THE DRAGON'S DEN




"All those lousy miles," Kirby exclaimed. He grunted as he pulled off his right boot and stared at his foot. Damn! That stain in his sock didn't look too good. He turned towards the Sarge sitting against the next tree and held up his boot to show him the worn-out sole on it. "And for what? ...Big Hilda's still out there, blazin' away at that town!"

A young second lieutenant lay in the grass beside Kirby with his M1 slung across his thin shoulder. The junior officer opened his eyes to look at the damaged boot and then closed them again, sighing.

Kirby threw it down and pulled off his sock, letting out a pointed gasp for better effect, hoping the Sarge and that young lieutenant, Selkirk, had heard it. "How far've we come, Sarge? Tell me, I forgot already." He grabbed his ankle and brought up his foot to examine an open, bleeding blister.

Saunders turned away from him, stretching out a worn map in front of Selkirk. "According to this," he told the officer, "we're about here." He pointed at line in a crease.

Selkirk sat up and took the paper. He frowned at the eastern horizon, then back at the paper again. "This here look like that ridge up there to you?" he asked, examining the line.

Saunders rubbed his forehead as he stared at the wrinkled map. He didn't want to tell his men that nothing on it looked remotely like the surrounding terrain. What the hell was the matter with the runners this week? Not a single new map had arrived at the squad in over a day. The Americans had advanced too fast. How could the brass expect him to lead a recon mission without a useful map of the region? He was leading his men, and a very green officer, into a maze of unfamiliar country blind.

"Caje and Becker should get back in a couple of minutes," Saunders commented. "If it looks clear, we'll head east and scout along the river all the way to where it curves towards the south. That's about four more miles. Then we head back."

"Good choice, Sergeant," Selkirk uttered with a good-natured smile. He patted his canteen. "I'm almost out of water myself. River sounds good."

"Lousy, stinking patrol!" Kirby muttered, wincing as he dabbed cotton gauze on his foot. How come the Sarge was ignoring his complaint like that? His open blister would darn well get him a stay in hospital. It was hurting. "They'll have to buy me new feet by the time he's done," he grumbled, turning his face so the officer wouldn't hear.

No reaction came. Selkirk just kept checking the map. But Sarge came to kneel next to him and look over the blister on his foot. "Look," Saunders said. "Don't blame Becker 'for losing those new boots of yours in the game last night. He won 'em fair. He had four aces."

"Up his sleeve, you mean!"Kirby retorted, fumbling through his web belt. He was going to put his burning feet into that river mud, no matter what the Sarge said about it.

"And you didn't," Saunders continued calmly, watching Kirby rip open a sulfa pack and sprinkle its contents on his foot. That would make one less they could use in case of bullet wounds. That foot must be bad. "Take it easy, Kirby. Just make sure you keep up with the rest of us...."

A rustling noise in the bushes to their right cut Sarge's words short. He swung up the Thompson, ready to fire. Then, he relaxed as Caje burst into the clearing and sprinted towards him.

The Cajun plopped to the ground beside him. "No dice, Sarge," he wheezed. He let his rifle drop to the ground and took off his helmet, wiping his forehead with his sleeve. "Nothing. ...But I got a bad feeling out there. It's too damned quiet."

Selkirk stood. "Alright. We'll head out after Becker gets back."

"Okay, Sarge. I'm done," Kirby said as he tightened the frayed laces. "So, are we headin' east or goin' forward?" The thought of having to cover four more miles in those worn-out things began to settle in the pit of his stomach like a lump of coal. He hardly even listened to Saunders' answer. That lousy cheat Becker would give him back his own boots, and soon, or his name wasn't William G. Kirby. He closed up the buckles and braced himself to the idea filing up behind the other men and heading out into dusty, hot, unpaved France. He hoped Caje would have the point this time.

***

The view down the valley appeared hazy to Selkirk. He waited while Saunders checked the area through field glasses. "I can't see anything, Sergeant. How 'bout you?"

"Nothing." Saunders handed the binoculars to the lieutenant and reached into his jacket for the map. "Trees, hills, roads, that's all we've seen." He examined the frayed paper, thinking back on the distance covered by the men since that morning. A lot of it, he remembered. He felt bone tired. He cursed inwardly as he held a pencil above the map, wondering where to set a mark. Saunders was rapidly running out of spots to check for the enemy gun out there.

"Three places we've been to now, Sarge! Ouch!" Kirby exclaimed, removing a stained bandage from his foot while eyeing his squad leader to make sure he was being looked at. Satisfied, the BAR man turned his attention back to his swollen toe. Jeez, did it hurt! He knew that Becker was noticing, too. ...Good! "Is the next place gonna be the last of it?" he asked.

"We have our mission," Saunders answered. "Couple more, then we head home."

Selkirk lowered the binoculars. "I agree. Let's mark this spot as negative. But that looks like the Moiselin River down there, Sergeant. Let's check it out."

"Yes, Sir." Sarge turned, startled by the noise of a vehicle on the road behind them, and trained his Thompson in its direction.

"Half-track!" Caje whispered. "That way!"

"That tears it!" Kirby exclaimed, readying the BAR. "The thing's right on us, Sarge!"

The men threw themselves onto their bellies in the grass and peered up at a German half-track as it rolled in from the south, its tracks gouging out large clumps of earth in its passage. A soldier poked his head out of its well, manning a mounted machine gun. The German's sun darkened face grew clearer every second, and the Americans could see a broken cigarette dangling from the Kraut's mouth.

Selkirk aimed his rifle, panting.

Saunders pushed down the officer's weapon. "We're to avoid fights if we can, Sir," he said. "We should let 'em pass."

"Thought those Krauts'd had seen us," the lieutenant whispered tersely. He kept his finger tight on the M1's trigger and kept a nervous watch as the armored vehicle passed them.

They saw foot soldiers in its wake, kicking up dirt with dusty boots through the indentations behind it. The sentries scanned the countryside warily, waving Schmeissers in their directions.

Caje glanced at Selkirk momentarily, hoping the officer had calmed down. The young man looked just like all the other recruits he'd accompanied on missions. Maybe twenty-four years old, earnest, nervous, and Caje couldn't help seeing him as just another green replacement, in spite of the bar on kid's helmet. He wished that Hanley hadn't been shot in the leg and sent to Battalion Aid. "That's not a patrol, Sarge" he uttered quietly, indicating the distant Krauts. "They're heading for the town, aren't they?"

"Yeah. And moving fast." Saunders shook his head, a sense of dread growing in him. "There'll be more coming. We can't go that way now. Come on, we'll head the other way. Kirby, you ready?"

Grunting, the BAR man slipped his boot onto his swollen foot. "Maybe we could just follow those Krauts and let them lead us to where we're supposed to go, Sarge. 'Cause we're lost."

"That's enough, Kirby!"

With Saunders in the lead, the Americans doubled back and headed east. Sarge stepped up his pace, hoping Kirby could keep up. They had to make time, but he kept hearing the BAR man pant heavily and curse under his breath at the end of the file. Worried, Sarge turned his attention back to the unfamiliar path ahead and concentrated on finding a way out of there.

After several minutes, something definitely not marked on the map suddenly appeared before them. Two marshes spread out on both sides of an arbored causeway. Saunders dropped to a crouch, ordering the men to fall in beside him, and took a look at the marshes. He ran a hand on his chin, cursing; Krauts owned all territory to the rear, and the watery fields cut off the routes of escape on both flanks. The raised dirt lane before them represented the only way they could take.

"Hey, Caje!" Becker whispered, gripping his M1 tightly. "This is just like the bayou, isn't it? You're home, man!"

"Are there gonna be gaters in there, Caje?" Kirby asked with a loud gulp.

"No," Caje replied, pursing his lips as he stared at the greenish moss floating at the surface of the water. Swamps! He hated those things. Always had. "Just stay on the path, Kirby. That muck'll eat you up if you fall in." He turned to Saunders. "All that shallow water; the Moiselin's gotta be nearby, Sarge."

"Yeah." Saunders listened to Selkirk's audible wheezing. It made him sound just like his kid brother back home; the young replacement sounded like he was having a hard time with allergies. Sarge shuddered and took his mind off it, focusing on the road ahead. He kept his Tommygun pointed ahead. The causeway of packed, sloping earth stretched on, presenting a gauntlet that measured a hundred yards at least, maybe a quarter-mile. That was way too long in Sarge's view. "Sir," he told Selkirk. "I recommend we go back the way we came."

