BAR. "Where’d you find my girl?"
"Sarge had it over there." Caje got up to move again. "Let’s get closer to that house and see what’s going on. Maybe we can figure out a way to get him out of there."
"Okay." Kirby slipped on his helmet. "And Caje?"
"Yup?" Caje said, looking over the area in front of them to gauge the quietest route forward.
"I am glad to see you."
Caje turned his head at this unexpected confession and grinned in disbelief.
"And you know?" Kirby suddenly sounded solemn. "You don’t really look any worse than you usually do."
Caje’s grin disappeared and he moved out. Smiling himself now, Kirby followed.
The two men kept low and wove their way through the bushes, weeds, and brambles as quietly as they could. They moved up behind several trees growing very near one another a few yards back from the stone wall. From that vantage point, they had a clear view of the rear of the house and the German standing guard.
Watching silently for a few minutes, a question occurred to Kirby. He touched Caje’s sleeve to get his partner’s attention. Pointing at the sentry, he mouthed the words, ‘How many krauts?’
Caje thought for a moment. "A half-dozen," he whispered.
Tilting his head as he processed this information, Kirby soon nodded his understanding and returned his attention to the yard. After a few more minutes passed, he poked a finger into Caje’s arm once more. "What’re we gonna do?"
Caje, sitting on one of his legs, had the other one drawn up, his knee at his chest. Hugging his rifle against himself, its butt plate resting on the ground in front of him, he leaned just far enough around the tree to see past it. He absently rubbed his chin with his right hand while studying the German at the wagon and answered Kirby with a shrug of his shoulders.
Kirby turned back toward the cottage and tried to picture what might be going on inside. Eventually he asked, "Do you think the sarge is even still alive in there?"
Caje didn't answer.
Kirby prompted, "Caje?"
"I don’t know,
Kirby," Caje said, tracing his bottom lip back
and forth with the tip of his thumb. He shifted his gaze to the house and
remembered the bloodstains he’d seen on the floor. "I don’t
Thirst was driving Saunders from the depths of the darkness holding him. Somewhere above it had to be water, and his need for it was pushing him toward consciousness. He wasn’t sure what was happening but knew he was in a lot of trouble. He felt like hell and his head hurt so badly he could hardly think. Had he been shot? It must’ve happened after he’d seen Hanley. The krauts were cutting lines…near a house of some kind. He was hit and down and for some reason couldn’t get up. But he’d have to – his men needed him. They were waiting for him…someone was waiting…someone.
In a cellar. They were below him, reaching for him, the faces worried. Kirby. Kirby was there but something was the matter with him…what was he saying? He would drown. In the water. But there was no water. It was dry. The well was dry at the bottom. The water was above him. Saunders knew that if he wanted a drink, he’d have to get up to the surface. Where it was dangerous. The shelling, the house…where Scott and Maynard were lifting him. Lifting him and carrying him to…a cellar?
Suddenly there was pressure at his throat, and Saunders gagged. Searing pain shot through his arms, and he would’ve yelped had he been able. They were dragging him up, yanking him off the ground, handling him too roughly. A voice began speaking, coming at him, probing for him through the darkness. Recognizing it, Saunders realized he wasn’t in the company of his own men.
He was trapped in a nightmare.
"Sergeant." The voice was smooth again, almost silky, dangerously agreeable. "You wish to have a drink? Some water? We can arrange that. It’s a small thing to ask."
Saunders struggled against the material closing off his windpipe. He was being lifted by his collar, pulled up by it, other hands tugging on his arms. Instinctively moving his legs to get them underneath himself, he tried to push up to relieve the unbearable pain at his throat, wrists, and arm sockets. He was cold, his shirt, damp and clinging, and Saunders shivered uncontrollably as he realized what was going on. He was being hauled to his feet to stand shaken before the owner of that voice again.
The krauts got him upright and released his collar. Air rushed into his lungs and Saunders erupted in a fit of coughing. The room was spinning, the floor tilting crazily beneath him, and he lost his balance, lurching sideways, bumping into someone on his right. With a curse, whoever-it-was shoved him back into place and yanked him erect. His coughing done, Saunders groaned through a haze of pain.
Nussbaum began speaking again. "As I was saying, you would like water. We can discuss that. But I’ll need your attention." He paused. "Look at me."
A familiar sense of resentment rose within Saunders, one that counteracted his apprehension. He hated the forced eye contact the krauts had been making him take part in all afternoon, and he’d almost rather take the punishment he'd get for refusing to go along with it. But unwilling to let them to see what it was doing to him – how powerless and uncomfortable it made him feel – he opened his eyes instead. Seeking out Nussbaum’s face, he looked directly at him. And he began to worry about what else he might've revealed while he was coming to.
"Good, Sergeant," Nussbaum said cooly. "Now we’ll be able to talk about our mutual problems."
Saunders tried to distract himself from the anxiety beginning to cramp his stomach. If he could just focus on something…something…like the details of what Nussbaum looked like, maybe he’d be able to hold himself together through another session of this. Hell, he might even see something about the guy that he’d missed before – like that Nussbaum was beginning to look tired.
"You seem to need water."
And that he sure had a thing for his appearance. It looked as if he’d even combed his hair since the last round of questioning. Maybe it was important for a guy to look good when he stomped a PW into a bloody mess.
"And we are more than willing that you should have it."
Of course that small, round scar just below Nussbaum’s right eyebrow was going to cost him some points – that hardly fit in with the rest of the spit and polish. And it sure didn’t look like something he’d picked up on a campaign somewhere that would impress anyone. Maybe it was the token of some childhood sickness the guy had had as a kid. A smile suggested itself at Saunders’ lips. Had Nussbaum ever been a kid?
"But I need answers and wonder if you are yet willing to provide them.”
Nussbaum was zeroing in with those eyes of his again, looking for something that might tip him off to what he wasn’t being told.
"Why were you behind this building?"
Saunders’ pulse quickened. He apparently hadn’t said anything about that. But it would come now…the pain. Dread dizzying him, he strained to focus on Nussbaum’s face. The kraut wasn’t smiling, but wasn’t frowning either. In fact, the guy wasn’t wearing too much of any kind of expression as he waited for an answer, an answer to his…
The pain exploded beneath Saunders’ ribs with enough force to drop him to his knees. All the air was driven from his lungs, leaving him heaving and shuddering. An SS man yanked him back up and into place, fresh agony rocketing through Saunders’ arms and shoulders. The kraut who’d delivered the blow stepped calmly aside to allow Nussbaum to proceed with his conversation.
"It seems unlikely that you would’ve been merely lost." Nussbaum raised a hand to stroke his chin. "We’ve looked around and you have no vehicle nearby. And no American unit that you could’ve become separated from has been moving through the area."
