Countdown



Caje looked up at the stark, blue afternoon sky and tightened the collar of his field jacket to shut out the blast of the freezing, November wind. It was useless. He shivered as the cold stung him through the too-thin material of his uniform. He blew on his reddened hands, trying to inject some warmth into the fingers. Why hadn't he brought gloves on the mission today? Like all boys from the South, he wasn't used to walking for miles in such cold weather. He turned back to see how Doc and Sarge were doing, seeing them holding their arms against their chests. At the rear, the young replacement, Hanson Smith, strutted in closer to Sarge.

Smith raised a hand and pointed upwards, indicating a large ruin at the top of a hill before them. "That thing's big, Sarge! Look!"

Caje followed the young man's gaze towards the dark form.

"We're almost there, kid," Saunders replied. "As soon as we climb...."

Bullets whizzed by the men's feet, cutting his words short. The Americans broke file and ran for the closest possible cover they could find, an outcropping of rocks set along a steep slope. They scrambled behind it, ducking as bullets raked the ground beside them. A line of grass and earth kicked up in the spot they'd occupied just instants before.

"Those shots came from up there, Sarge!"Caje said as he turned up his rifle and fired towards the chateau.

"Yeah! Right where we were heading," Smith interjected, clutching his rifle with trembling hands.

Saunders didn't answer, his attention caught by Doc who sat grimacing as he unbuckled his left boot. "You hit, Doc?"

"I'll be all right." The medic shook his head and held onto his helmet with one hand as he reached down to examine his ankle. It was swollen and darkened. Wincing, he began to close up the boot again, strapping it on more tightly over the sprained joint.

"There's Krauts in that place!"Smith whispered tersely between gulps. His breath curled out in the chill air as he spoke. "We're trapped here! Sarge, that thing can really do a job on us! How come nobody told us that Krauts were in there?"

"Because they didn't know," Saunders replied. "Just relax, kid. Keep your mind clear. The Krauts're probably hoping we'll panic and run out where they can see us."

"They sent us forward to meet some Resistance guy..." The youngster gripped his M1 as he spoke and looked up at Saunders. "I don't think he's in there. ...Did we come all the way for nothing, Sarge?"

"Not for nothing. That might be an OP up there." Saunders glanced down the valley. "Battalion's gonna be coming down that road soon. The Krauts'll have a clear view of them." He motioned for the young soldier to approach. "Bring the radio. I'll have to call in."

After several unsuccessful tries, Saunders put back the receiver, shaking his head. "Something's wrong. I can't get a signal." He jutted a finger up towards the top of the boulder."...Maybe if we try it up on top of that ridge. Smith, you're on me. We'll go up on that side, head for those trees. Caje, you and Doc stay put."

"Hey, kid," Caje said in a soothing tone, trying to calm him. "If you want to live, why don't you just listen to the sergeant?"

Saunders and the young soldier followed a rocky path leading to the top of the hill, almost losing their footing at each step. Panting with exertion, they dropped to their bellies beside the outcropping.

"Keep your head down," Saunders cautioned as he positioned himself near the edge of the rock to make a quick inspection of the surroundings above. Shelling had torn the place up; deep holes and uprooted trees covered the entire area; two of the fallen timbers lay near the boulder. Broken rocks lay scattered across it, he saw, and a maze of cracks and fissures ran down its length.

He removed the handset from the cradle and pulled on the antenna to extend it as far as possible. Smith was still trying to catch his breath, he noted, as he put brought up the handset. "King two, this is White Rook...."

Machine gun fire roared to life, sending him ducking beneath a hail of bullets just in time. Saunders dropped the handset and fired back in the direction of the chateau, even though he knew the building stood too far for the Thompson to hit accurately. But as if drawn by his fire, the MG swung towards him, its bullets raking the top of the boulder beside him.

A hail of stones and rocks flew outwards. Saunders ducked, covering the back of his neck, but he still felt the sting from the sharp debris.

A sharp cry rang out beside him. Startled, he turned and saw Smith, his eyes glazed with panic, drop his rifle and clutch his chest. The young soldier mouthed a silent scream as he pitched backwards down the hill before Saunders could catch him. He rolled and slid, doing nothing to slow down his fall, until he reached the bottom. He finally stopped at the edge of the cemetery, lying against a grave marker with his arms outstretched. The radio still hung to the kid's back, stitched with gaping bullet holes.

Caje watched the soldier come to a stop. Trying to pull him back, he reached out through the rock fall to grasp the boy's sleeve. A large stone came crashing down onto his left shoulder, causing a sickening crack underneath the collar. He dropped his rifle and fell onto his side, gasping at the white-hot pain knifing through his shoulder. Jarred loose, his helmet rolled down into the cemetery, banging against the broken headstones. Instinctively, Caje reached for his neck, trying to feel what the damage might be. He gasped when his fingers felt the jagged end of the left collarbone underneath the jacket.

Instinctively, he grabbed his left arm and held it against his chest. He couldn't move a muscle in it. He saw Doc get to his knees and turn towards him. "Doc! Smith is... still out there!" he wanted to shout.

Sarge's distant voice came to his ears, warning them to get down. Caje obeyed instantly, turning his face to the ground as another rock fall tumbled down the outcropping, almost on top of him. Instants later, he spotted Saunders coming around the side of the boulder.

Dodging the stones as best he could, Saunders crept over to the others, dropping to his knees beside Caje. As the rocks barreled down the incline, one of them banged against the Camo. Saunders just managed to grab the helmet before it, too, could roll out of reach. He shoved it back onto his head and then threw himself over Caje, protecting him until the deadly hail had passed.

"What about Smith?" Caje asked, his voice hoarse.

Saunders glanced at the body of the young replacement lying in the cemetery. "It's too late for him. The kid should have stayed low. He might still be alive." He sighed, his gaze momentarily meeting Doc's. Together, both men held Caje's wrists and lifted his hand away from the wound at his neck. Caje moaned softly, and he blanched at the movement.

A dark stain covered the upper side of Caje's jacket. "Don't move, Caje," Doc said. Carefully, he turned back the front of the uniform shirt to expose the wound.

Saunders shook his head, his blood chilled at the sight. The jagged end of the collarbone had just pierced the skin, causing an ever-enlarging stream of blood. "Take it easy, Caje,"he said, trying to be reassuring. "Just take it easy."