"No. Let's head for the river. It should be just behind that hill,"Selkirk replied.

Saunders clasped the Tommygun tighter. "...Yes, sir."

With a gesture, he ordered the men to head for the road that cut across the thickly vegetated marshes. He could almost feel the muzzle of Selkirk's rifle waver across his back, and prickles ran down his spine. As he led his men along the left embankment, he kept glancing back to make sure they all kept their heads down.

A hundred or so yards to his right, Saunders spotted thick, raised hedgerows lining the far edges of the swamps. Experience told him they were "dug-in-Kraut" terrain. Warily, he eyed thick stands of bulrushes, slowing his steps as he drew near.

Saunders froze, shuddering, and listened, sure he'd heard voices. Then, he turned and gestured curtly to the others, ordering them to hit the ground. With the Thompson ready, he scoured the area, alert to the sounds of rustling branches, and gauged the distance remaining to the end of the causeway. Only a few more yards to go, and they'd be in a rising, grassy expanse. Still, he dared not order his men to go on. Somehow, it just felt as if something were wrong....

Then, a guttural voice came to his ears, sounding like someone trying to keep very quiet. "Nein, Günther. Hier, Ich...." A weapon cocked, blocking out the rest of the sentence. A Schmeisser, Saunders judged, its sound coming from just across the mound of earth. He heard a low cough, and then paper being ruffled, sounding like a map being laid out. More voices chimed in, discussing quietly in German.

Sarge heard the shuffle of paper again, and he turned to Caje. "Sentries," he mouthed quietly.

Kirby aimed the BAR in the direction of the voices, shuddering at the thought of almost having walked right up to the Krauts. With a head nod, he indicated the terrain behind them. "Come on, Sarge!" he whispered. "Let's move."

Saunders shook his head. "Stay put!" He studied the large expanse of thickly vegetated water, cursing under his breath. Swamps covered two flanks and Krauts crouched before them. He'd brought the men up to the German lines, or else the enemy planned a push in the area. Looking at Selkirk, he gestured towards the Krauts.

The lieutenant nodded, gulping. "Okay. Go take a look," he responded. "But don't take any chances."

Saunders scrambled to his knees. "Caje!"

The Cajun nodded, tightening the grip on his rifle, and stood to follow.

Keeping silent, the two men crawled along the ridge. As they approached the German position, Saunders concentrated on the low-speaking voices ahead, trying to note any change in tone. It stayed even and calm. The Krauts weren't sending out any alarms. The Americans crept in closer.

Through long stalks of cattails, Saunders peered down at four Germans huddled in a shallow ditch, quietly discussing around an opened map. He distinguished a gray-haired colonel and three younger lieutenants. Two guards stood behind them, holding Schmeissers. One of the guards put a cigarette in his mouth and shifted the strap of his weapon across his shoulder.

Saunders gave Caje a pointed glance; four Kraut officers out in the open, discussing map coordinates, and none of them seemed aware of the Americans' presence. They'd stumbled right into important Kraut activity without even trying. Silently, Sarge motioned towards the others, indicating it was time to high tail it back.

Something knocked against his helmet. His blood frozen, Saunders turned trying to raise the Thompson, and he stared down the barrel of a Schmeisser. "Lass das Gewhehr!"the German holding it barked. "Achtung, Herr Oberst! Amerikaner sind hier!"

All of the Germans in the ditch whirled around and gazed up in wide-eyed surprise. "Onkel!" one of them cried out. "Pass Auf!" The young lieutenants reached for their holstered sidearm.

Sarge stared at the German beside him, watching for signs of nervousness, anything to indicate a chance to pounce. But he just saw a soldier solidly clutching a Schmeisser in his face.

"Ergibt Euch, Amerkianer!" the German snapped.

To his right, Saundersheard Caje's rifle clatter onto the ground, figuring the scout might be obeying in order to save him. Throwing down the Thompson, Sarge stood and watched Caje do the same. He just hoped the others would hear the din and manage to head out at the first opportunity.

But without warning, Kirby surged out of the foliage with Becker on his flank. Bayonet in hand, Kirby jumped the sentry beside Saunders and dragged him down, giving the German no chance to scream. For a few seconds, the two soldiers rolled on the ground in a silent imitation of an embrace. Then, grunting, Kirby pushed away the dead German, looking at Saunders springing to Becker's side and covering the Krauts in the ditch with their weapons. Panting, the BAR man struggled back up, wincing at a sudden flash of pain in his blistered toe, and he shifted his weight onto his left foot as he headed to fetch the BAR.

Saunders and Caje aimed their weapons down into the ditch and ordered the Krauts to slowly unholster their pistols.

"Nicht Schiessen!" the older colonel said. He and his companions raised their hands simultaneously, fully aware that their situation had reversed. With a rapid motion, the fourth German raised his, snapping off a shot before anyone could react. The Cajun fired a single return shot, watching the German's eyes widen. The German's head snapped backwards, losing his cap, and he stumbled to the ground.

With cat-like swiftness, the soldier beside him reached down and grabbed a Schmeisser, swinging it up towards Saunders. A burst from the Thompson instantly cut him down. He fell onto his back beside the first German, staring lifelessly at the sky, and moved no more.

The sound of gunfire suddenly roared from the next field. Bullets cut the air around the Saunders, sending them diving into the ditch next to the German officers. Cursing, Kirby positioned the BAR on a rise and shot off staggered bursts into the distance. He could hear return fire coming from everywhere. This place was their lines! Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted one of the Krauts making a furtive move in his direction; Kirby turned his weapon on him.

Saunders glanced at his men for a second, checking on each; they were all in one piece, aiming their rifles and firing at the Krauts. He saw Selkirk duck as a burst of bullets whizzed over his head. Sarge scrambled over to him, firing constantly. After a second, the Tommygun fell silent, its thunderous noise replaced by clicks.

Hurriedly, Sarge popped out the empty magazine and reached inside his jacket for another.

Quietly watching the Americans, the taller of the German lieutenants nudged his companion, noting that four of them were alternately firing and ducking, their attention focused on the battle. And the sergeant had just thrown down an empty clip.

The tall German looked at the gray-haired colonel beseechingly. " Onkel! Komm, bitte!"he cried, scrambling to his feet. He grabbed his companion's arm and dragged him up, hoping the old man would follow his lead. "Jetzt!" The young men took off in a heated rush and didn't look back.

Selkirk whirled around, drawn to the sudden movement beside him, and saw two figures heading towards the bulrushes. As if paralyzed, he watched the two Germans reach the foliage. Then, he shook himself and aimed his rifle at them. "Stop! I'll shoot!"he shouted. But his finger froze on his M1's trigger, unable to pull it. He just couldn't, not in those retreating backs. Selkirk saw them disappear, leaving only a pair of caps floating on the edge of the water. His eardrums pounding, he swung his rifle back at the Kraut colonel.

The old man just sat in the trench, quietly glaring at him. "Do not shoot," the impassive officer said, indicating his pistol lying several yards away. "I am not armed. See?" he added, a hint of a smile appearing at the corner of his lips.

Selkirk shivered involuntarily, trying to ignore the slight, but sharp pain in his upper chest. Something had started burning in there since he'd scrambled to join Saunders on the ridge. He felt as if that old Kraut's stare was piercing his uniform like a bullet. His rifle wavered in his hands, suddenly weighing twice what it had a second ago. The old Kraut prisoner didn't look scared, he saw. Selkirk shivered, wondering how come that was so. The young man stepped back and clutched his rifle even tighter, feeling more helpless than an unarmed, old German. Thank God Sergeant Saunders looked on top of things, because he sure didn't feel much in charge.

The Schmeisser sounds in the distance died down. "Hold your fire!" Saunders ordered. He stood, deciding to take advantage of the lull. "Move out!" He turned to Caje and pointed to the folded map the Kraut colonel still held. "Get it, Caje!"

The scout nodded. He slipped the paper out of the prisoner's jacket and put it inside his own.

The silence held up for several more seconds. Sarge aimed the Thompson at the distant rifle pit, his face taut. "This won't last forever. Go!" he ordered. The others all stood, ready to move out along the ditch, away from the overhead fire. He turned to Caje. "You got any grenades?"he asked.

"Two," Caje answered. "But what do we do about him?" he added, indicating the German colonel.

"Bring 'im," Selkirk interjected, not even waiting to hear what Saunders would have ordered.