Saunders gasped and wheezed, bent forward, trying to regain his breath and hoping he wouldn’t be sick. He realized he wasn’t likely to survive this. It would only get rougher the longer the krauts kept at him, and sooner or later he’d probably just be beaten to death. And he could forget about being rescued – Hanley had been clear about that.
Worse, it might’ve been a mistake to let the krauts take him in the first place. Maybe it would’ve been better to resist and kill some of Nussbaum’s sidekicks before they’d gotten him. But he’d been worried about Kirby – that Kirby would’ve been left on his own and even worse off than the guy was already. So it had seemed like a good idea to stay alive, whatever it took, and hope for a chance to get Kirby out later.
Not that there was a snowball’s chance in hell of that happening. Saunders knew he wouldn’t escape and he’d die anyway – this way – and Kirby would still be left alone. And even if the trapped man did manage to get himself out of the well, he’d have every one of these krauts to face. Not one had been taken out of the way. Saunders choked on regret. He should’ve opened fire, should’ve…
A hand gripped his chin to move his face back up.
"Still, you were behind the house, near the well," Nussbaum said. He smiled almost imperceptibly. "No doubt you must be a very thirsty man." He turned and moved toward a roughhewn table standing a short distance away. "But this is a terribly long way to come for a drink, isn’t it?"
Nussbaum reached among Saunders’ things, which were spread out over the tabletop. Saunders’ jacket, helmet, and sidearm were all lying there, along with his submachine gun and web belt.
"And without a map?" Nussbaum pulled up the field jacket that had already been searched when Saunders was first brought into the room. "You must have a remarkable gift for locating water." He dropped it once more, then reached beyond it for the belt. Removing Saunders’ canteen, Nussbaum held it in front of himself and tipped it from side to side in a gentle rocking motion.
Saunders’ resentment returned in force at the prospect of this new game they were apparently going to play. He’d be tortured with his own miserable thirst while the smooth bastard in front of him pressed him into the ground with it. Nussbaum had it all down, all laid out, knew just what to do. How many people had he practiced his technique on? How many had he destroyed?
Smoldering with anger, Saunders reaffirmed his commitment to himself that Nussbaum would go back empty-handed to whatever fat-cat kraut held his leash. The picture of that enabled Saunders to manufacture a faint smile of his own. There would be a purpose to his suffering in this round too, a goal to reach. He gave Nussbaum his full attention.
Nussbaum seemed to recognize Saunders’ intent, and irritation flickered across his face even as he continued to speak in a calm voice. "Here is what you came such a long way for. It would be foolish to deny yourself now." He removed the cap from the canteen and extended the water inside toward Saunders. "What’s your mission here?"
Silence fell over the room.
The silence continued.
Nussbaum retracted the canteen and swirled its contents as though manipulating a cocktail he intended to drink. "There’s quite a bit of water here," he said. "It seems the well provided you with an ample supply. Wouldn’t you like to taste it?" He poured some of the water onto the floor before offering the canteen again to Saunders. "Why are you here?"
Saunders’ mind burned with intense desire. Every nerve, every cell cried out for relief from the thirst devouring him. But he pulled up his chin, shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and maintained his silence.
Nussbaum’s expression became grim. "Sergeant, you and I both know you didn’t come here to fill your canteen." He pulled it back in toward himself. "You’re here because…"
Suddenly Nussbaum stopped speaking and looked stunned. No one moved or said anything, and the room’s atmosphere became heavy with tension. Finally stepping forward, Nussbaum said, "But you were near the well."
Saunders’ heart caught. The kraut couldn’t find out about Kirby. Nussbaum would use the BAR man to get to him. Saunders tried desperately to maintain a neutral expression despite the fresh wave of anxiety washing over him.
Nussbaum saw what was happening and stepped closer. Boring into Saunders’ eyes with his own, he said, "And you were by the well because you had business there. Didn’t you, Sergeant?"
Saunders stared at him, every muscle frozen, but his breathing became rapid, more shallow, and his face, increasingly pale.
Nussbaum read the confirmation of his reasoning and slapped a hand against his thigh. "Something is in the well!"
Hatred sparked in Saunders’ eyes, and Nussbaum stepped backward. He directed his men to restrain the prisoner. Saunders winced as they gripped him by his arms, their fingers digging into his battered flesh, but his focus remained solely on Nussbaum.
Nussbaum’s remained on him. "But it’s not just something, is it, Sergeant?" He continued to peer intently into his captive’s eyes. "No, because you wouldn’t be so angry if it were that. It’s someone, isn’t it? One of your men? And no doubt, he’ll have something of ours in his possession." Nussbaum smiled in satisfaction and folded his arms across his chest. "We’ll have to meet him, this man of yours."
Saunders couldn’t believe that Nussbaum could read him so accurately, that the kraut had figured out the truth as easily as if he’d just skimmed a report. Now Nussbaum and his goons would nab Kirby and, finding out the papers weren’t on him, put Kirby through the same hell they’d been giving their first catch – and he’d be given a front row seat to it. Saunders shifted his eyes toward the Thompson, his desire for a moment with it in his hands overpowering.
For the first time, Nussbaum lost his composure. He leaped at Saunders, clamping a hand around the sergeant’s jaw to force his face up until it was only inches from his own.
"It’s too late for that…American," Nussbaum snarled, spitting out the last word. "You’ve lost and you’re about to lose more."
Without waiting for a reaction, he shoved Saunders backward and snapped orders at the other Germans.
One of them pulled a Walther from his belt and stepped closer to Saunders. Leveling the pistol at Saunders’ middle, the SS man signaled his associates to let the sergeant go. They released him and gathered up their rifles and helmets. Saunders’ guard spun him around and pushed him toward the door. Saunders stumbled his way forward, his aching muscles protesting every step and, several times, nearly fell. The Germans pulled at him as necessary to keep him up, then thrust him outside.
He staggered into the early evening light and realized clouds had been gathering since he’d been inside. It would rain before too much longer. The thought of it heightened his sense of thirst, and Saunders wondered if the krauts would ever let him have a drink.
They surrounded him again and herded him toward the side of the cottage. Saunders tried his best to keep his balance and match their pace in order to avoid being handled, but when they rounded the corner of the building, he tripped and fell into the German he’d bumped into earlier. The man swore and grabbed him by one of his arms. Saunders tried to shake him off, but the kraut gripped him tighter and called for assistance. Another SS man caught up Saunders’ other arm, and together the Germans moved him forward. The pressure being exerted on Saunders’ bound wrists quickly became unbearable, and again he tried to shrug off his captors’ holds.
The Germans came to a sudden stop and, shouting angrily, forced Saunders up against the side of the house. Saunders gasped as the left side of his face scraped against the rough stone of the cottage wall. He stiffened as a pistol was rammed into his back from behind.