Worried, Doc examined the damage; pressing down to staunch the bleeding would cause the soldier great pain. And he'd never set a collarbone before. He wasn't sure how. "He's bad, Sarge. It's a compound fracture. He needs a hospital!"

The medic's words failed to surprise Saunders. He'd heard Doc say them so many times before. Of course, Caje was badly wounded and needed a hospital! He scowled up at the massive building visible above the boulder, as if he might somehow will the damned building out of existence, and he brought a clenched fist down onto the frozen ground.

Caje stirred. "Sarge..."he moaned, turning his head towards the others.

"Yeah, Caje."

"The Krauts... givin' up yet?" Flashes of fire in his shoulder drew a sharp breath from the Cajun.

Saunders forced a smile of reassurance "Easy, Caje. We'll get you out of here as soon as we can. I'll find a way." He patted the wounded man's head lightly. "Doc. You got any morphine left?"

The medical bag lay beside the boulder, flattened and torn. Doc rifled through it and took out the box of morphine ampoules. Dread gnawed him as he opened the dented lid. As he'd feared, only glass fragments remained rattling in the bottom. Disgusted, he threw down the box.

"There's none. Those rocks fell on the bag." He leaned in closer to Saunders, lowering his voice so Caje wouldn't hear. "Sarge, he's bad. If we stay here, he's gonna go into shock. But the bone could damage vessels or nerves if we move 'im."

Caje groaned again, holding his arm against his chest.

Saunders nodded, sighing, and took out a pack of Luckies from his jacket pocket. He lit one and gave it to the Cajun.

Despite the freezing weather, Caje's face shone as he took the offered cigarette and put it in his mouth.

"Don't move, Caje. You're hurt pretty bad,"Saunders said. He could see that the tissue around the bone had already begun to swell. Doc wasn't doing too good either; he'd wrenched his ankle while running away from the machine gun and winced noticeably at every move. Saunders didn't think he'd withstand a long walk home. He'd just promised to get them back, but doing it right now would only take them out in open view of the chateau. He tried not to think about that as he looked at his wounded soldiers. "Doc. Just do what you can for 'im, huh?"

Settling the medical bag next to the Cajun, Doc took out a sulfa and bandage. "Well, Caje, I guess you're not going to be using that rifle today," he commented with a half-smile. "...That too tight?"

Caje remained still, sparing his energy. He smoked his cigarette in silence, exhaling through gritted teeth. He sat stoically while Doc pinned his useless arm against his chest and wrapped a sling around it.

Saunders scrambled back to his guarding position at the edge of the boulder. "That's a Kraut OP in those ruins," he told them. "Battalion's due to arrive in less than half an hour. They have to be warned, but the radio's all shot up." He shook his head. "I'll go out alone to report the Kraut position. There's no time left. I'm gonna have to try it." With the back of his hand, he wiped the cold sweat covering his upper lip, and he looked at his watch once more. "I'll come back for you," he added, trying to reassure the other men.

Caje and Doc both gave slight nods in unison.

With the Thompson ready, Saunders examined the view of the hillside, trying to determine the best escape route. Maybe through the cemetery. He could see a wrought-iron gate with black metal crosses still standing at the entrance, but a winged angel, that must have been perched on it at one time, now lay on its side in the frozen grass with its delicately carved wings broken off. Almost all of the marble headstones and statues lay scattered about in ruins.

He saw no way to avoid detection if he tried going through the cemetery. The chateau occupied the highest elevation for miles around. The Krauts up there just needed to look down the slope, and they'd see him in there as perfectly as they'd seen Private Smith. He shuddered. Going that way meant suicide.

Saunders froze and stared upwards; a new, unexpected sound reached his ears. Cursing, he turned towards the others. "They're using a launcher!" he shouted. "Get down!"

Before he could even duck, a grenade hit the top of the boulder. For long seconds, the earth around the outcropping rocked and swayed.

The Americans watched in awe as the uprooted giant at the top of the hill literally jumped from the earth and toppled onto the large rock above them. The damaged fir tree began to slide down the boulder, giving them no chance to get out of its way. Many of the large branches snapped as the tree gained momentum. The soldiers huddled together in a crack in the boulder with their heads lowered for protection from the sharp branches and needles that barreled down the rock.

The giant timber groaned and cracked as it descended upon them. Bits of wood and broken, splitting twigs flew in all directions. Sharp fir needles stung their faces and pierced their uniforms. The gigantic tree rolled over them, taking Doc's helmet and Caje's Garand on its passage, and then continued its inexorable slide down the hill. It came to rest just below their position, having left a trail of wood chips and broken-off needles in its wake.

When the tree finally stopped moving, Saunders shook off the splinters imbedded in his clothing. Panting, he pushed up his helmet and stared anxiously at the others.

Both of them had fared badly in the last onslaught; they lay covered with fir needles, disheveled and helmetless. Caje lay curled up on his side beside Doc, coughing. He raised his head slightly. He gripped his shoulder, trying to remain still, but he kept shaking as he gulped in short, rapid breaths.

"Caje?"

The Cajun tried to nod as more spasms racked his body. "Grenades now, Sarge?"

As Saunders drew next to him, he saw the stain on the front of the bandage had grown markedly. "I don't know. They must be trying to scare us out into the open." A quick glance underneath the bandage reassured him that the bone hadn't moved further. But his heart sank as he saw the pallor in Caje's face. "I'll be right back. I've just gotta check on Doc." Saunders turned his attention to the other man.

Doc brought a hand up to his face, wiping it as he spit out needles. "My eyes!" he said. "I tried to cover 'em, but I...."

"Don't move, Doc." He held the medic's hands away from his eyes and made a quick inspection, worried that he might have gotten something in them. Bleeding scratches covered Doc's face. His forehead felt hot and flushed. But the worst injury was a deep gash above the left eye. Saunders examined the red flow coming down from it; the cut would need to be stitched up. "You took a good blow, Doc. And you got a little scratched up, that's all. Don't try to open your eyes."

Doc blinked through a film of tears and brought a hand up to feel the cut on his forehead. "It happened too fast! I tried to get out of the way...." He ran his sleeve over his face. "I treated this same thing once before, Sarge. The corneas are scratched. I'll have to keep 'em shut." He squinted, trying to locate his bag. "I'm gonna need a bandage."