"Do what he says," Sarge chimed in. "Take him, Caje! And cover 'im."

The men scrambled out along the trench in a pell-mell tangle, with the Kraut colonel in tow. Saunders took up the rear, constantly swinging the Thompson back and forth between the eerily silent rifle pit behind them and the five men plodding along in front. Briefly, he wondered if that old colonel were valuable enough to be the reason why his men were getting out of there. Then, the notion left him as he watched his soldiers lead the prisoner along the trench.

Glancing down at the ground for a second, he thought he saw a few drops of blood in the earth before his feet. He stepped on them on his way forward and made a mental note to check later if it was Kirby's foot bleeding, or if one of the men had been wounded.

***

Saunders froze, clutching the Thompson, and stared at a huge, gray-black pillbox built at the top of a hill. The dark building stood the end of the ditch they'd followed, right in their damned way. Who knew how many Krauts watched through the slits in its walls? He could almost feel the German patrols about to come up on their heels, but he could see no trees to give cover around the structure. Hugging the walls would be the safest way around it. Signaling his men get down, he led them across the open ground to the nearest corner of the building and silently began to edge his way along it, dropping down beside an iron door. "Cover me!" Saunders mouthed, quickly shouldering the Thompson. He pulled a grenade from his jacket, listening for any sounds coming from the pillbox.

With a swift movement, he tossed the grenade through the half-open door and then threw himself down beside the wall with his head in his hands. The explosion rocked the thick metal. Smoke and flying debris flew from the open door. "Kirby, you're on me!" he cried, scrambling to his feet. Both men rushed across the threshold with their weapons ready, trying to distinguish movements, but thick smoke obscured the room. Kirby, his eyes brimming, almost tripped over the body of a German soldier lying inside the bunker. He rubbed his eyes and stifled his coughs as he swung his BAR across the room to cover the Sarge's advance.

Through the rapidly dissipating haze, Saunders distinguished a dark figure at the rear of the room, a rifle in his hands. Instantly, he brought up the Thompson and shot off a burst. The German dropped his rifle and fell backwards, out of Sarge's view.

In three bounds, Saunders reached the dead German and flattened himself at a door beside him, watching for any more Krauts coming from the rear. Then, he sprang up underneath its frame, weapon raised. The rear area revealed piles of crates marked with yellow lettering. A supply room. Still clutching the Thompson, he kicked down a tall stack of boxes in a corner, ready to cut down any Germans who might be crouching behind it. But the crates crashed to the ground, revealing only empty space behind them. A quick inspection of the supply room showed no more Germans in it.

Exhaling a sigh, Sarge turned to Kirby. "All right, let's get back with the others," he told him.

As the two men emerged from the bunker, a hail of bullets slammed into the wall beside them, sending bits of concrete flying across their faces. The Americans threw themselves onto the ground and returned fire in the direction of the shots, unable to see their adversaries. More gunfire opened up around them, seemingly coming from every direction. The Americans kept shooting, hearing bullets slam into the bunker's walls around them.

"Krauts're right on us, Sarge!" Kirby cried, grabbing a new magazine from his web belt. "I think they were waitin' for us!" He heard a scream somewhere out in front; one of Krauts out there had been hit for sure. With a surge of satisfaction, Kirby rammed the new mag into place and opened up again.

Caje gasped, falling backwards. A burning flash seared through his right shoulder. He lost hold of his rifle and it clattered to the ground, no longer an extension of his arm. With his left hand, he grabbed it and fired again, catching sight of blood on his right sleeve. His face contorted with effort, he pulled the trigger repeatedly, ignoring the pain coursing through his arm.

"Sarge! We're being clobbered!" Kirby exclaimed, bending down to glance at Caje's bloodied sleeve.

"Sergeant!" Selkirk cried, keeping his rifle trained on the German colonel. His heart beat like a drum. He forced himself to breathe evenly despite the growing pain in his upper chest. "It's... too dangerous out here. We have to go... go inside!"

Becker clutched his rifle. "No!" he protested, glancing back at the open entrance. It stood ajar invitingly, still solid on its hinges despite the blast from Sarge's grenade. He imagined that thing shutting itself on them after they crossed it, like death's door itself. "Don't go in there, Lieutenant! We gotta move out now!"

"No.... Inside," Selkirk repeated, trying to focus his breathing. "You," he told the colonel. "Get in... there."

Saunders lifted the wounded Cajun and helped him back towards the bunker. "He gave you an order," he reminded Becker. "Get inside, like he said." He winced as a bullet passed just an inch from his helmet. "Now!"

"Come on!" Kirby grabbed the reluctant soldier's arm and limped as he pulled him towards the door along with the others.

Posting himself beside entrance, Saunders gave them cover fire, watching each man enter in turn. Then, dodging a stream of bullets, he dove inside the bunker. Quickly scrambling to his knees, he grabbed the door handle to pull it shut. Then, a deafening explosion rocked the structure's walls. The door shook against its hinges with a violence that almost made Saunders lose his hold. His shoulders throbbed from the vibration. Waves of pain rippled through his arm as he struggled to keep the door from blasting open.

Despite his efforts, the bolt slid from his clenched fingers.

Instantly, Becker sprang to Sarge's side and grabbed the handle. With all his strength, he started pulling along with the other man. Finally, after several tense seconds, Saunders managed to slide the lock into place.

"Get up there with the others!" he ordered Becker, his voice hoarse.

Both men joined the others already at the openings and drew their weapons up through the narrow gun slits.

On his knees beside the door, Caje tried to hold onto his rifle and shoot. It was no use. Panting, he sagged to the ground beside Kirby, almost crying out. His right arm hung limply at his side, engulfed in fire. The darkened stain on the sleeve was growing right before his eyes. With his left hand, Caje riffled through his web belt for a sulfa pack. As he bit it open to sprinkle the contents, he caught a sudden movement to his left. The Kraut colonel was almost on him. Dropping the sulfa, Caje grabbed his rifle again and swung it up at the prisoner. "Watch it, you!" He winced at the pain from the sudden movement. The old Kraut sat back again quietly, he noted, but seemed to be watching everything closely. Caje kept his rifle trained on the colonel; he'd just have to see to his arm later.

Another explosion blasted the bunker entrance, deafening them. Several others followed, pounding the structure as they ducked underneath the openings to get away from the heavy smoke billowing in through the slits. The smell of blasted granite and thermite filled the air, making it hard to breathe.

Then, silence returned. Sounds of labored coughs and wheezing replaced the echoes of explosions outside.

Saunders glanced at the others, trying to find out if they were wounded. From what he could see, they all sat clutching their weapons and taking in staggered gulps of foul-smelling air. But they were all right. He checked out the German prisoner, pursing his lips. The Kraut, he saw, just sat quietly in a corner with his eyes glued to Selkirk.

A heavy feeling pressed down on him as he gazed around the room; he felt trapped inside their protective shelter.

***

The young German sat with his back turned to his companions, hoping desperately to hide his emotion-filled face. How would the soldiers back there feel about him should he show the disgrace and fear chilling his very soul right now? He tried to stop the tremor in his shoulders and couldn't. "Dearest Uncle stayed behind with the Americans! Why? He'd only come to spend a few days with us. He was merely paying us courtesy on his way back to the fatherland and now he's..." The German lieutenant wiped his nose with the sleeve of his wet, new uniform. The bar on the end already looked smudged, and disgracefully so. Nobody would respect him this way, how could they? His shoulders heaved again, racked by another round of sobs as he remembered almost hitting an insolent soldier smirking at him a few minutes ago. Günther had grabbed his arm and made him sit out his rage. His older brother had been right to do that, of course. This was no time to break down, he knew it, but it was too damned hard to steel his nerves.

His eyes stung as tears streamed down his cheeks.

The uncle he loved and admired most, his dearest hero, Fritz Georg Schaller, colonel, ace flyer of the Condor Legion, was now a prisoner of the hated Americans! After flying sixty-three missions in his Junkers 52 over enemy skies and coming home covered with the glory of the Spanish campaign? How could that be? Those kinds of men are invincible, uncapturable. What had happened to his favorite uncle back there? The young man's mind felt numb as he tried to figure it out. "He's their prisoner, he's..." he blurted, unsure what to say next.