A German directly behind him growled, "If you continue fighting, you will be shot."
Saunders said nothing but held still.
The kraut pressed the gun even harder into Saunders’ spine and demanded, "Do you understand?"
Saunders finally spoke, his voice hoarse and halting. "Captain,” he said, addressing Nussbaum standing farther away. "I’m surprised your men think a prisoner with his hands tied behind his back is such a threat. Maybe they’re overrated as tough guys?"
Nussbaum was stunned by Saunders’ audacity. Except for identifying himself, the sergeant hadn’t spoken once since he’d been captured. But he’d chosen to do so now, in such a way as to know it could only cause himself more trouble. Admiring Saunders’ reckless courage in spite of himself, Nussbaum said, "If they were concerned only with a prisoner, then perhaps, yes. But they have to deal with the foolish as well, and fools can be dangerous. Is that not so?"
Saunders lifted the corners of his mouth in amusement.
Nussbaum also smiled and added, "Allow me to warn you that you’re no longer quite as interesting as you were a little while ago. I’ll soon find what I need without your assistance. So be careful, Sergeant."
Smoothing down the front of his uniform, Nussbaum spoke to his men in their own language, and Saunders was pulled away from the wall to proceed under his own power – although still closely surrounded by his escort. Saunders knew he was being humored and was glad for it, but wondered how lenient Nussbaum would be once the guy realized he wasn’t going to get the papers. Saunders doubled his efforts to keep his footing and tried not to think about it.
The men reached the back of the house and entered the yard behind it. Spotting them immediately, Bittenhurst quickly straightened up, wondering what was going on now. The two GIs in the woods also caught sight of what was happening and reacted in surprise.
"Do you see that?" Kirby sounded breathless at the sudden appearance of the small party. "That was them at the side of the house. And they got the sarge!" He lifted his rifle to fire.
"Wait!" Caje grabbed the barrel of the BAR, denying Kirby access to a target. "Sarge is in the way. You want to get him killed?" His eyes didn’t move from the back of the cottage. "We’re going to have to wait."
Kirby struggled to contain his anger at having to ease off, but he knew Caje was right. Reluctantly lowering the BAR he stared at the band of soldiers angling toward the well. Then he panicked.
"Caje!" Kirby strained to keep his voice to a whisper. "You see how he looks and where they’re goin’? You don’t think Sarge told ‘em I’m in…I mean, I was in the well, do you?"
Caje tore his attention away from the house to glance at his friend’s face. Seeing Kirby’s anxiety, he spoke quickly to reassure him. "Are you kidding? Of course he didn’t. Don’t be stupid." Then shaking his head at Kirby’s lack of faith, he looked back at the cottage.
Kirby was relieved instantly. "Yeah. Yeah, of course he didn’t. Sarge wouldn’t do nothin’ like that." He passed a hand nervously over his face and muttered, "Lousy krauts."
The Germans assembled themselves around the well, taking up positions on both sides of Saunders. The captain stood behind him, a short distance away. Nussbaum was planning to use the sergeant to bring up the soldier in the well, hoping to prevent Saunders’ man from destroying the papers. Glancing at the darkening sky, Nussbaum saw that it was getting late, and he hoped Saunders would finally start cooperating. The sergeant was proving to be a huge waste of time.
Noticing the sentry nearby seemed to be absorbed in what was going on in front of him rather than his watch, Nussbaum angrily signaled Bittenhurst to return his attention to his duty.
Bittenhurst blanched, lifted his rifle, and turned toward the woods. He’d been caught off guard and dreaded the disciplinary action he’d probably have to face. But he couldn’t help wondering if Saunders was finally going to be executed. Captain Nussbaum had mentioned the American’s fate while talking to his men earlier. He’d told them Saunders was to be shot. If the time for that had arrived, maybe a couple of regular army guys – namely one Bittenhurst and Schweizer – could be dismissed from this godforsaken mission and allowed to return to their unit.
Saunders was looking straight ahead, racking his brain, trying to figure out a way to help Kirby escape once the guy was pulled up from the well. Maybe a simple diversion would work to give him time to get away and into the woods. But what kind? Saunders knew jumping one of the krauts might do it, but how could he manage it with his hands tied? And it’d be dangerous as hell. Besides, while a stunt like that might keep the Germans at the well busy, it wasn’t going to do much to distract the kraut at the wagon. He’d still be free to shoot Kirby.
Tired, Saunders wished he could sit down. It seemed everything he wanted to do was destined to be fouled up by the German on the other side of the yard. Earlier, the kraut’s unexpected return from searching the woods at the front of the house had short-circuited the original plan to rescue Kirby. Now the guy was in the way of any potential follow-up. Saunders glanced at the German and wondered how he managed to have such a talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"Sergeant," Nussbaum said. "It’s time to finish this. Get your man up from the well."
Startled at the sudden interruption of his thoughts, Saunders turned to face forward again. He remained silent, shifting uncomfortably, detesting the idea of calling Kirby up to deliver him into their hands. If the krauts wanted the guy, they could get him by themselves.
Not surprised, Nussbaum spoke to one of his men positioned to Saunders’ right, and the German cautiously leaned toward the well, raising his rifle to angle it into its opening.
"Bastards," Kirby breathed as he and Caje hunched over their weapons in the woods, looking for any opportunity to intercede in the situation.
Saunders surrendered immediately. "All right, Captain," he said, trying to keep the bitterness he felt from his voice to prevent Nussbaum from knowing what effect his power over him was having. Saunders turned his head slightly to ensure the captain would hear him. "You can call him off. I’ll get my man up here."
The captain signaled his rifleman to wait. "Now, Sergeant."
Saunders turned back toward the well, his mouth dry, his chest tight, his hands clenched into fists. Closing his eyes, he summoned the energy he had left, then shouted, "Kirby! Come on up!"
Seething with anger at the Germans’ tactics, Kirby lifted his rifle once more, gripping it so tightly his knuckles were white.
"Easy, Kirby," Caje intoned quietly, carefully sighting along the length of the Garand. "Easy. You’ll get your chance."
In the yard, Bittenhurst stole a look at Saunders, shocked to hear the sergeant yelling. It had already been a surprise to hear the American talking. More confused than ever, Bittenhurst wondered what Nussbaum was doing.
Saunders, shivering again, his shirt loose and flapping at his waist, hunched his frame forward against the growing chill. The wind had picked up, causing the trees to sway overhead and scattering leaves and twigs through the yard. He stared at the rope dangling into the well and waited for some sign of Kirby’s ascent, but the cord merely continued to sway rhythmically back and forth, driven by the currents of air rushing past.
Nussbaum looked at his watch and, tired of playing games with Americans, barked, "Sergeant! I’ll give you one last chance. Get him up here – now!"