"It's okay. I'll get it." Saunders took a bandage out of his web belt to cover the bleeding gash. He hurried as he worked to wrap it around Doc's head.

"Sarge?" Caje's question broke Saunders' concentration. "I can't find my rifle. Where is it?"

Saunders scanned the area behind him. "I don't know. I can't see it. It must be caught somewhere under that tree. Stay put, Caje. I'll get it." He glanced at his watch for the hundredth time. "It's pretty quiet for now. I'm going to take another look up there first."

Saunders went around the other edge of the boulder. Clawing his way up along its side, he climbed to the top of the ridge. From there, he took another look at the ancient chateau. This different vantage point offered him a clearer view of the ruins than he'd had before. There, he could easily make out the barrel of the Kraut machine gun protruding from the massive walls. The MG's muzzle projected from a lower story window, silent but ready.

Through field glasses, Saunders examined the openings in the structure, trying to count the number of Krauts that he could see inside the ruins. He made out five at least. Too many to knock out with the only grenade he had left. A glint of light suddenly shone from an upper story window. Saunders looked at the sun directly above him, wondering if he'd caused similar reflections with his own lens. Taking no chances, he quickly lowered his binoculars to avoid giving away his own position.

Another glance at his watch confirmed that eight minutes had passed since the explosion. It might be a good sign, but worry gnawed him. The Krauts had strafed them with machine gun fire. Then, they launched a grenade. He didn't think the Krauts would sit idly without sending out patrols to check the area. Saunders examined the chateau again, this time seeing faint movements near its base. Dark silhouettes were coming out of it. He quickly turned and scrambled down the slope towards the others.

"They're coming!"Saunders alerted the other men as he slid back down the boulder. "Get 'im ready, Doc! We can't stay. We're going to have to get out of here after all."

"But Sarge!" Doc stood, trying to balance on his good leg. "Where to?"

Saunders shouldered his Thompson and brought his hand down underneath Caje's good arm. He kept looking up at the ridge above the large boulders as he and Doc lifted the wounded man to a standing position. Germans would appear there any moment. The Krauts had a fair bead on their position now. There wasn't a moment to lose. "Come on! The Krauts're coming. Let's go!" he repeated.

"Amerikaner! Da drüben!"came a voice from the top of the hill.

Saunders cursed; there was no time to worry about Caje's shoulder, no time to search for the rifle dragged away by the fir tree and no time to escape down the slope. "Come on!"he urged.

Still grasping Caje's arm, Saunders pulled him into the darkness beneath the gigantic fir. Doc followed right behind; elbowing branches from his face, he inched his way into the hiding place. The three men settled in behind the trunk and froze there, waiting in silence.

A voice called out, sounding as if it had come from nearby. "Wo sind sie? Ich sehe nichts."

Three German soldiers, wearing long black coats and carrying Schmeissers, jumped down from the boulder and crossed the Sarge's field of view. He held the Thompson ready, steadying it on the tree.

As the Americans watched, the Krauts advanced towards their hiding place.

"Ich habe keine Idee," another answered as they all paced warily in front of the fallen timber, smart enough never to bunch up into an easy target. Saunders struggled to breathe evenly as he aimed the Thompson.

One of the Krauts shook a large tree limb as he passed, sending a rain of pointed needles cascading onto the men underneath it. Another German came forward and braced himself in front of the tree, aiming his weapon in their direction.

Saunders' shoulders stiffened, and a cold sweat trickled down his spine. In a few seconds, the shelter would be sprayed with probing fire and torn up along with the three men hiding inside it.

The Schmeisser opened up, its noise pounding their ears. The tree shook from the impact of the shots. Saunders felt splinters falling on him, but he remained still. He saw his men curl up with their eyes closed, covering their ears. The bullets pounded the large trunk and ricocheted through the upper branches. After a single pass, the gunfire stopped, its echoes rolling down the valley. Saunders saw the German pull out the magazine from his weapon with a guttural curse.

"Sei ruhig!" another German called out. "Schießt nicht mehr. Die Amerikaner sind weg."

The soldier put a knee to the ground right in front of Saunders, staring into the darkness of the timber with suspicion. "Glaubst du?"he asked, shoving a fresh magazine into his weapon.

Sarge remained utterly still, hoping the sentry wouldn't distinguish the outline of their uniforms underneath the evergreen hiding place. He kept eyeing the Kraut, instinctively tightening his grip on the trigger each time the Schmeisser came in his direction. He stayed in front of his wounded soldiers, covering them to block the Kraut's line of fire.

After several minutes, the German grunted and turned away. Calling out to the others, he scurried down the road towards the left. The Germans's voices trailed off in the distance.

Saunders waited silently after they'd gone; intent on last place he'd seen them. Aiming the Thompson, he signaled to Caje and Doc to keep still. He'd give the Krauts a few more minutes, just a few more...

The branch over Saunders' head shook. Without warning, a bayoneted rifle came down through the tree limbs near Saunders' arm. The blade embedded itself into a branch for a few seconds, right beside him, and then came out again. Seconds later, Saunders saw it plunge into another branch several feet away.

Trembling with effort, Caje was squirming backwards to get away from the sharp blade. Wincing at the pain in his broken clavicle, he reached down for his own bayonet.

Saunders motioned for him to put away the knife and quietly unholstered his forty-five. Despite the darkness of their shelter, he saw a gleam of sweat on the Cajun's face as he held it out.

As Caje reached out with a trembling hand to take the offered revolver, the bayonet came down next to his shoulder, just an inch from the folded beret, and thudded into a branch with a sharp crack. Caje's eyes widened in surprise at the near miss. The knife chipped out splinters as it shook free, and then rose up high above the foliage again, out of sight. Caje flinched as the branch in front of him began to slide away, almost exposing his presence there;he backed up further, trying to reach a darker recess.

The German pulled out the branch, dragging it for several yards, and then let it fall. "Hilf mir!"he said.

"Du hast recht. Es ist zu kalt." Another soldier came into Saunders' view, stooping beside his companion as he deftly raised his knife and plunged it into the branch to chop out a section. His buddy patted his jacket pocket, smiling. "Damit können wir Feuer machen."