A hand dropped onto his shoulder and squeezed it reassuringly. Another patted him on the chest as his comrade bent down to calmly whisper in his ear. "He's going to see us at our best, Helmut! All is not lost, Brother. I'm always there when you need me. Uncle Fritz will come back. I swear it. You have to save your strength now; you're exhausted. ...Eat your bread and eggs. Please."

"I understand, Günther. We remain steadfast because we aren't alone. We have steadfast friends at our side, keeping our will strong, and we won't give up the fight. Ever. ...And I do thank you for your words. They're as true as ever."

The older brother wrapped his freezing, damp-sleeved arms around the shoulders of the younger one, hugging him, and stared wistfully into the distance. "Yes," he replied. "The Americansknow the position of our troops, it's true, but they can't do anything about it at the moment. Surely they'd be upon us now if they did. Right now, our uncle needs us, Helmut. We have time to try and free him before the enemy arrives."

"You're sure? How?" Helmut asked as he shrugged his brother off and stared back at him.

"Well, first I stopped the Regiment's shelling. That was the first thing. Then, we'll post these men all around the bunker. It's tricky, and I still have some planning to do. The Americans are running freely inside the den now, but the terrain west and south of it are already mined, remember? They'll find out the hard way if they try to escape before we move our men into position."

"Well, get them in now, brother!"

Günther bent down to speak more quietly in his brother's ear. "Regiment has moved its 88 guns two kilometers west to concentrate on the American lines in that sector. That leaves us with little else but this ragged band of..."

"But what if the Americans try to barter Uncle's life to attain their escape? If you let them get away, they'll report our weakened position! I just want you to secure his release, not let the enemy break through over here!"

"Shshsh.... Brother."

***

"Caje's had it, Sarge!" Kirby exclaimed pointedly, reaching into his web belt for a sulfa pack. He sprinkled the powder onto Caje's arm as he looked up at Sarge. "An' on top of it, my feet are killing me worse'n them Krauts out there!"

"Take it easy, Kirby. We'll be staying put for a while. Don't give yourself more to worry about than you already have to." Saunders lit a Lucky and gave it to the wounded Cajun, noticing the gleaming skin on his friend's forehead and the slight trembling of the chin as he drew on the cigarette. He'd seen Caje suffer quietly like that before. He knew the scout would handle his rifle when needed. Briefly, he turned his attention to Kirby; he looked about the same as he had all day. Lousy. The BAR man mumbled quietly as he wrapped a bandage around the Cajun's bleeding arm. Saunders saw the scout nod in response.

Becker scoured the dark walls around them. "This place gives me the creeps!"he declared, turning towards the German colonel. "But you Krauts sure know how to build 'em!"

Saunders strode over to Selkirk's side, watching him. The young man sat on his haunches, his eyes vacant, clutching his rifle tightly across his chest. He seemed lost inside himself, staring at the old prisoner as he rubbed the side of his face against his M1's barrel. "Lieutenant," Sarge said, clearing his throat. "You okay?"

"This is... my first time. Under fire, I mean. I'll be... alright."

"That was the sorrier end of Kraut 88 gunning. You did fine."

"Yeah, well... we'll get 'em next time." The young officer brought down the barrel of his rifle and aimed it at the prisoner. "Can you check this place again now... Sergeant?"

"Yes, sir. Becker! You come with me!"

Waiting until the soldier joined him, he made a thorough search inside the pillbox, taking longer to do it this time. Crouching, he inspected three machine guns perched on swinging cupolas equipped with hydraulic lifting systems. Maybe they could be used against the Krauts. But a quick inspection showed them to be disabled and empty. Several boxes sat against the wall beside them, also empty; they'd evidently held shells and rockets Saunders stood, pushing back his helmet and scratching his forehead. Defense installations in a bunker of that size should be greater.

He strode over to the rear area with Becker on his tail, feeling more trapped than ever. In the floor at the very rear of the storeroom, he discovered a trapdoor with an iron handle. He opened it, swinging the Thompson down into the opening; it showed a wooden staircase leading down to a lower story. After glancing around the storeroom, Saunders started down the stairs.

With careful steps, he descended with his Thompson aimed, ready to flush out any Krauts hiding there.

Below, the two men inspected tables with communications equipment, shelves filled with thick manuals and stacks of supply boxes. In a corner, they found a medicine dispensary. A rack of wine bottles stood in a corner next to three clean bunks. Saunders entered a door in a far corner and discovered a small room with working showers and washbasins.

Saunders looked at Becker, a puzzled expression on his face. The fortification looked roomier and more luxurious than his own house back in Illinois did. They'd entered a command pillbox, which the Krauts had given up just like that. Why?

A loud burst of gunfire rang out all around the bunker, startling him. He winced at the sounds of bullets bouncing off the machine guns upstairs. The Krauts were aiming at the damned slits.

Instantly, Kirby's BAR thundered in response, the weapon's booming noise coming in short, ear shattering bursts.

Gesturing at Becker to follow, he bounded up the steps to the upper level. There, he saw Caje crouching at the opening nearest the door, grimacing with the effort of holding up his M1. The scout wore a bandage around his upper right arm now. He ducked as a bullet ricocheted off his helmet and then fired into the distance again.

Saunders and Becker ran to join the others, posting themselves at the openings. Bullets flew inside through them, narrowly missing their helmets. Saunders glanced outside to draw a bead on the enemy, and instantly spotted an armored half-track sitting a few hundred yards away, aiming a 75 mm cannon at the pillbox. Sarge flattened himself against the concrete wall again, gesturing to the others. "Caje, Kirby! Hold your fire. Just stay down! Don't waste your ammo!"

Unexpectedly, the thunderous roar stopped. Saunders sat, listening with baited breath.

Caje grunted, clasping a hand over his arm. "Guess those Krauts consider us warned now, Sarge."

Selkirk sat back, his teeth clattering, still covering the prisoner with a shaking rifle. "Keep your positions. We're gonna be... hassled again. That's for... sure," he said, panting.

His ears still ringing, Saunders strode over to the German colonel. He shifted the Thompson across his shoulders and steeled himself in front of the Kraut.

"Fixed defenses," the old man stated calmly. "You will soon learn that they are futile."

"You know any back way outta here?"

Cold silence greeted his question.

"I said, "'you know any way outta here?'"

Caje turned around, worried. "Out? Right now? What do you mean, Sarge?"

"What about fixed defenses, Fritzy?"Kirby exclaimed, fear beginning to dawn in his mind. "You sayin' we're all in danger if we stay in here?" The thick walls began to close in on him heavily, making it hard to get any air into his lungs. He felt as if they'd fall down on top of him any second.

"I am saying," the German prisoner continued, making a slight nod towards the entrance, "that your young leader has brought you through death's door, for your position changed to the defense once you entered it. You are now in a fixed location from which you can no longer move. In response, my men can and will change their own situation to the offense." The old man stared up defiantly at the American in a camouflage helmet aiming an automatic weapon at his chest. "This bunker is called the Dragon's Den, Sergeant. ...And the answer to your first question is no, I do not."

"You got it wrong, Colonel," Selkirk replied, clutching his rifle tightly. "I'm... the one in command. We'll get out."

"This bunker's probably pre-sighted for artillery, that's what he means," Saunders stated. "All that's keeping the Krauts from firing down that door and blowing out the walls is him. They want to keep 'im alive. They're probably planning a way to flush us out right now."

"So we just sweat it out here 'till they do, is that it, Sarge?" Kirby asked, shifting his weight off of his blistered foot. "I say we'd better make a move before the Krauts figure a way to come get us." And before his foot got any worse.

"We should have made a run for it right off instead of comin' inside here," Becker commented. "It was a bad mistake, Kirby!"

In response, Kirby glared at Becker angrily with narrowed eyes. He, too wanted to break out of there and make a dash for it, but because of that card cheat, he'd probably fall down twenty yards out and twist his ankle.

"It'll get dark soon. We'll hole up in here 'till then," Saunders replied. "Caje? Give me the Kraut map. I'll check it out. It might come in handy. In the meantime, why don't you go scrounge in those supplies for something to eat?"

"Yeah. And maybe somethin' to put on my achin' feet, too," Kirby interjected. "Maybe they got Kraut-issue boots down there, or somethin'!" He tried unsuccessfully to move his thickly bandaged toe. "Would you fetch some boots out of them boxes for me?" He stopped, his attention caught by the scout's angered expression. Jeez, he'd only just talked of finding a spare supply of Kraut boots. What was eating him, all of a sudden?