A German to Saunders’ left pushed him nearer to the well. Caught off guard, Saunders staggered forward, his heart pounding wildly as he stumbled perilously close to the well’s opening.
"Make him hear you this time," the kraut growled, brandishing his rifle.
Saunders realized he’d very nearly fallen to his death. Trying to calm himself, he straightened up once more, then attempted to do as he was told. He cleared his throat, and mustering what was left of his voice, he called for Kirby a second time. But shaken and sore, as well as ravaged by thirst, Saunders could barely manage to make himself heard above the noise of the wind, let alone in the depths of the well.
Outraged by what he saw as another lack of cooperation on Saunders’ part, Nussbaum decided he’d had enough. He would retrieve the documents without the sergeant’s help and make him pay at the same time. Speaking in clipped tones, Nussbaum ordered the rifleman still standing by to shoot the man in the well. The German immediately raised his weapon to do so.
Saunders choked, "Captain, you…"
Nussbaum snapped, "You’re out of time." Addressing the gunman once more – this time in English for emphasis – Nussbaum said, "Shoot him."
Hearing all this, Bittenhurst turned his head toward the well, unable to resist the drama being played out there.
Kirby drew himself up as Caje breathed, "Easy…"
Saunders hesitated, then driven by reflex, catapulted himself at the gunman. Instantly, another German clubbed him with a rifle butt. Saunders went down without a sound.
Caje gently squeezed off the shot he’d been holding, hitting the soldier at the wagon in his neck. The sentry’s head snapped sideways and his arms flew up even as he pitched backward, dead. Together with Caje, Kirby opened up on the surprised Germans around the well, catching them in a deadly onslaught of firepower. They contorted grotesquely as bullets smacked into their bodies, none of the SS men able to make use of his own weapon. The captain dropped to the ground a bit farther away from the well, behind it and out of sight. Within seconds, no one was left standing.
Caje and Kirby stopped firing and surveyed the corpses while Caje jammed another clip into the Garand. The two men stood and cautiously left cover to move forward. Reaching the wall, they scaled it and entered the yard. Kirby called for Saunders as they slowly approached the well.
Unharmed behind it, Nussbaum fumbled at the holster hanging from his side as he slid on his belly the few feet to where Saunders lay. Pulling out a Luger, Nussbaum took hold of one of Saunders’ arms to drag the semi-conscious man toward himself. Saunders groaned, and Nussbaum placed the gun to his hostage’s head before shouting to be heard over the wind, "Americans! I have your sergeant! If you want him to stay alive, you’ll stay where you are and hold your fire!"
Kirby and Caje froze.
Nussbaum shouted again. "I said I’ll kill your sergeant! Do you hear me?"
Neither Caje nor Kirby answered. They exchanged worried looks before Kirby yelled, "Whattaya want?"
Saunders began moving, becoming aware of what was going on. "Kir…Kirby." His voice was little more than a hoarse whisper, his face pressed into the ground as Nussbaum tightened his grip and applied pressure to hold him down.
"I know there are only the two of you," Nussbaum yelled, hoping the two men he’d seen were, in fact, the only ones in the area besides the soldier in the well. "You will lay down your arms and step away from them if your sergeant is to live!" Nussbaum’s voice cracked as he struggled to control Saunders and his own mounting fear. He knew he was in a vulnerable position, with only the hated sergeant to use as leverage in regaining control of the situation. "I’ll give you one minute to comply!"
Again the two men on the other side of the yard traded looks before Kirby shouted back, "How do we know he ain’t already dead? We wanna see ‘im!"
Nussbaum’s jaw muscles worked as he considered the Americans’ demand. He knew he’d have little choice but to cooperate and put Saunders on display – right in the enemy’s line of fire. Nussbaum looked down at Saunders and wondered if the sergeant’s body would be adequate to shield him. If so, it might be possible to get back to the rear wall of the cottage. Then it would only be a short distance to the side of the house where there would be even more protection. Deciding it was worth a try, Nussbaum commanded loudly, "You will hold your fire!"
Kirby looked at Caje, who nodded before lowering his eyes to the rear sight of his rifle as he raised the M1 the rest of the way up to his shoulder. Lifting his own weapon higher, Kirby called back, "All right! We’ll hold it!"
Nussbaum hesitated, then leaning in close to the back of Saunders’ head, he snapped, "Sergeant," as he pulled at the battered man to get him to lift up, "get to your feet."
Saunders moaned at the pain biting into his joints as Nussbaum tugged at him.
"Did you hear me?” the captain snarled. “I said to get to your feet!"
Trying to coordinate his leg movements, Saunders attempted to raise himself as Nussbaum continued to force him up. Saunders sucked in his breath at the burning sensation that flashed along his shoulders, just below his neck, where the rifle blow had landed. Clenching his teeth, he struggled to move in tandem with Nussbaum, who was virtually hugging him from behind.
Saunders didn’t fully understand what was going on, but knew that Kirby had somehow managed to survive the well and, apparently, a brief fire fight. How that could be, Saunders didn't know. But when Nussbaum brought him up high enough to look out over the yard, Saunders was finally able to see the man he’d hoped to rescue…and to his complete horror, the one he'd thought was already home-free.
Saunders was stunned. Caje wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near the house but back at Pont-a-Mousson! The guy had disobeyed orders and returned to the cottage. Saunders couldn’t believe he’d so badly misjudged him. The mission wasn’t any closer to being accomplished now than it had been hours ago.
Nussbaum began speaking again. "You can see that your sergeant is alive. Now you will put down your weapons and raise your hands!"
"No…" Saunders was reeling. This couldn’t be happening. Nussbaum couldn’t get his mitts on Caje and the information the scout was carrying. Nussbaum would win at the cost of hundreds of lives. The kraut had to be stopped. But with the way things stood, Caje and Kirby didn’t have a clear shot at him and would probably balk at opening up. They’d have to be ordered to do it – even though it would mean his own death. There weren’t any other options. "No!" Saunders said again, this time raising his voice. "Open up! Fire! Fi…!""
Nussbaum rushed to get an arm around Saunders’ neck to keep him from interfering.
Saunders dodged him, jerking to one side, then ducking the other way. "Son of a…" he gasped before shouting again, "let him have it!"
Nussbaum tried desperately to collar him as Saunders fought equally hard for another chance to shout orders and give Kirby and Caje a clearer target. The captain jammed his pistol into the left side of the sergeant’s face, hoping to intimidate and quiet him, but the action only agitated Saunders all the more. Struggling wildly, Saunders increased his efforts to pull away.
Surprised and horrified, Nussbaum barked, "Stop or…" then panicked as Saunders lunged forward, nearly breaking free of his grasp. Frantically hauling his hostage back in toward himself, Nussbaum looked across the yard to see the other Americans were anxious and confused but still dangerously well-armed. If he killed Saunders, Nussbaum knew he’d only be signing his own death warrant. He had to get to the other side of the house.