A German wearing wire-rim glasses over a thin, reddened nose strode into Sarge's line of vision. He drew beside the others and waved a closed fist, vociferating sternly. A loud debate ensued between the Germans. Sarge couldn't make out their words, but he understood them to be arguing. Going at it roughly, too, judging by the tone of their voices. Maybe the Krauts weren't supposed to get that firewood or were being ordered to move out to join in the search.

"Ich gehe jetz nach unten ausschauen! Paßt mal auf!"the angry soldier said finally as he stomped away and headed down into the cemetery. Saunders saw him stride amongst the broken headstones and then disappear into the distance beyond the wrought-iron gate. He remained still, watching intently and listening to the remaining German soldiers talk.

One of the Krauts strolled over to body of Private Smith and knelt beside it. With a triumphant gesture, he slipped a silver colored watch from the dead boy's arm. "Thomas, komm Schnell!"he called out as he examined the shiny bracelet.

The soldier chopping the branch stood, putting away his knife. Smiling, he headed towards his companion.

Through thefoliage, Saunders watched the Germans kneel beside the body. They coldly patted down the dead man's jacket and began to rummage through the pockets. One of them took out a small envelope from inside it. He opened it and unfolded three pages of hand-written paper. A small photograph slipped out of the letter, falling at his knees. He picked it up and stared at the picture on it, smiling broadly.

Sarge had seen that photograph; it showed Smith's girlfriend standing beside a sedan, wearing a striped dress and smiling at the camera. Before going out that morning, he'd told the young replacement to leave all personal belongings behind, but Smith had disobeyed that order. Well, only Germans would be getting those reminders of home, now.

Caje moaned under his breath at a sharp flash of pain in his fractured collarbone.

"Easy, Caje," Saunders whispered, wincing. He worried about how he was going to keep them alive and still have a chance at warning Battalion about the Kraut position. He motioned for Caje to remain quiet, still watching the two Krauts remove personal effects from the body of his dead soldier. He'd let them take anything they wanted and leave.

The first German reached down to Smith's collar and lifted the dog tags. "Heh, Thomas! Hör mal! "Smith. Patrick B.," he said in a mocking tone as he read the inscription on them. He pulled off the plates and showed the lettering to his friend.

The German holding the letter smiled and held up the photograph. "Und kük mal. Seine Freundin."

The Germans seemed to have forgotten their task of cutting firewood as they began to examine the unexpected loot.

"Sarge!"Caje groaned softly as the pain in his shoulder intensified. He caught his breath as he spotted fresh spatters of blood on the ground underneath him. Stifling another groan, he curled up, clutching his left arm in an effort to fight off the fire-dragon biting into his collarbone. The Colt wavered in his hand and almost fell. Caje's chest heaved, racked by short, rapid breaths. He closed his eyes, straining hard to suppress any more sounds.

Saunders turned his gaze back to the two Germans. Their attention was drawn to a brown wallet they'd fished out of Smith's pocket, but both of them remained armed and ready to react at the slightest noise. Saunders watched as the two men opened the wallet.

Slowly, he inched his way forward alongside a large branch, keeping a steady eye on the Germans. He reached the edge of the shelter and quietly positioned himself in a dark space between two large branches. There, he raised his weapon. "Hände hoch!" he ordered, in a voice only loud enough to be heard by these two Germans.

They whirled around and looked at him with widened eyes, but kept their hands lowered.

"I said Hände hoch!"Saunders repeated. He brandished the Thompson as he glanced towards the cemetery, worried that he might have alerted the third German down there. He knew he had to act quickly. Any second, the two in front of him would realize all they had to do was shout.

One of the Germans swung his Schmeisser in Saunders' direction. He changed his mind, gulping, when he saw the Thompson aimed straight at his chest. Taking his hand off the trigger, the German threw down his weapon and jerked up his hands. "I surrender!"

The soldier holding the photograph dropped everything and stood, raising his own hands in submission. "I surrender!"he echoed.

Saunders motioned for them to kick away their rifles, and then he called for Caje and Doc to come out of their hiding place.

His face strained with effort, Caje struggled to reach the open. The crawl out from under the shelter took a huge toll on the Cajun. With help, he managed to settle himself against a fir branch. After slipping on the beret as best he could, he settled the forty-five in his right hand and pointed it at the Krauts. A sudden gust of wind made him shiver and he turned up his collar.

With a curt gesture, Saunders ordered one of the Germans to come forward. He removed the prisoner's helmet and threw away a bayonet hanging from his belt. Ordering the prisoner to turn, he patted him down, quickly searching for more weapons. His inspection finished, Saunders ordered the Kraut to go back beside his friend.

With cat-like suddenness, the man sprang at him, grasping the Thompson's barrel with his left hand. A blade came down from the German's right sleeve, sliding into his palm. Saunders saw it and, in a self-protective reaction, swung his arm to deflect it. Clasping the German's wrist,he tried to wrench the thing out of the Kraut's hand. The knife waved wildly for several seconds as each man tried to wrestle it away from the other. With desperate strength, Saunders finally pushed the German down before he could make another move, and he aimed the Thompson towards his assailant.

"Drop it and get up! You hear me? ...Up!"

The Kraut didn't answer. He lay on his side, unmoving, his face set in a silent scream.

Saunders turned the German over, and he saw the knife's handle protruding from his rib cage. The Kraut still gripped it tightly, even in death. Saunders stood, staring up at the second prisoner, worried that one might try to take advantage of the fight to jump him.

The German stood only feet away, staring intently at him, his arms set in a gesture of pleading. Sarge ordered the man to turn around. He patted him down as well, searching for more weapons. He found none but extracted a crumpled old-looking field ration box from the prisoner's jacket. The package rattled noisily as he shook it.

"Sit down and be quiet!" Saunders motioned urgently with the Thompson. "Sit."

When the prisoner had obeyed, Sarge looked briefly at his watch for the hundred-and-first time and turned up a worried glance towards the chateau. Almost no time left.

"Friend! Deserter!" The Kraut lowered his hands and pleaded anxiously. "I am friend. Please believe me!"

"Keep your hands up!" Saunders kept his weapon trained on him.

The German soldier complied and raised his hands above his head again, but he kept insisting with urgency. "Friend. I come from Hungary. And wish to go ...to my country. Please help me. The other will come back soon. It will be too late!"

"Stay down!" Saunders examined the prisoner in front of him. "Okay, Fritz. You want to help us? How many more Krauts are in that place up there?"