Selkirk sucked in his breath as another ripple of pain coursed through his upper chest. Fear froze him, stopping him from looking underneath his jacket to confirm the worst. His arms trembled with the effort of holding up his rifle. He could barely breathe. "Sergeant? We should... tie the prisoner."

"Yes, sir."

"You got a lot of ribbons there... Colonel. What's your name?" Selkirk asked.

"Oberst. Colonel. Fritz Georg Schaller. See? Your other soldier already said my name. Mein Nummerenschild ist swei, nul, einz..."

"Yeah, yeah! Well, then you can tell it to Battalion when we get back," Saunders replied, taking a small roll of wire from his pocket.

"I'll look at that map..." Selkirk said. "You go... check for a way... out, Sergeant." He coughed silently. Jeez! It was getting harder to ignore that frightening pain in his chest and not manifest it. It hurt so badly! He tried to keep his mind focused on the German map. A word scribbled in ink in a lower corner caught his attention. Geschützlagern. The term rolled off the edges of his memory. He'd seen it before. He felt sure they must mean 'supply' or 'munitions' dump in the Kraut language.

Saunders shouldered the Thompson, readying to go back down the stairs, and briefly wondered what kind of gift he'd gotten when the colonel had surrendered back in the ditch. "The poisoned kind," his mind shouted silently.

Testing the wire wound across his wrists, the colonel smirked at Selkirk, quietly noting the junior officer's gleaming, set features and how he constantly tried to suppress shivers. What strength did his captors possess? He saw only a frightened, unsure recruit of an officer, wounded or limping soldiers keeping watch at the gun slits and one tired-looking sergeant who strutted about like a modern-day knight wielding a firearm instead of a sword. Schaller sat back, thinking. Hmm, the young American officer almost swooned there, and for the second time. The five men guarding him would soon become four, then three...

A crackling, metallic-sounding voice rang out from the far reaches of the room, breaking the tense silence. "Amerikaner! Attention!"

Startled, the men brought up their weapons, trying to locate the source of the sound they'd heard, and saw only a telephone standing on a bare metallic table in a corner. The voice issuing from it repeated the call.

"Now, those lousy Krauts're ringing us!" Becker exclaimed. "That really beats all!"

"Gonna answer that, Sarge?" Caje asked, feeling a prickling down his spine. No. He watched the Sarge accompany Selkirk as the kid shuffled over to the table and sat down on the plain chair beside it. Slowly, the young man brought the receiver to his ear.

"Amerikaner," the metallic voice repeated. "Come out without your weapons. You have ten minutes."

"Forget it," Selkirk replied. "We have... all the time... we want. There's plenty to eat... in here. Our Regiment... will reach us... soon."

"Come out! Or we will destroy you!"

Gulping, Selkirk cleared his throat and tried to sit as straight as possible. "I don't think so. Your colonel's inside... with us. I can afford to wait," he replied quietly over the phone.

The connection went dead. The speaker began to hiss loudly in his hand.

"No. You cannot, young Master," the old German muttered quietly, rubbing his knees with his palms.

Caje and Kirby watched Saunders pace angrily beside the table, his finger tight on his trigger, and cold shivers ran down their backs.

Suddenly, Sarge's clenched fist rammed down onto the metal surface, startling them. "Sir!" he snapped. "We shouldn't have come in here. Now we're all in worse position than before." He nodded towards the German colonel, his eyes blazing. "My men are good soldiers, but by using him, you're making us no better than hostage takers! Those Krauts're going to burn this place down now, and they won't take prisoners!"

"I know. No need for rebukes, ...Sergeant. I want to get the men out alive too... and he's... our insurance policy." Selkirk's tone quieted, becoming calmer, more conciliatory. "I... didn't threaten him. Did I?"

Saunders let out a deep sigh. The colonel was indeed a prize package right now, just like the kid said. It might have to do with that heavy brass cluster hanging from old man's chest. How'd he earn them? Was he some kind of Kraut hero? Did every square, color, and line on his uniform mean a confirmed kill? He almost ripped that fruit salad off the old soldier in frustration, and then took a deep breath, swallowing it down. His rage now spent, Saunders simply shook his head and sighed again. He just wished he wouldn't have to give up good, experienced men under conditions like these. Stupid!

The young lieutenant sat silently as he cradled the receiver, noting the anger in Saunders' eyes. "Your recommendation... Sergeant?"

"Just what I said before. Try and clear out as soon as it gets dark."

"All right. Nothing's changed... then."

Selkirk tried to stand. He gasped, stumbling back onto the chair as everything went gray in the room. He noticed that Saunders' expression changed to one of concern as he lunged towards him. All strength left the young man's hands, and his rifle slipped from them. He heard no clatter or noise as the weapon hit the ground. How come? He wanted to look for it, but two blurry faces appeared in front of his, distracting him for a beat. He recognized Saunders and the smart-mouthed Kirby. One man took the lieutenant's helmet off while the other opened his jacket. A voice, which resembled the sergeant's, said "he's wounded." He felt some dry, acid-smelling substance rain down on his upper chest, just under the shoulder. "It looks clean," he heard that same voice mumble. "But I think it's bleeding internally."

"He was hidin't it, Sarge," Kirby's voice replied.

A heavy darkness crept in on Selkirk's field of vision. He fought his way out of it with frightened desperation. He just didn't want to lose his consciousness, his control. Somehow, he managed to take in a deep breath despite the pain in his chest, and his vision began to clear again. That was when he knew he'd won it, at least for now. He nodded, signaling that he was better, and tried to breathe evenly.

Kirby placed his hands underneath Selkirk's shoulders and helped him sit against the wall. "Okay. I got it." He turned towards Saunders, his face suddenly registering fear. "Sarge! How are we gonna make it outta here, now?"

"And what about the Kraut?" Caje added. "Are we still going to take him with us?"

"Let's worry about that when the time comes." Going as fast as he could, Saunders went downstairs to search the supply room for back exits. The Krauts had to have one somewhere.

***

"Have they tried to come out?" the German asked.

"I don't think so. All's quiet."

"What about the rest of the men?"

"They're all dug into position, see? Freling's behind that tree there. Glück and the others are guarding the rear. And the cannon has been set up along that open stretch. We'll get them."

"Glück! That's good. Oh, Uncle! What in God's name are those Americans doing to him right now?"

"I don't know, Helmut, but those Amis must be smart enough to know what the consequences would be if they did anything bad to him."

"You said you'd give them ten minutes, something might go wrong."

"We wait, that's all."

"Uncle never harmed those bandits! I swear, if they hurt him, desolation will come upon them." Helmut brought his right thumb up to his mouth and bit down on the nail absent-mindedly.

***

"Is Kirby back, yet?"

Caje inched over to Saunders' side. "He's still down there. Don't know what's keeping him. Hey, Sarge. Anything new out there?"

Saunders peered forth through the gunslit. "No." The half-track still sat out there, aiming a damned cannon at the bunker. Nothing but bare, open space stood between them and the vehicle. "We can't reach that thing from here, it's looking right down our throats. Maybe later in the dark, but..." Sarge sank back to the floor, shaking his head. Ordering one of the men to rush that monster and toss a grenade in it would be murder. He would try to do it himself. "You guys just stand by and be ready to move out when I give you the word." He reached into his jacket for a Lucky and put it in his mouth.

Caje held a flame under Saunders' cigarette. "How 'bout the kid over there?"

"He'll be okay." Saunders replied, drawing deeply.

A hint of a frown flickered across Caje's face. "He's looking pretty weak, Sarge."

Saunders glanced at the scout. "I'm not talking about that wound, Caje. And he's not a kid. He's a lieutenant in the U.S. Army."

The telephone burst to life again, interrupting their conversation. The familiar voice spoke up loudly from the speaker. Saunders and Caje watched Selkirk reach over and pick up the receiver.

"You want to... talk to 'im?" Selkirk asked, his eyes widening. "To prove that he's still...."

***

Kirby pushed aside the large box full of tins and packages that he thought might be oozy French cheeses and caviar. They smelled so fishy and so strange that he hadn't dared taste them, let alone take some, in spite of his hunger. "Damn! That stuff's fancy. Ain't those Krauts ever heard of Spam?"

Several wooden cases lined the wall. Inside one, he found bottles of cognac. "R.S.O.V. What's that mean?" he read, snorting. He grabbed one and buried it inside his jacket for later. He had to hurry before Sarge jumped on him for taking so long.