On the opposite end of the yard, Kirby took a nervous step forward, his hands slick with sweat, his features creased with tension. He couldn’t believe what was happening and was afraid he was going to see Saunders get shot. The sarge had yelled something, but who could make out what it was with all the racket of the upcoming storm going on? Maybe getting a little closer would help if Saunders were to try again.
Kirby took another step in Saunders’ direction.
Nussbaum reacted violently, screaming at him to halt.
Kirby froze instantly, his heart racing as he watched the enemy jerk Saunders back into place, then drag him toward the house. Looking over to Caje, he saw his partner standing rigid, his face still pressed to the M1 as the scout used the weapon to track the men opposite him. Suddenly, it was obvious what Saunders wanted them to do. And it was apparent that Caje was preparing to obey orders.
Kirby swallowed, tightened his grip on the BAR, and turned back to the cottage. It was a helluva thing to know they were supposed to shoot over there and that Caje didn’t seem to have too much of a problem with it. Sometimes the guy was almost spooky. Killing and all that…it came just a little too easily to him. But Caje was doing what they were supposed to do, like it or not. If the Man gave orders, they had to be followed. Kirby took a deep breath and prepared to fire, wishing he’d gotten himself loaded earlier when he’d had the chance. It wasn’t every day a guy had to gun down his own sergeant.
"Kirby," Caje said unexpectedly, his voice low and filled with tension, "the corners of the house…watch the corners. Damn…I forgot…watch them."
Kirby’s heart skipped a beat as a hundred questions tumbled through his mind, but he immediately shifted himself to cover the parts of the house Caje had indicated, instinctively moving in the learned trust he’d acquired over months spent working with the other guys in his unit. They functioned as one another’s eyes and ears, conditioned to think for the survival of the group. If Caje knew something that might keep them alive, it would be suicide not to follow his directions.
Saunders, nearly spent, couldn’t offer much in the way of further resistance. He also knew he’d failed to make himself be heard by his men and wouldn’t have another chance at it. Nussbaum was holding him securely with an arm wrapped tightly around his neck and had the Luger pressed into his cheek, near his mouth. He and the kraut were nearly at the back of the house, and Saunders realized it would only be a minute before Nussbaum got himself safely around it. Unable to stop him, Saunders decided he’d at least try to slow him down. Maybe Caje or Kirby would take the initiative and finally just shoot the damned bastard. Saunders relaxed his leg muscles to force Nussbaum to contend with his weight.
Instantly pulled off balance, Nussbaum nearly toppled forward as Saunders unexpectedly dropped lower. Nussbaum bellowed at Saunders to stand, enraged at his captive’s maneuver. The captain tried desperately to force him back onto his feet, but Saunders, nearly strangling, continued to hang freely from the German’s arm around his neck.
Nussbaum sensed he was losing his hold and began to panic. He raised his eyes to see the other Americans and knew he’d be dangerously exposed to them within seconds. Gasping for breath, his eyes wild with fright, Nussbaum shouted a warning at them to hold their fire just as a rifle shot unexpectedly rang out.
Instinctively swinging the pistol around toward the sound, Nussbaum whirled and saw he’d made a fatal mistake. The soldier he’d forgotten about – the fool he’d assigned to stand watch over the vehicles at the front of the cottage – was the one who’d fired from the corner of the building. Nussbaum realized he’d unnecessarily removed the gun from Saunders’ head and robbed himself of the only advantage he’d had in the situation just as a bullet from the M1 shattered his skull. The force of the round’s impact drove Nussbaum’s body backward to slam into the rear wall of the house.
Saunders, carried along by the captain’s momentum, crashed into the ground at the dead man’s side.
Kirby’s shots tore into the man at the side of the cottage as Schweizer was attempting to get off his second shot. Nearly cut in two before falling, Schweizer had no chance against an enemy who’d been prepared for his appearance. Schweizer’s body landed face up, driven backward into the weeds, blood soaking the ground beneath it.
With a shout to Kirby to take care of Saunders, Caje raced across the yard to disappear around the side of the cottage. Kirby hustled to cover and assist the squad leader, knowing Caje would take care of any more Germans on the loose. Reaching Saunders, Kirby found him face down, attempting – without much success – to raise himself. Kirby knelt and, grimacing at the sight of Saunders’ bloody hands and the extensive bruising on the back of his neck, reached to untie him.
"Hey…hey there, Sarge. Hang on just a minute, will ya?" he soothed, trying to keep his voice steady despite the combined rush of fear and excitement running through him. "Let me get you free here first." Kirby fumbled with the heavy wire used to bind Saunders’ wrists. "Take it easy. We’ll get you outta here."
"Kirby," Saunders said into the grass, "the kraut…the kraut…he’s dead?"
"You mean this big wheel right here?" Kirby gave a nervous laugh as he glanced at the corpse to verify the German’s death. "Yeah…yeah, he’s dead. He ain’t gonna be causin’ nobody else any trouble, I can tell you that." Kirby wondered why the hell he hadn’t thought to bring a knife along with him. He couldn’t seem to get a handle on the twisted ends of the wire he was struggling with to get Saunders released.
"I…I need a drink." Saunders began pushing up again, unwilling to wait for Kirby to finish.
"Yeah, Sarge." Kirby looked nervously to and from the house as he continued to twist the wire first one way, then the other. "You and me, both." He hoped it would become loose pretty soon. "But you better stay still if you want me to get you free here."
Saunders managed to get his legs underneath himself and tried to rise, but without the use of his arms, he couldn’t gain a sitting position. He strained for it, his muscles protesting the effort, then he dropped back onto his stomach. "Water, Kirby," he panted, irritated at his helplessness. "I mean water."
"Oh, yeah. Sure, Sarge." Kirby felt jumpy. He wanted Caje to return and the wire to unfasten. "Heh. I knew that. I got some right here. Just wait a second and I’ll…"
The wire suddenly came apart.
Kirby quickly unwrapped it from around Saunders’ wrists, held the sergeant’s arms still, and briefly examined them. He decided that, while the flesh that had been underneath the wire was torn and bloody, the wounds themselves didn’t appear to be particularly deep. The krauts had been real sweethearts and left the wire a little loose so Saunders didn’t bleed to death.
Kirby gently eased Sarge’s arms forward, knowing that any rapid movement would only cause the guy more pain, and he slid an arm under Saunders’ ribs to help him up. Saunders said nothing as he moved, but it was obvious the process was hard on him. When the sergeant was finally sitting, Kirby heaved a sigh of relief.