"How many? Nur drei." The prisoner raised three fingers as he nodded up towards the chateau. "Three more, only. No others."

"Just three, huh? And what about the Frenchman who was supposed to be in there?"

"There is no one else. No French man. Only three Germans, I promise you." The Kraut raised his arms higher and tried to convey his peaceful intentions. "I wish to desert! Friend to you."

"You're a deserter, huh?" Saunders shook the ration box again. The rattling noise inside it told him that it must contain something different than just field rations. He shouldered the Thompson and opened the small, worn box, emptying the contents into his hand. In his palm, he found two keys, a few .45 caliber shells, a rolled wad of English pound notes, and several French coins. Sarge lifted the coins, showing them to the German. "You were going someplace with all this, is that right?"

The Kraut nodded vehemently. "Yes. ...Deserter. I help you. We must go away quickly."

"You stay right where you are." Saunders gestured to the Kraut, emphasizing the order to remain seated. "Caje, can you guard him?"

"Yeah, Sarge. Think so." With his good arm, he steadied the forty-five on his bent right knee, pointing it straight at the German. "You going somewhere?"

"I have to. There are more Krauts in the observation post. Battalion's going to be moving into the area any minute. Their columns will be exposed as soon as they come around the bend down there." Saunders strode over to the sitting prisoner and stood before him, examining the man's face. He'd heard of reluctant Poles and even Russians being forced to serve in the German army. Many had deserted at the first opportunity. Could he trust this one now? "You say that there are only three others left in that ruined castle on the hill," he asked. He turned to his companions. "Caje, I'm going to check it out. The odds're better now. ...Give me your bayonet, will you?"

After handing over his knife, Caje shifted his position, finding the frozen ground uncomfortably hard. He shivered as he eyed the prisoner. "I don't know if you can trust 'im, Sarge."

Doc nodded his agreement.

"I've got no choice. There's no time left." Saunders removed the Camo and scratched the back of his head, thinking. "There's another Kraut still down that hill somewhere, Caje. So keep an eye out." Reaching inside his jacket pocket, he took out a new magazine for the Thompson, and he rammed it into place. He dropped down to a crouch to work his way around the tip of the fallen tree, and then disappeared from Caje's view.

The Cajun kept his attention onto the German, aiming the forty-five that Saunders had given him. "Doc? How's your face? Any better?" He turned his upper body, trying to get a better view of Doc, who'd settled down beside him. The resulting flare in his shoulder almost made him pass out

Doc still wore a bandage around his eyes. He pushed up the cotton film just a bit, seeing the other man shiver. "A bit. I don't see so blurry anymore. But the sunlight really hurts the eyes, though." He reached inside his bag, searching for aspirin. He unhooked his canteen and raised it in Caje's direction. "Here. Take some."

Caje shook his head, preferring to keep his cramped, frozen finger on the trigger. Shuddering, he leaned back against the tree limb and watched the Kraut.

The German remained quietly seated in front of him, he saw, with his arms clasped behind his head. For several minutes, he stayed still, staring at the two Americans and saying nothing. Finally, he nodded towards his ration box and attempted to lower his arms. "May I have my belongings back? I beg you for a chance to ...regain my freedom. Let me go, and I will leave here."

Caje indicated that the prisoner should raise his arms again. "Leave? I don't think so, Kraut."

"I tell you, American. I speak the truth! I desert from army. I never wish to fight Americans. My own mother is from Hungary. She is dead since many years. I beg you. I fear the other soldier will come back soon. We must go now or we die...." The prisoner kept his arms raised and his tone insistent. He seemed to strive hard to persuade the Cajun of his sincerity. "I keep money in my package. Use to go to my country. I have a wife there. I want to see, very much. Please. If you wish, I give you some money. You Americans are my friends."

"Do me a favor, Kraut." Caje's eyes narrowed. "Skip the friendship."

The prisoner fell quiet, looking down at his boots.

Caje could just make out the outline of a cigarette pack bulging in the prisoner's pocket. He sighed, knowing he'd have to wait until Sarge returned in order to hold one. His shoulder throbbed so badly, and the forty-five felt like a burning piece of ice in his hand. He ached all over from having sat in a watchful position for a long time. He shifted his position once again and moved his frozen fingers in the trigger space to try and get back some circulation in them. Momentarily, Caje let his gaze wander along the horizon, scouring the valley. Something told him that third Kraut, the angry one who had disappeared down the hillside, mustn't be far. He felt a shiver run through him, seeing no sign of the Kraut anywhere.

Suddenly, the distant crack of gunfire pierced the air. A line of bullets raked the ground beside Caje's right boot, and he flinched, bringing up his legs against his chest. He rolled to his side, ordering the medic to get back, away from the line of fire.

The shot had come from somewhere near the cemetery gate.

***

Saunders crept as low as he could and raced through the open space separating him from the ruined chateau. His heart pounding, he threw himself down near a corner at the right side of the building and ducked behind a pile of rubble lying there. With his weapon ready, he scoured the grounds around him; all remained quiet. Wasting no time, he sprang from his hiding space and hurried along the massive walls, pushing through tall weeds and around large stones that littered the courtyard, until he reached an open window. There, he gripped the Thompson tightly, his heart racing, and listened for any noise coming from inside.

Voices rang out from it, coming from the other side of the window. Saunders froze, keeping himself flat against the stones. He watched, Thompson ready, as a German stopped in front of the opening, just a yard away from him.

The Kraut put a cigarette in his mouth, taking a deep draw from it. Gazing into the distance, he seemed to be scrutinizing the hills and the valley beyond. The German's yellow hair moved in a sudden gust of wind; he threw down the cigarette and crushed it, glancing down at his watch.

The distant noise of gunfire rang out, coming from the direction of the cemetery. Saunders winced at the resounding echoes coming from there; Caje was locked in a fight with a Kraut, he knew, but he couldn't go help him. Bad shoulder or not, the Cajun would have to fend for himself down there. Saunders had an even bigger worry in the chateau. He shivered as he pictured Hanley and the others on the road below, leading the American columns right into the Kraut shellfire.

At the sound of rifle shots, the blond German rushed back inside, out of Saunders' view, his steps echoing on the stones.