He hobbled painfully to the next box and opened the top flap. It was almost full dark already, and Sarge had given him only a minute to come down here and find what he needed. He'd stretched that to five or more. "Paydirt!"he whispered to himself. He let out a loud grunt and lifted a pair of brand-new, leather-smelling boots from it. And, he noted with satisfaction, the things looked like size nines. Just about right. Who cared if them undersoles looked a tad stiff? Those boots were a huge heap better than the ones he had on now! They'd get him home, it was all that mattered.

As he turned to find a spot to put them on, a loud banging noise thundered upstairs near the trapdoor, startling him. His head jerked up in alarm. What was that? The pilfered boots fell to the floor, totally forgotten. "Sarge?"

What was goin' on? Shouts rang out in the big upper room. Sounds of scuffling made the ceiling shake above his head. Kirby shifted the strap of his BAR, swinging the weapon around and then aiming it at the wooden staircase. He winced with pain; his legs already felt dead tired from limping all day, plus his foot was in flames. He tried to ignore it as he slowly inched over to the stairs.

A shot rang out in the upper room, followed by shouts. One of the men screamed something that Kirby couldn't quite make out. He swallowed a hard lump in his throat and instinctively backed away. He heard Saunders shouting, "Lieutenant! Don't do it! He'll get away!" He didn't know what the Sarge meant by it. It sounded like there was real trouble going on up there. Panting, he threw himself behind a green colored crate with his BAR aimed and kept out of sight.

A man came onto the stairs with his back to Kirby, his boots banging hard on the upper steps.

The Kraut! But Sarge had tied him up! What was he doing backing down the steps like that? Trying to escape? Kirby winced as another shot suddenly rang out upstairs.

Kirby raised his weapon, aiming it at the prisoner's spine, ready to shoot off a burst and cut him down. Some kind of bad feeling made him stop, and lower the BAR's muzzle to wait. As he crouched, breathlessly, the figure of a second man appeared on the stairs.

Selkirk. The kid was held by the throat with an iron grip and was being dragged down the steps. The young lieutenant clutched the arms around his neck, trying to pry them off.

Schaller swung his prisoner down another step. Something shiny just underneath the young man's face caught Kirby's attention. He stared at it intently. A sidearm. Probably Selkirk' own. And the big Kraut pressed it up underneath his chin. It was useless for the kid to do anything to free himself right now. He was already weak from that bullet wound. He could only follow the Kraut down the stairs. Kirby raised the BAR again and squinted through the gun sight, trying for a clear shot. Damn! He thought he could hit the Kraut dead on, but the lieutenant would get it in the neck for sure if his captor were to fall. Kirby didn't dare risk it. His finger loosened up on the trigger.

Schaller pulled the young man down another step. "All of you! Drop your weapons! Now! Or I kill him! Tell them, Sergeant!"

Kirby watched silently as the German turned his back to the brick wall and kept it there while he forced the young officer to come down with him. He stayed put, aiming the BAR, and wondered whether the colonel might have forgotten that he was down here. Dumb question! He'd limped right in front of the prisoner and jokingly called him "Fritzy" on the way over to the stairs. Of course the Kraut would remember.

The colonel wouldn't make any dumb moves, Kirby felt sure of it. He was a smart cookie.

Upstairs, Saunders crouched with the Thompson ready, cursing helplessly. The old man had somehow worked off his bonds and unpinned his chest medals. The kid must have figured on buying them extra time when he'd handed Schaller the phone receiver. The colonel had easily taken advantage of the kid's inattention to jump him and shove the pins in his neck. Sarge gestured to Caje and Becker, warning them to hold their fire. He didn't want to take a chance on causing an accident on the stairs. "Take it easy, Colonel! Just let him go. There's no chance. You're in a corner. You hear me?"

"Tell your man downstairs to stand up without his weapon!" Schaller ordered.

Saunders took a step towards the two men. "There's no way out for you," he insisted. "The lieutenant's wounded. He can't hurt you right now, let 'im go!"

Schaller swung Selkirk around, shaking him roughly. "You! Hiding down there!" he cried out to Kirby. He scoured the room, focusing on the boxes littering the floor near the bookcase. He finally spotted Kirby's helmet behind a large, greenish crate there. "Come out now!" He jerked Selkirk's head up once more, pressing the tip of gun into his throat. "Tell him, young Master, or you will die!"

"Do it, Kirby." Selkirk's voice came out in a pained rasp.

Kirby ducked, silently clutching the BAR.

He gasped as a bullet pierced the box, bursting through right beside his shoulder. The heat of the shot seared him. Bits of wood flew out, hitting him across the face. Knocked off balance, he fell onto his side, right out in the open. Fear stuck in Kirby's throat as he realized he was exposed, and he stared up at the muzzle of Selkirk's pistol, glued to the side of the kid's neck and pointed right at him.

"Leave your rifle, American! Come here!"

The BAR man put the weapon down, cursing inwardly, and stood with his hands held up. As he strode hesitantly towards the stairs, he glanced up at Caje, Becker, and Sarge all crouching near the top. Shees, they hadn't put down their own weapons.

"I want all of you above to come down slowly, without your weapons," Schaller ordered, heaving up on the metal lodged into Selkirk's neck. "Tell them immediately!"

His knees buckling, Selkirk strained to repeat the colonel's order.

Caje gave Saunders a quick, sideways glance. "Is he crazy, Sarge?"

"No, just scared."

"Sergeant..."Selkirk gasped painfully as the gun went further into his throat. Blood kept trickling along his neck underneath the metal. He could scarcely breathe.

"The Kraut's alone, and he's cornered," Becker uttered, turning so the German wouldn't see his face. "Sarge, we'll be three against 'im down there. I think I can get his attention. Then, you jump 'im, Caje. Take his gun away."

Saunders glanced pointedly at the Cajun, seeing the scout give a slight nod in response. "Think I can do it, Sarge."

"I'll stay," Saunders determined. Keeping a tight grip on the Thompson, he watched as the two men beside him put down their rifles and removed their web belts to slowly make their way down the stairs towards Schaller.

The colonel ordered the three Americans to head for the shower room, keeping clear of them as they approached. Then, he jerked his hostage across the threshold and flattened himself against the wall with his gun at Selkirk's throat. Schaller listened to the footsteps coming down wooden stairs behind him; the noble sergeant was coming down after him. Well, so be it! The sound the American made only gave away where he was. "You," he told the tallest soldier in front of him, the one who remained unwounded. "Turn the knob in the wall of the last shower sharply to the left. Then push it outwards, very hard because it is heavy. Do it now!"

"That's a door?" Becker asked, incredulity in his voice. The thought of jumping and subduing the Kraut as he'd proposed evaporated when he caught sight of Caje, staring darkly at him.

"We are on a hill. It will open," Schaller replied.

"Think you're gonna get out of here?" Caje asked, considering the distance between him and Schaller, maybe three or four bounds at most. But he hesitated; the kid would certainly get shot in the throat the instant he moved. "You're wrong, buddy!"

"My men are positioned around the bunker. You will step outside with a piece of cotton in your hands, to ensure that I do not receive one of their bullets by accident. A handkerchief will do, anything."

Kirby averted his eyes from Selkirk because having to watch the lieutenant's face so wretched with pain and fear almost made him go mad. How was the Sarge going to stop the Kraut now?

Schaller jerked the gun up into his prisoner's throat. "You will remain outside the door with your white signal," the colonel continued. "I still do not see you with one. Take anything. Now! A bandage will be visible enough."

Becker, standing near the door, squeezed Kirby's arm lightly, hoping to get his attention. "All right!" he answered. "Hear me, Kirb? Let's go," he added, in a barely audible whisper.

Kirby almost snapped an answer back, and then controlled himself. He saw Becker standing with his mouth half-open, bobbing his head towards the crack in the door with a strange, excited look on his face. The crazy cheat had something up his sleeve again. Maybe he had some new trick planned. Kirby didn't understand what Becker meant to do out there, but he nodded anyway. A glance at Caje convinced him that the scout had followed the meaning and was going to step outside too.

The men unwound the gauze around Caje's arm; it would have to do. Together, Becker, Kirby and Caje stood at the door and pushed it open just a little more.

"Walk out slowly, and my men will see you," Schaller told them."When they do, tell them that I am going to come out also, and that a comrade of yours remains inside with his weapon. They must be careful when they approach. Do it now!"