Kirby offered him water, and Saunders gratefully accepted it. As Saunders put the canteen to his mouth, Kirby studied the sarge’s face, a startling collection of cuts and bruises. Noticing the dark splotches ringing Saunders’ neck and coloring the underside of his jaw, Kirby wondered what the krauts had been doing to him. Maybe being in the well hadn’t been such a bad alternative.
Kirby was just about to suggest that the sarge ought to slow down his drinking to avoid getting sick when Saunders pulled back suddenly and looked past him, an expression of absolute fury on his face. Kirby yanked up the BAR and twisted around only to discover Caje had arrived on the scene, loaded down with Saunders’ gear. Kirby nearly lit into Caje for sneaking up on them again, but Saunders got to the scout first.
"I thought…I gave you an order! What the hell do you mean," Saunders paused to gulp air, "by coming back here?"
Caje lowered himself to unload the noncom’s equipment and began, "Sarge, I…" when, for the second time that day, Saunders lunged forward and grabbed him by the front of his jacket.
Caje almost fell forward but managed to catch himself on his knees.
Kirby got himself out of the way and up onto his haunches to keep watch over the cottage.
Saunders used his hold on the scout to pull himself up, to get into Caje’s face. His voice lower, Saunders sounded dangerous. "When I tell you to do something, I want it done. You got it? I don’t care what problems you’re having or what’s on your mind. The mission comes first!"
Caje didn’t offer any resistance, but he drew his head back, hoping Saunders wouldn’t take a swing at him and hit his face. “I know that, Sarge."
Saunders, clearly in pain, fought to maintain his grip. He slipped forward and snapped, "If you know that, then why aren’t you in Pont-a-Mousson right now? I told you to get those papers back!"
"Yeah, Sarge, and I did. I got to the truck like you said and gave them to the lieutenant."
"You…?" Saunders tilted his head and eyed Caje before letting him go, much to the other man’s obvious relief. Pushing himself into a more manageable position, Saunders asked, "You got them back and Lieutenant Hanley has them?"
"He did when I last saw him." Caje reached for Saunders’ jacket and, bringing up the coat, opened it and leaned forward.
Saunders gingerly slid an arm into the coat while trying to digest what he’d just been told. He was thankful for the sudden warmth the jacket offered but gasping for breath by the time he’d eased his other arm into it. He also wasn’t quite able to believe things were turning out as well as they seemed.
"And the krauts?"
Saunders struggled with the coat’s zipper, knowing they’d have to get a move on before any more Germans showed up. "Okay. Well, what did the lieutenant tell you when he sent you back?" It was a surprise that so much time had passed while he’d been in the krauts’ hands and that Hanley had ordered Caje back in alone – or even to return at all.
Caje suddenly looked uncomfortable and turned to retrieve Saunders’ belt.
Saunders watched him, then said in as even a tone as he could manage, "Caje, I asked you a question." He dreaded what he knew he’d hear next and, accepting his belt from the scout, began to work it around his waist.
Caje leaned forward again, to assist him and, resigning himself to the fact that he’d have to explain his presence sooner or later, admitted, "He, uh…he didn’t send me."
Saunders echoed flatly, "He didn’t send you."
"No. He said he couldn’t help you guys out, but he didn’t tell me I couldn’t, so I thought…"
"You thought," Saunders cut in, impatient. He turned his face away, angrily collecting his own thoughts and fumbling to fasten his belt. When he finally accomplished both, he turned back, seething. "The problem is you didn’t think! What if you’d been picked up by a kraut patrol? You would’ve been hauled in and pumped for information and probably wound up dead! Or you might’ve led more krauts back here. Did you think about that? The lieutenant knew what he was doing, and if he’d wanted you to return, he would’ve sent you. You could’ve tipped off the whole kraut army to this entire operation. It was a stupid move!"
"Aw, Sarge," Kirby interrupted. "If Caje hadn’t…"
"Shut up, Kirby!"
Kirby ducked and, offering Caje a brief look of sympathy, withdrew from the conversation. He figured there wasn’t any point in sticking his neck out farther if the sarge was already in high gear. A guy’d only collect himself some serious trouble that way. It was safer to guard the yard.
"Sorry, Sarge," Caje said, knowing he’d do the same thing all over again to rescue them. He held out Saunders’ watch and helmet. "I didn’t think about any of that. I guess it was a stupid move."
Saunders took the watch and beginning to slip it on his wrist thought better of it. He dropped it into a pocket instead. Slowly raising an arm to put on his helmet, he appraised Caje’s face and decided the scout had gotten the point – although it was hard not to sympathize with him. Saunders knew he’d do the same thing to save the lives of his men. He eased up, shook his head, and said, "Okay. Well, what orders did the lieutenant give you?" He figured it would be easier to defend Caje’s actions when they got back if the kind of trouble the guy was in were pinned down. Caje passed Saunders the sergeant’s Colt, and Saunders slid it into his holster before holding out a hand for the Thompson.
"Well, he didn’t give me orders exactly," Caje said, handing over the submachine gun.
Saunders winced at its weight but managed to hang on to it. "What did he say?"
Caje shrugged. "Something like I could rest and have a cigarette."
"And you came all the way back here?" Kirby blurted. "Huh! I wish the lieutenant’d give me them orders once in a while."
Saunders ignored the interruption. "That was it?"
"That was it."
An odd expression came over Saunders’ face, and he asked, "Did you?"
Caje was uncertain about what he was being asked. "Did I…?"
"Rest and have a cigarette?" Saunders prompted, still wearing the same strange expression – a combination of worry and amusement.
Caje looked uncomfortable again. "Yeah. Well, kind of…at the truck."
"Okay." Saunders lowered his head to look over the Thompson and prevent Caje from seeing the smile tugging at his lips. Saunders knew that Hanley was going to be steamed when he found out Caje had technically done what he’d been told to do – there was no doubt about that. But maybe the lieutenant would also be interested to hear what a world of good it would do Caje to ride shotgun for Jackson Rawley for a week. After all, a disciplinary measure like that couldn’t fail to keep Caje from pulling off any more independent maneuvers. Every man in the platoon feared driving anywhere with Rawley.
Saunders eased the Thompson into place under his arm, swallowed his smile, and looked up. Brusque and businesslike once more, he asked, "And what happened to you?" He nodded in such a way as to indicate he was referring to Caje’s badly bruised face.
Caje continued to appear uneasy, as though the questions being posed to him were becoming increasingly unmanageable. "Well, I ran into a couple of krauts on my way to the rendezvous."
The sergeant frowned. "And?"
Caje helped Saunders to his feet while briefly explaining what had happened.
Kirby, all ears during the narrative, was beginning to feel downright grateful he’d spent the afternoon in the well.
Saunders fought to keep his balance, and when Caje finished speaking, he asked, "So are you all right?" He paused. "With everything?"