Three Krauts in there, Saunders reminded himself grimly as he shouldered the Thompson and pulled the bayonet from his jacket. If the German deserter told the truth. He took a deep breath as he readied himself, holding the knife ready. Then, gripping the frame, he launched himself through the window and landed noiselessly inside. He grabbed the Kraut from behind before he could lower his weapon. The German fell back against the wall and landed beside a nearby fire grate.

Quickly, Saunders nudged him, making sure the man wouldn't move again, and then looked around the empty room. He'd heard two voices in the place minutes ago. Surely that second Kraut had heard the noise he'd made and would come charging in there any second. Taking the offensive instead of waiting, Saunders darted to a narrow opening along the far wall. He stopped there, peering into a dark passage that stretched on for several yards. Holding his breath, he rushed into it and edged his way to a wide, arched doorway at the end. He held the Thompson and poked his head through the arched doorframe. On the other side, he saw a massive staircase with a broken railing leading up to an upper story.

More voices sounded from up there.

Saunders climbed the stairs, taking them two at a time. He dropped to a crouch at the last step, taking in a gulping breath and waving his weapon in every direction; Krauts could appear from any place. Up there, he saw another, wide hallway. Panting with adrenaline, he ran the length of the passage all the way to an ornately carved doorframe and posted himself beside it, listening. Voices emanated from the other side, sounding scratchy and metallic. Radio transmissions.

He pushed up the butt of the Thompson's magazine, making sure it was firmly installed; this was absolutely no time for the weapon to jam. He listened at the door for a beat, hoping the deserter was right, that only two Krauts remained in the place.

Poking his head through the doorframe, he peered into the room beyond, recognizing the far mountain ridges visible through the arched window. He'd seen them before. Down there were the bombed-out cemetery and the hills leading down to the bottom of the valley. He saw a metal table beside the window, carrying a telephone and Kraut radio. A man with a large headset sat there with his back turned to him, looking out through a powerful scope. The artillery spotter.

Hearing footsteps behind him, the German called out over his shoulder. "Hallo, Manfred! Bist du schön...?" His jaw dropped when he saw the unexpected sight of an American sergeant, and he reached out for his Schmeisser in a panicked move.

Saunders raised his own weapon and fired.

The Kraut screamed as he fell backwards, his arm still extended. As he rolled to the ground, the weapon clattered to the floor and fell silent. The spotter's hand continued to twitch as if it still tried to squeeze the trigger.

Carefully, Saunders strode over to the window and bent down to snatch the Schmeisser from the clenched fingers. It was no use trying to be quiet any more; he'd caused enough din already. He flung the Schmeisser towards a corner, hearing it clatter against the wall. Wasting no time, he brought up the barrel of the Thompson to destroy the Kraut spotting equipment. One Kraut left. Maybe.

He jumped, hearing a noise behind him. Swinging the Thompson around, he shot a burst at a helmeted figure in the doorframe. The figure fired back at him; Saunders felt a sharp sting in his left arm. Cursing, he ducked and rolled onto his stomach beside the dead spotter. He managed to grasp the leg of the metal table and knock it down in front of him. Glancing quickly at his sleeve as he fired at the Kraut, he saw a trickle of blood coming from a jagged tear near the elbow. He had trouble holding the Thompson up; it felt much heavier and harder to steady now. The recoil sent painful ripples up to his shoulder, but he kept firing anyway,

A hail of bullets raked the wall beside Saunders, missing him by inches.

He got off another burst, but most of his shots simply bounced off the doorframe. Damn! He was emptying his weapon much too fast, and uselessly. Only a small metal table protected him, and he had no way to get the Kraut behind the thick castle wall. He spied the dead German's weapon lying only a few yards away from him. He put down the Thompson and took the grenade from his jacket, quickly pulling out the pin. Hauling himself onto his knees, he flung the grenade towards to doorway, seeing the Kraut disappear momentarily. As the explosion shook the room, he reached out and quickly pulled the Schmeisser back behind the table with him.

The Kraut's voice rang out from the hallway. "Amerikaner! You cannot escape! Will you surrender?"

"You surrender!" Saunders replied with a dry-throated voice.

The German poked the barrel of his weapon through the doorframe and opened up again. Saunders felt the tabletop against his shoulder shake from the impact of the bullets. He braced himself against the onslaught. The metal shielding him was just about to give way. It wouldn't last long. He turned and fired back with the Thompson, deliberately emptying the magazine.

Saunders ducked back down after the weapon fell silent, figuring the Kraut must be listening for him to put in a fresh magazine. Waiting for his cue to rush him. Silently, he put down the Thompson and picked up the German weapon beside him. He didn't think the Kraut had heard, but a cold shiver ran down his spine as he waited to hear the Kraut move or call out.

Slowly, a barrel inched into the room, followed by a dark jacket sleeve. A thin face appeared next, squinting behind the barrel of his weapon as the German stepped out from his behind his cover. Through his scope, the Kraut eyed the dented table lying on its side near the window. The American hid behind it, he knew. Everything in the room seemed quiet. For several seconds, the German stood at the door, watching for movements. Then he grew bolder and took another step into the room. "Amerikaner! You have no more ammunition. Come out!"

Saunders sprang to his feet behind the metal table and fired the Schmeisser.

The Kraut cried out and dropped his weapon. He fell backward and crumpled to the ground beneath the doorframe, the Schmeisser clattering against the wall.

Carefully, Saunders strode over to him and nudged the dead man's leg to make sure he was dead. He jumped, certain that he'd heard a noise, and swung up the Schmeisser towards the hallway. For a minute, he listened intently. But the chateau remained silent. Sighing, Sarge pushed back his helmet and looked down at the German lying beside the door, desperately hoping he was the last one remaining inside the chateau.

Unconsciously, he let out a breath. It had been damned close.

***

"Come on, Caje!" Despite the bullets flying around him, Doc reached over to his companion and grabbed his arm, trying to pull him to safety.

Grimacing, Caje took hold Doc's arm and tried to get up.

A line of bullets kicked up a spray of earth just an inch from Caje's foot. "I can't!"he cried, slumping back down. With a loud grunt, he pushed the medic back towards the fir tree. "Listen to me! You get away, Doc! Get out of here!"

More bullets whizzed past Doc's head, making him flinch. He stayed put for a second, reluctant to leave the wounded man. Then, obeying the order, he let go of Caje's arm and turned back towards shelter. Crawling as quickly as he could, he scampered underneath the thick branches just as another line of bullets thudded into the earth beside the two men.