The three men stepped across the threshold, seeing the dying rays of sunlight had colored the countryside bright orange. Kirby found he could see just as well as he'd been able to inside the bunker. His eyes had already been adjusted to the gloom.

Becker held the bloodied bandage high above his head as he took a slow step forward, with Kirby and Caje on his tail. "The sun's behind us, see?" he muttered to his companions. "We're right in the darkest shadow. I'm thinkin' the Krauts can't see us so good in it. I'm takin' off. You two comin?"

Caje stepped up beside the tall private. "You kidding? I'm with ya, buddy."

"Wait!" Kirby limped behind, trying to join the others. He came up short by several paces. "What about the Sarge? We can't just leave 'im in there like that!"

"Shssh. Look! Caje still has those grenades, doesn't he? We can go around and try for the half-track," Becker whispered, fear and urgency evident in his voice. Did Kirby want the Krauts to hear too? He pointed surreptiously to his left. "I'm countin' to three, then I go that way. One, two...." At the third number, Becker bolted towards the side and headed for a ditch as fast as he could. Caje and Kirby hurried behind him, trying to catch up.

Before they'd even taken a few steps, gunfire rang out all around them. The Krauts were there already, Kirby realized. Guarding the exit, just waiting for them to come out! His heart beating wildly, he threw himself down onto the ground beneath the hail of bullets. The noise deafened him as he crawled behind the others. Earth kicked up all around him; he kept going forwards, trying to get out of there, away from the line of fire.

In front, Becker suddenly let out a blood-freezing cry. "Damn... Kirb..." His shout died off, changing to a low-pitched moan.

Kirby reached him in a second and grabbed the injured soldier by the arms. "Come on, Caje!" His knees and elbows scraped against the rocks and hard ground. He ignored it while the two men dragged Becker through the gunfire towards the trench. His hands felt wet from holding onto Becker's jacket, and he kept losing hold of the bloodied sleeve. The coppery stench of fresh blood filled his nostrils. Losing his grip, Kirby grasped the soldier even harder and pulled fiercely.

Caje grunted as they dove into the trench.

"Hang on, Becker!" Kirby cried, scrambling to open the injured man's jacket.

"No! Kirby, there's no time!" Caje grabbed Kirby's hand away from Becker's collar. Both men could see that nothing but a mass ofblood and twisted flesh oozed beneath the saturated material. Becker had no chest cavity left. "You can't do anything for him, now!"

"We gotta try! Come on, Becker. You're gonna be alright!"

The tall soldier looked up pleadingly, unable to speak above a whispered gurgle, as blood flowed down the side of his face.

Kirby bent down beside him, hoping to push some air into the blood-filled mouth. "Live, you lousy cheat! Ya hear me? Live!" His hands circled above the dying soldier as he tried to find a spot to press down and staunch the bleeding. He couldn't. Dammit! "Doc would know what to do!" his mind screamed. A hand clasped his shoulder, and he looked up to see Caje kneeling beside him, a concerned frown on his face. It took Kirby a second to focus on it, but he finally released the breath he'd been holding for so long and shook himself back to his senses.

Caje turned his head and stared up at the bunker. "Kirby. Listen!"

***

Schaller kept his gun against the young man's throat. "Stay where you are, Sergeant! You hear the noise outside? My men will come here soon. Prepare to surrender."

"If you make a move towards that door, I'll cut you down!"

Selkirk gasped as the metal went further into his windpipe. He fought against the hands gripping his neck, just trying to get air to breathe, but he couldn't move. He felt blood covering the whole side of his neck, and the flow came down onto his fingers. The German kept strangling him in a grip as strong as a bull's. A bullet only had to hit the jugular, or the larynx, or the windpipe, in order to.... God! Selkirk hadn't ever thought about how fragile those neck parts are. He was jerked backwards another step. This rough dance choked him, and he followed.

He could see Saunders take a step forward, his weapon held firmly. In flash of panic, Selkirk worried that Saunders would shoot, just to stop the Kraut from escaping. The muzzle was pointed right at him. Unconsciously, he tried to will it away in another direction.

Saunders' voice cut through his stupor. "Lieutenant! Listen to me! Stay put. Don't help 'im any more!"

The tone of that order made something snap in Selkirk. For the first time, he realized the sergeant was standing up to the big Kraut, and he still had his Thompson. That should mean something, shouldn't it? Saunders was right on the mark. He'd been obeying that lousy Kraut the whole time. And he'd ordered others to comply. No more!

The fear, the pain and the trembling all switched themselves off at the same time. It was as if a rod had gone up his spine and disconnected them all, and Selkirk straightened his back unconsciously. He was still scared, but he tried to ignore it. A realization came to him. He was thinking straight at the moment, for the first time since getting caught. But it wouldn't last. If he waited too long, the paralysis would come back. So without taking any more time to think about it, he jammed his heel into his attacker's foot as hard as he could. Of course, he figured he'd die now for doing that. He steeled himself to the notion that it didn't matter and twisted his upper body, trying to get himself loose from the creep and punch him in the jaw.

Sudden pain overwhelmed him. Everything around him went dark red. But instead of wanting to flail out at Schaller, he panicked, grappling frantically at his neck. He couldn't breathe! His throat felt as if it had been shredded. He'd been shot, he felt sure of it. His eyes bulging, Selkirk looked up at the German. Then, the sergeant jumped into his field of vision, next to the Kraut. He could feel Saunders prying the other man's hands from his neck. Selkirk wanted to scream the order to shoot, just shoot the damned Kraut! But he couldn't talk; his windpipe was clenched shut.

Then, all at once, the crushing pressure left him, and a rush of air went inside his lungs. Selkirk stumbled backwards, and it seemed like forever before he hit the ground. In a panic, he rolled onto his side, struggling to get his breath back.

He hadn't been shot, he knew it suddenly, but saw the colonel stagger backwards towards the open door. Schaller stayed there for a second, glaring at the sergeant. Defying him. The German took a step back when Saunders advanced. "Your men outside are surely dead now," he said. "So will you be soon!"

"Give it up!" Saunders took another step forward.

"I am unarmed," Schaller continued, taking another step towards freedom. "If you pull the trigger, it will be murder."

Selkirk sat, chest heaving, as he gulped in as much air as he could. From the corner of his eye, he saw the colonel take another step towards the door.

Then, he heard the Thompson burst to life beside him, recognizing its deep sound. He saw blood spatter across the German's chest. Schaller crumpled to the ground, got up on one knee and then collapsed one final time underneath the frame. Selkirk wondered if the Krauts had seen their leader fall, too. He tried to get up and join Saunders. Where was his damned rifle? "I... gotta get it..." As he stood on wobbly legs, the room spun around him. Dizzy, he fell back onto the floor.

Saunders frowned at the young officer. That room was a bad place to be; they had to move out quickly, but how the hell was he going to get the kid out, wounded like he was? "Come on!" he exclaimed. But the kid didn't respond. Worried, Saunders returned his attention to the situation outside. The fake door stood open. Briefly, he wondered whether Caje and the others had made it out there. Not likely. A feeling of dread overwhelmed him; the Krauts were about to come in. It was too late to try and use that exit to leave. They should go back upstairs and check out the other entrance.

Movements outside caught his attention. Glancing up, he caught sight of a dark figure darting between two bushes.

Machine gun fire came to life outside, spraying the bunker walls. Shots burst through the door, glancing off the frame, the showers walls and the concrete ceiling, deafening the two men. Saunders dove beside the door and knelt against the wall to fire a responding burst. He jumped when a grenade flew across the threshold, rolling across the bunker floor.

"They got a launcher! Watch out!" he warned.

The grenade stopped several yards from them. Saunders threw himself over Selkirk, covering the young man with his own body as a powerful explosion shook the room. Chunks of concrete and sharp bits of debris flew across the room, stinging the two Americans. They held their breaths, waiting for the cascade to subside. Stunned, Sarge got up onto his knees, wincing at the sting of a long, bleeding gash in his left hand. He ripped out a bandage from his web belt. As he quickly pulled out the gauze, he heard another grenade thud against the shower partition and roll into the room. The bandage fell to the floor, totally forgotten, as he turned to grab Selkirk's sleeve.

"Back there! Come on!" Saunders had trouble holding onto the kid. He gripped him anyway, ignoring the pain in his hand as he pulled the young man onto his feet and whipped an arm around his neck.As the two men limped through the smoke towards the supply room, a piece of metal banged against Saunders' helmet, dizzying him.