Caje understood what Saunders wanted to know and answered self-consciously, "Yeah, I can manage."
Relieved, Saunders finally allowed himself to smile. He recalled the conversation they’d had earlier and wondered at the difference a few hours had made. Somehow, Caje had come to grips with the crippling fear and self-doubt that had nearly robbed him of his ability to function and cope in the circumstances they’d all been thrown into. Saunders had seen enough men ruined by the war, crushed beneath the weight of its horror, to last him a lifetime. To witness one of his own beat it was a gratifying victory. Reaching to secure his helmet in place, Saunders wondered how many more times he’d have to fight that battle himself before it was all over and said, "Okay. Well, did you pass the dead krauts on your way back here?"
Caje cautiously released his hold on the sergeant. "Yeah, they were still there, but no one else was. Are you going to be okay, Sarge?"
Saunders took a deep breath and gathered himself. Glad that Caje had thought to cover his tracks, Saunders hoped the guy’s plan would work. He also knew they’d better get started on doing the same thing with the krauts they had on hand. "Yeah, I’m all right. I don’t think anything’s broken." He glanced around, deciding how to go about it.
"You want some water to clean your face?" Caje asked, already reaching for his canteen.
"Save it. We’ll all be getting a shower soon enough. I want you both to get these krauts into the well. Keep out the helmets of the three near it and check all of them first for keys to the staff car and kraut jeep out front. If you find any papers other than soldbuchs, I want them too. All their hardware goes into the well with them. You got it? If we get picked up again, I don’t want anyone having any souvenirs. And that goes for the insignia and medals – leave ‘em. I mean it, Kirby."
Kirby looked sour at the prospect of not being able to pawn the SS trappings for some serious gaming stakes, but he nodded his understanding.
"When you’re both done with that, pick up your bullet casings. If more krauts come snooping around looking for these guys, I don’t want them finding anything. Maybe if they think the captain never made it here, it’ll buy some time."
"What about the blood, Sarge?" Kirby looked at the bodies with distaste. "What’re we gonna do about that?"
"Like I said, it’s going to rain soon. Get moving."
Both privates began their grim assignment as Saunders departed for the front of the house. They stooped to search the captain’s body first, pulling open his coat to comb through it and his uniform underneath. Caje discovered papers and quickly examined them before sliding them into his jacket. Unable to find any keys, he and Kirby retrieved the German's service cap and pistol and placed them on the dead man’s chest. Kirby squatted to take hold of the corpse’s arms while Caje grasped its legs, and the two soldiers hauled the captain over to the well. He’d been a tall man and, consequently, heavy, so by the time they’d thrown him in, they were gasping for breath.
Kirby stepped over to one of the other Germans lying nearby, removed the corpse’s helmet, and started rifling through the soldier's gear and clothing. Within moments, he located an impressive dagger. Lifting it high enough for Caje to see, he griped, "Will you look at this?" He displayed its blade with the SS slogan "Meine Ehre Hießt Treue" etched along its length. "Do you know how much Hank Tollen would pay for this baby? What a waste." Kirby leaned forward to toss it into the well and scowled in disgust.
"Aw, Kirby," Caje was rummaging through a different corpse’s uniform and eyeing an identical dagger he wouldn’t mind having for himself, "you know the sarge is just trying to keep you from getting killed."
"Yeah, well, he could do that if he’d just leave me out of one of these stinkin’ details once in a while." Kirby suddenly came up with a set of keys and, drawing them out, dropped them into a pocket. He got to his feet and, straddling the corpse, took hold of it by its uniform. Grunting with the strain of it, Kirby dragged the body closer to the well and heaved it in.
He took a moment to catch his breath and glanced at Caje to see the scout struggling to get the German he’d finished searching to the well. Instead of using two hands to move the corpse, Caje had one of his arms wrapped tightly around his middle. Surprised, Kirby realized that Caje was still experiencing abdominal pain from the knife wound he’d suffered. Not wanting to give the guy the impression he was being fussed over, he reached for the dead German’s arm.
"Hey, Caje,” he said, “that kraut at the wagon hasn’t been checked out yet. You wanna look over the other one here real quick first, then do him? If they’ve got more of them papers on ‘em, you’d probably know which ones to keep better than me. I can pitch these guys and maybe we’ll save time."
Caje looked toward the wagon, then back at Kirby to nod his agreement with the suggestion. He released his hold on the corpse and turned to examine the other SS man lying behind him. Kirby looked down at the one he had by the arm and, rolling his eyes at the things he had to do for a living these days, proceeded to dump him.
After Kirby threw the fourth German in the well, he stole a few seconds to recover, then turned to help Caje with the kraut at the wagon. Caje had just finished up with his search of the body and took hold of the corpse by one arm while Kirby grasped the other. The two men dragged the dead soldier between them to the well and dropped him into its depths. Gathering up rifles and spent cartridges, they threw them in also.
"Five dead krauts down, one to go," Kirby puffed when the last weapon was discarded.
Caje said nothing, but his expression conveyed his own relief that they were almost finished.
As the two soldiers headed toward the corner of the cottage to collect the last corpse, Kirby said, "Hey, Caje, would you ’ave really shot the sarge back there a little while ago?"
Caje frowned at the unexpected question and couldn’t imagine what Kirby was talking about. Shoot the sergeant? Why on earth would he want to do a thing like that? Already suffering a headache, Caje decided not to try to figure this one out. "Kirby, let’s just do what we’re supposed to, huh?"
Kirby said nothing but shook his head in awe. Here was a guy who could do something like that and not even need to talk about it afterward. Spooky, he thought…downright spooky.
The men reached the body of the last German and squatted next to it. As they examined the dead man’s clothing, Kirby had another question.
"How’d you know this guy was gonna show up before?"
Caje was wondering where the other keys could be. "Well, you know how I told you there were six guys? When I remembered to count the ones in the yard, I knew."
Kirby frowned. "Six? I thought you said there were a half-dozen."
Caje looked up and squinted at his partner. After a moment, he asked, "Kirby, you got any aspirin on you?"
"Nuh-uh," Kirby said, wiping the German’s blood off his hands and onto his jacket. "Used up the last of ‘em after me an’ Grizbek liberated us a couple bottles of cognac last week."
Caje sighed and got to his feet just as Saunders reappeared and began to make his way down the side of the building, toward them.
Kirby also got up and asked Caje, "Ready?"
Caje nodded, and the two men took hold of the last corpse and started it toward the well.
Saunders caught up to them and followed along behind. He was carrying the things the Germans had left inside the cottage – a pair of gloves, a coil of wire, a knife, and a pack of German cigarettes – that also had to be hidden. He’d retrieved the captain’s notebook as well but had that tucked safely inside his jacket.
Caje turned and reported, "Sarge, we’re short a set of keys."