Caje aimed the Colt and fired in the direction of the incoming shots, gasping at the blaze roaring through his shoulder. A branch next to him snapped apart with a sharp crack, sending needles flying across his face. He ran his sleeve across his eyes, wincing at the sharp sting. Blinking, he saw the body of the German prisoner, still lying a few yards away.

Caught squarely in the crossfire, the man who'd called himself a deserter had taken a bullet in the spine. His body now lay slumped over in the dried fir needles with his face to the ground, his hands still clasped behind his head even in death.

Caje fired again, aiming at the Kraut behind the cemetery gate. He tried to back up into the branches to get some cover; a flash of pain shot though his arm. Still, he pulled the trigger repeatedly. But after several squeezes, a series of clicks came from the weapon.

With a stunning vibration, a bullet banged off the Colt. It flew out of Caje's hand, almost taking his fingers with it. He saw the Kraut step out from behind the cemetery gate, his Schmeisser raised, and he instantly recognized the one wearing wire-rim glasses. The angry one who'd stomped down the hill earlier. His chest heaving, Caje sat motionless on the frozen ground, clutching his arm and staring up into the barrel of a loaded weapon. He sat, fully expecting a bullet to rip through his chest any moment. At least Doc was behind cover; he had a chance to escape. Caje desperately hoped for that.

With measured, careful steps, the German approached, coming to within feet of the Cajun. He stood before him, glowering with fiery hatred, and thrust his weapon forward. In front of him, the Kraut saw a gaunt American soldier with days-old stubble and thousand-year-old eyes squinting at him from beneath a dark beret. The American seemed injured and close to freezing, with a face white as paper and bluish lips. He wore a bloodied bandage over a torn and wrinkled uniform. This, the German thought, was the raging beast his superiors had ordered him to destroy.

"Du!" The Kraut's chest heaved as he screamed his words. His expression showed him to be almost exploding with pent up rage. "Feindlische Soldat! You have killed my soldiers, enemy! I kill you now!"

"What're you waiting for?"Caje replied in a strangled voice, staring back with defiance. He swallowed the last of any moisture he had in his mouth.

He jumped as distant gunshots rang out, coming from the direction of the chateau. The German glared up in its direction too, momentarily distracted. Then, he turned back towards Caje but kept the barrel pointed straight at his face. "I send you to hell, Amerikaner."

A deafening burst of gunfire tore through the branches right beside the Cajun. Startled, Caje rolled onto his side, trying to get out of the way of the rifle shots. He gasped when his shoulder hit the ground, crying out at a sharp flash of pain in his collarbone. A wave of nausea hit him, and he doubled up.

Crying out in surprise, the German staggered backwards and clutched his arm. The Schmeisser clattered to the ground, forgotten, as he sank to his knees and stared down at the wound. His face convulsed into a grimace as he saw blood oozing through his fingers in a livid stream. He tried to stand again, but he sank back to the ground.

Doc scrabbled out from his hiding place under the fallen tree. The Schmeisser lay between him and the German. It still felt hot to his touch as he pulled it back and flung it away, out of reach.

"Caje!"he called out. Wheezing with effort, he settled in beside the other man. "Wake up!"

Caje's vision was blurring. Still, he could see the medic looking at him with a frown on his face. Didn't Doc wear a bandage around his eyes a minute ago? It was off now, though. Caje saw the M1 wavering in the air above him. It was his. What the hell was it doing in Doc's hands like that? Something felt damned wrong. He remembered his rifle being dragged away by the fir tree. But hat was so long ago, he wasn't sure about it any more. Somebody touched him just below his neck. He jumped, thinking he was being strangled.

"Easy, Caje..." Doc peered down anxiously at Caje's growing bloodstain. Clutching the rifle with one hand, he put the other on the soaked bandage, pressing down on the fracture point. He winced at a deep moan from the Cajun. It was agony for Caje, he knew, but he had no other way to staunch the flow.

The German soldier saw Doc turn his face momentarily; he leapt to his feet, making a deft move towards the American.

Just catching the movement, Doc swung up the Garand towards the German. It almost slipped out of his frozen hands. He tightened his grip on the trigger, steeling himself to the certainty that he would pull it.

The Kraut sat back again, watching with narrowed eyes.

"Caaje!" Doc cried. His eyes burned like firebrands. He blinked, keeping the rifle trained on the German soldier. He he could barely see the man. With his sleeve, he wiped the watery film from his eyes while he held up the M1. "I need ya, Caje!"

Caje looked up, blinking up at the cloudless sky, wondering where Doc's voice was coming from. And why was Doc hiding, anyway? He exhaled a long breath, unconsciously letting the questions drift out of his mind. He was just too tired to ask them right then. A shiver ran through him. He fought against it, deciding he wasn't cold. It was a relief when he stopped shuddering; he felt certain that he'd actually willed it. He'd gotten control over the fits. A cloak of warm darkness came down around him. He closed his eyes and embraced it, letting his head fall backwards.

"Wake up, Caje! Stay with me!"Doc urged. His heart sank as he glanced at Caje; his eyes were closed, his face had turned deathly white. Doc put a hand on Caje's face; as he thought, the skin felt ice cold and clammy. Shock, he realized. The weather was too damned cold. He needed to get something warm on Caje, or make him move around, and soon, or his body temperature would plummet. "Come on, Caje! Sarge is gonna be back soon. We'll get ya to a hospital. Ya hear me?" He strained feverishly through the next minutes, calling out to Caje and pressing down on the wound to stop the bleeding. He was worried; the Cajun's skin felt so damned cold.

The German stared intently at the two Americans. "Corpsman," he said finally, breaking into a sneer. "If you put down your rifle, your friend dies. I will kill him." He rubbed his chin. "And if you keep the rifle and wait, he will soon die anyway." The German sat down again, beaming with assurance. "It will be the same. So. What will you do, medical man?"

"Boy, you hate 'im real good, don't you?" Doc swallowed as he asked. "What's he done to you, anyway?" Shaking, the medic forced himself to keep his burning eyes open and the rifle aimed straight. He had to. It was that simple.