"They left the other ones in the jeep. Think you can drive the car?"
"I guess so." Caje grimaced at his share of the load he and Kirby were bearing.
"Okay. Then Kirby, you’ve got the jeep."
Kirby craned his head around. "You…you mean we ain’t all goin’ back…together?" he gasped, his face red with the strain of carrying the German.
"We’re not going back in the cars." Saunders spoke up to be heard over the noise of the thunder rumbling ominously overhead. "We’re dumping them."
"Well, I hope it’s gonna be easier than dumpin’ this guy," Kirby panted, turning forward again. "Who knew the krauts was eatin’ so good these days?"
The men reached the well, and Saunders waited while the corpse was discarded. He dropped the Germans’ possessions in behind. Knowing that as the bodies decomposed their presence and location would become obvious, he turned to Kirby. “Get a grenade ready to throw in there.”
Kirby fished in his jacket for it. "How come?"
"Because you’ve got burial detail." Saunders looked around the yard to make sure the men hadn’t forgotten anything. Deciding they hadn’t, he directed Caje, "Take the kraut helmets up front. We’ll be there in a minute."
Caje gathered the helmets, and Saunders turned back to Kirby. "When I tell you to, get the grenade in the well and yourself out of the way. Then double-time it to the cars so we can take off."
"Okay, Sarge." Kirby fumbled in his pocket. "And here’s these." He passed the keys he’d found to the sergeant who, with a "Caje," tossed them to the scout.
Caje departed and Saunders took a last look around before walking stiffly toward the side of the house and signaling Kirby to proceed. Kirby nodded and, pulling the pin, dropped the grenade into the well. He turned and sprinted a few yards away, threw himself onto his stomach, and grabbed hold of his helmet just as the force of the explosion rocked the ground beneath him. A geyser of dirt, rocks, and dust shot into the air above the well, followed by a column of smoke that quickly dissipated in the wind.
Kirby turned his head to see that the well wall was still intact and even the beam remained in place. Only the earth beneath them had been affected by the blast, a portion of it collapsing in on itself to bury the Germans’ remains. Kirby picked himself up just as the first raindrops began to fall, and he hurried to the well to drop what was left of the rope back into it.
Scooping the rope into his arms, he flung it over the well wall and leaned forward to jerk it up and down several times in an effort to release its tangles. His movements dislodged the bottle of Calvados inside his jacket, and it immediately slipped to the top of his coat. Realizing what was about to happen, Kirby frantically tried to intercept it but was a moment too late. The bottle slid out past his chest and dropped into the depths.
Kirby was stunned. For a moment he only gaped into the darkness beneath him, unable to fully comprehend what he’d just seen. Then sputtering, "That tears it!" he straightened up, stepped back, and kicked the side of the well in helpless fury. He knew that Saunders and Caje were waiting for him, and so he swung his rifle from his back around to his chest again and turned to stomp his way toward the front of the house.
His companions were strapping on German helmets near the staff car. When Kirby drew up, Caje lifted the last of them and held it out.
"What’re we doin’?" Kirby growled as he took off his own helmet to put on the new one.
"Caje and I will lead out in the car. You follow," Saunders said, finally managing to fasten the helmet’s strap under his chin. "We’re going to head west on the road out front and see if we can find someplace to lose these vehicles – a creek, an abandoned barn, something like that. I don’t want to risk any checkpoints and getting caught in one. Once we’ve done that, we’ll keep heading west until we hit our lines."
"But, Sarge!" Kirby protested. "We can’t go out on that road. The krauts’ll see us as soon as we pull out!"
"The rain’ll help to hide us and you’ll have the helmet on. Just keep yourself low and we’ll be all right."
"All right? They’ll…!"
Saunders interrupted him. "You got a better idea, Kirby?"
"Well, no. But the krauts’ll…" Kirby was desperate but caught the look on Saunder’s face and immediately gave up. "All right. I know. I’ll try likin’ this one." His expression became sour as he strapped on the German helmet, then he turned to toss his own into the Kubelwagen. The rain was increasing and so were his misgivings about his NCO’s sanity.
Saunders was sympathetic but determined. "Kirby, you make a great kraut. Nobody’ll know the difference."
"Gee, thanks, Sarge," Kirby muttered, folding his arms across his chest and hunching his shoulders against the rain.
Caje pulled the collar of his own coat tighter around his neck and tried not to look amused.
"Besides, the sooner we get back, the sooner you get those beers you’ve got coming to you,” Saunders said. “The drive’ll cut down on travel time."
Kirby brightened immediately. "Hey yeah, Sarge! We’d better get goin’."
Saunders shook his head and Caje spoke up.
"Sergeant, that kraut CO had some papers on him. You want them now?"
"Yeah, I’ll take ‘em."
Caje reached into his jacket, and Kirby noticed the handkerchief-wrapped bundle nestled in Caje’s side pocket.
Grabbing at it, Kirby said, "Hey, what gives? You holdin’ out on us, Caje?"
Caje turned his head to see what Kirby was talking about and pulled out the papers. "What do you mean?" He handed the documents to Saunders and tried to get a closer look at what Kirby was unwrapping.
"Food!" Kirby exclaimed, holding up Littlejohn’s fudge for Caje to see. "You gonna keep it all for yourself or let us in on it?"
Caje stared at the confection before saying, "No, I wasn’t going to keep it and, uh, you can have my share, Kirby. I’m not that hungry."
Kirby grinned and extended the chocolate toward Saunders. "Sarge?"
“No,” Saunders said and made his way around to the other side of the staff car. "You need to put it away. We’re moving out."
"Okay," Kirby agreed, trying not to appear too pleased about not having to share it.
Saunders added, "And Caje."
"It’s good you made it back."
The two men looked at one another for a moment before Saunders pulled open the car’s passenger-side door and carefully lowered himself into the Mercedes’ front seat.
Kirby slapped Caje on the shoulder. "You hear that, boy?" he crowed. "I knew ol’ Sarge wouldn’t hold it against you. You did the right thing comin’ back here!" He turned away to climb into the jeep and called out, "You just wait and see if Sarge don’t get you fixed up with the lieutenant too. Hell, I bet fifty bucks Hanley puts you up for a medal!"
Caje knew better but grinned anyway. If Kirby wanted to give away his money, that was all right with him. Besides, Saunders wasn’t talking about returning to the cottage. Caje turned back to the staff car and opened the driver’s side door.
Saunders was talking about surviving.
Caje dropped into the seat behind the steering wheel and leaned forward to get the key into the ignition. Looking at Saunders, he said, "Thanks, Sarge. I guess I did make it back."
Saunders nodded. After a moment and allowing himself to relax, he smiled. “Yeah,” he said, resting the Thompson on his lap. "All the way back."