The German paused for a beat, seemingly thinking on what words to say. "Many months ago, I am stationed at... Great Atlantic Wall at River Vire. Standing Alert has been relaxed, our officers say. No invasion will come, at least not that night. And I am on duty with my good soldiers, guarding the perimeter. When it is morning's new sun, we all peer forth to the ocean. There, against all our beliefs, we see great armadas of warships. A great number of troops is disgorging from them. They are coming from the waters and onto the sands to attack us. So many! Still, we are ordered to repulse the enemy and annihilate him by that very evening. Our leaders give us no choice. They say victory is within our grasp." The German paused momentarily, eyes blazing. "None of my friends survived that day. As yours will not survive this day, Amerikaner."

The German sat close enough for Doc to keep the Garand steadily trained on him, despite his troubled field of vision. "He'll make it," he replied. "...Hear that, Caje?"

"He hears not." The German raised his bloodied arm, showing it to Doc. "See? I, too, am wounded. Will you tend to me also, American? Or, perhaps you only have compassion for your own," he added with a mocking smile.

"Don't talk. ...Just sit down right there. You'll get help when it's time. You understand?"

The German spoke no more. He spied his weapon lying beyond the Americans, out of his reach for the moment. He sat, immobile, and watched the others while he measured the distance between himself and the rifle held by the American medical soldier. It represented a few yards at most; worth the effort of a second try, if he waited for the right opportunity. When the corpsman turned towards the wounded one again, he reared up, making a swift move in his direction. He stopped whenthe American rifle flashed in his face, and he carefully slumped back onto the ground again.

"I tell you this, medical man," the German told Doc scornfully. "I sit here, like a wounded bear. The kind you must be ware of in the forest." He gestured towards Caje. "...Perhaps it best that you keep that rifle, Amerikaner, and fear me. For I will soon find a way to reach you!"

"I said, don't talk. I'll check out that arm later, when the Sarge is back."

A voice echoed his words, coming from behind him. "I'm already back, Doc."

The medic cocked his head at the sound, still finding it hard to catch the meaning of what he'd just heard; he thought he'd only hoped he was hearing it. He blinked, trying to look at who'd spoken, and spotted Sarge's familiar figure rounding the tip of the fallen fir tree, much closer than he'd expected. Relief flooded over him, and he exhaled a long breath. He'd be able to see to Caje now. And he wouldn't need to hold up that rifle on the German any more.

As he came up beside him, Doc saw that Sarge winced noticeably; his sleeve bore a ragged hole out of which a dark stream flowed. "Want me to take a look at that, Sarge?"

"Later, Doc. ...How's Caje?"

"He's out! Gone into shock. If we don't get him to a doctor soon, he'll die."

"He won't be staying here that long. Battalion's already moved in. I'll go down and get help." Saunders motioned for the German to stand. "You. Aufstehen. You're coming with me." Saunders looked back at Doc's face, and noticed his bandaged ankle. "What about you? Can you walk?"

"Well, I won't break any records, Sarge. But I'll get Caje back."

Doc winced as he stood. He limped over to the body of the German deserter and pulled off the dead man's coat. Groaning with effort, he brought the garment back to the wounded Cajun and draped it over him. "Here, take it. I'll get you another one. It should help." He turned towards Saunders to continue, using a lower tone of voice. "...Try to get back soon, Sarge. I don't think he can last much longer."

"Then we'll make time,"Saunders replied. He motioned the German soldier to stand, and then patted Doc's shoulder lightly. "You did a good job, Doc."

Doc watched the Sarge lead the prisoner down the hill, disappearing through the cemetery. He shivered at a gust of wind, and he gathered a few of the chopped branches and built a fire beside the Cajun. He sat next to it, holding his fingers up to the flame while he waited. When the others returned, they picked up the wounded Cajun and placed him in a litter. Then, with Saunders leading the way, they carried him slowly down the hillside, heading towards a long file of soldiers marching on the road below. Some of the G.I.'s, wearing red crosses on their helmets, broke away from the column and came up the hill towards them.

***

Caje opened his eyes and surveyed an unknown room, seeing a pockmarked wall lined with broken windows and rows of metal bunks filled with bandaged men. He felt his arm locked in a wrap and immobilized against his chest. It didn't hurt so much any more.

A brown-haired nurse, looking pretty shapely under green uniform pants, came into the room. She bent down to remove a bandage from the head of one of the patients along the wall on the other side of the room. Caje kept his eyes glued to her figure.

Saunders's head popped up in front of Caje, blocking his view of the shapely nurse. "They told me you could see visitors now,"he said, plopping the Camo onto the bed at Caje's feet. "We brought you in yesterday. ...You were out a long time." He looked around the room. "First, we took you to the aid station. Then you got evac'd here."

Caje tried to peer beyond the sergeant to get a more interesting view than that offered by his face. "Well, Sarge. This sure beats the damn place we were in before."

"The doctors operated your busted shoulder. It'll be a while before you can come back. But we sure could use you back with the squad, though."

"Two days and everybody's missing me already. What are the guys doing out there without me? I finally get a warm bed, and now you say I should go out and sleep in the snow again. Thanks, Sarge!" Caje tried unsuccessfully to sit up. Groaning, he fell back onto the mattress. "What about Doc?" he asked. "Where is he?"

"Right there." Saunders stepped sideways, allowing Caje his first unblocked view of the shapely woman across the room. "They say the bandages are coming off in a few days. He'll be able to see. He was lucky. ...Both of you were."

Caje recognized Doc lying in the cot, being tended by the young woman.

"You know, S2 is talking with that German we brought back. They're still hoping he'll tell us where that artillery is." Saunders picked up his helmet. "Well. Like I said, Caje. You can come back to the squad anytime you're fit for duty." With the Camo under his arm, Saunders strode across the room towards the medic's bunk.

Caje watched the Sarge come up alongside Doc, nodding slightly at something the medic said to him. Well. Let 'em both stay there and talk for as long as they want.

"Ahem!" He coughed softly, trying to get the pretty young lady's attention.

The nurse, sensing someone watching her, turned and looked up in his direction. She put a tray down onto a small table and smiled at the handsome, dark-haired G.I. lying in the bunk across the room.

Caje smiled back at a perfect set of dimples and twinkling brown eyes. "Duty? I sure will, Sarge. ...I'll tell you when I'm ready and fit and for duty."

Lyne Tremblay,PFC

September 2000