On the other side, Saunders let Selkirk sag to the floor and reached back for the door handle. The moment he touched it, he heard another thudding noise in the shower room. Frantically, Sarge pulled he handle, cursing at the searing flash in his hand, and just managed to slam the connecting door shut before that grenade exploded. He panted, listening to the powerful blast, noticing that he'd left glistening stains on the door and on the handle. He wiped his hand on his jacket and ducked beside Selkirk. "Come on! Let's go!" Despite the gash in his hand, Saunders picked up the young officer, cradling him in his arms, and lumbered towards the stairs.

Another explosion shook the bunker. The wooden staircase shuddered under the two men's feet as the concussion wave almost cracked it apart.

Pressure was being kept up without a second's respite.

Saunders climbed on, wondering how to inform the lieutenant that the Krauts outside would probably penetrate their shelter very, very soon. He clutched Selkirk tightly as he struggled up the steps one at a time. The Germans wouldn't want to take prisoners. Only retribution.

***

"The half-track!"Caje cried above the din. He pointed at the bunker. "It's gonna get the Sarge!"

"And us too if we try anything, you forget that?"

"I still have two grenades. The colonel didn't check me for those." Pain stung Caje's arm as he reached inside his jacket. He glanced down at his sleeve; the bullet wound had opened up even more during their mad crawl with Becker.

Boot steps pounded just above them, followed by the sounds of panting. Germans were wasting no time searching for them. Caje stared up at Kirby and pointed upwards, towards the approaching Kraut, and both men flattened themselves against the ditch wall.

A Schmeisser thundered to life above them. They winced as bullets kicked up a line of earth next to Becker's prone body. As Caje and Kirby crouched, a dark-clad figure jumped into the trench. He kept his back turned to them as he knelt beside of the dead American. A low whistle escaped the German's lips as he took in the man's bloodied, mangled chest, then he turned to rise again.

Caje jumped him, joined instantly by Kirby. Together, the two men wrenched the German's rifle out of his hands and knocked him to the ground. The man struggled fiercely, wheezing with effort, rolling over and pinning Kirby down to try and strangle him. Caje pulled him off and received a strong jolt on the jaw for his effort. Just as everything in his vision went black, Caje opened his eyes and saw that the fight was over. The German lay dead, his body curled into a fetal position with his face down.

"I got 'im, Caje," Kirby said, holding up the Kraut's knife. "It's okay." As Kirby knelt beside Caje to help him up, a powerful explosion rocked the ground around them. The BAR man cursed, grimacing at the onslaught, as he pinned his hands over his ears. He remembered Sarge's words about keeping his mouth open to dampen the noise.

Caje had other worries. He picked up the German's weapon and crouched, ready to leave. "Krauts're on the pillbox again. Sarge is gonna get it, Kirby! We gotta help 'im!" He winced and fell back again, grunting. "It's my leg, my ankle. I twisted it." With a quick gesture, Caje rolled down his sock, seeing the swollen ankle. "Maybe I can crawl, but I won't make it running. Kirby, you go." He grabbed the grenades from his jacket.

"Where? You mean the half-track? That what you're talkin' about? Why do I have to? I'm no better off than you, Caje." He indicated his worn boot, refusing to take the grenades. "Remember?"

Another blast rocked the ground beside them, the two men went down onto their bellies at the bottom of the trench, with their hands over their heads. Kirby's ears rang.Then, another explosion almost wrenched the insides right out of him. Damn! Caje was right about Sarge getting it bad; both men in that bunker were!

"But how do you stop a mess of Krauts that are rushin' a pillbox? You just go up an' ask 'em?"

"You keep real low and toss the grenades in!" Caje made a move away from Kirby. "Here, take 'em," he insisted. "Go!"

Kirby watched Caje crawl off along the trench, Kraut rifle in hand. He stayed where he was, silently holding the two grenades. "What? Run right out across open ground all the way to that armored vehicle and dump those things in it? That's crazy!" he worried as he placed the grenades inside his jacket. "Plain crazy." Maybe it was, but his mind's eye was already going over the crags, notches, and rocks thathe could remember being out there when he'd seen it before. It was like practicing in his mind all the steps he'd have to do before he actually took them. Planning it all ahead so that.... He could hear the damned half-track in the distance, its cannon spitting fire like some kind of dragon after the Sarge. Oh, God. Somehow, he just knew he was gonna go out there and make a run at it.

"You're cracked!" he muttered angrily, to Caje and to himself.

He knelt at Becker's side, pulling off the worn boots that he'd spent the day with. He'd cursed those things; they'd caused him so much grief! But he had to shake himself into action again. He swallowed hard and hurled the old boots out across the ditch. His fingers shook as he untied the now bloodied ones that he had wanted back from Becker so badly before. "Sorry, Buddy. They were mine. You cheated me out of them. ...I gotta do it, ya hear me? I'm real sorry," he repeated, wiping beads of sweat from his forehead. Funny how the boots didn't feel much like they were his as he slipped his feet into them, even though he'd claimed it all day long. Kirby took his mind off it and started off southwards along the trench. He hoped to God that he wouldn't run into any more Krauts while he was circling around towards the half-track.

***

Caje crawled along the ditch, turning back only once to see what Kirby was doing just sitting back there like that. What was he waiting for? Mardi Gras? He shook his head and kept going forward. Strange how he spotted so few Krauts as he followed the length of the ditch. They must have ordered everybody back a ways, out of artillery range. That would mean the Sarge had been right.

Then again, Caje worried about running into a bunch of them at every step. He kept the rifle ready.

Several yards later, he froze, examining a dark figure to his right, crouching beside a tree. The man faced the bunker, aiming a Schmeisser. Caje checked the rifle's magazine, wincing at the pain in his arm. The chamber was full. Good. He raised the rifle, drawing a bead on the German, and fired off a shot. Instantly, he crouched back down, hoping the loud explosions going on all around the place would mask the noise of the rifle. He heard no cries, no approaching footsteps. Caje started crawling again,always distancing himself from the pillbox. Then, a few hundred yards further, he stopped once more. There, right in front of him, he spotted two more Krauts sitting cross-legged on top of a slight ridge. The Cajun approached warily, getting to within a few yards of them, and waited.

Up close, one of those Germans started to look very familiar.

***

Kirby crawled over to a shallow dip in the ground and slunk into it, panting. It was a miracle he'd gotten to where he was. He felt like a field mouse trying to sneak up on a tiger. Those big cats would smell him out sooner or later, he just knew it. He shuddered and checked the two grenades inside his jacket for the hundredth time. Yes, the pins were still in 'em.

The half-track stood on a ridge just a few yards away, aiming its cannon at the bunker. Right now, the vehicle seemed more like a million yards away. Kirby could see no other Germans around it. It had fallen silent for the last few minutes, but that didn't mean a damned thing. He was going to have to make an accurate throw into its depths. How many yards would he have to run to be close enough to do it? How many bounds did that make? Oh, God. One single step out in the open was too many. Kirby cursed the war, the Krauts, the pain in his feet.

Hey! Stayin' low got him this close to the lousy thing, so maybe he could just wait until he was right next to it to stand up. Kirby decided to try and continue crawling over to the vehicle. In the dark, it was a good chance to take. He put the cognac bottle down and gave it a loving pat.

He could feel the grenades scrape against his skin as he came up on the dirty, muddy tracks. A metallic-sounding voice came from inside the vehicle, speaking in German. A Kraut radio. He heard the occupant utter "Ja Wohl, Herr Leutnant" and shift his position.

Ducking against the side of the half-track, Kirby held his breath, worrying about the message he just heard. Was it a warning about him? He waited silently and took out one of the grenades.

***

Ignoring the pain in his twisted ankle, Caje clambered silently to his feet beside the Germans and aimed the rifle. "Hände Hoch!"

The Germans whirled around, facing him with a look of utter surprise. "Du!"

There, Caje realized, was one of the young German officers he'd seen in the ditch with the old colonel. He aimed the rifle at the Krauts, a sensation of déjà-vu creeping into him, and he shook it off. He was just in a similar situation right then, that was all.

One of the Germans lunged to the side. The man stumbled forward and fell in a heap, cut down by a bullet from Caje's rifle.

"Throw it down!" the Cajun ordered the other officer, indicating the man's pistol. He kept the rifle trained as the man pulled it out of its holster and flung it away. Off to the right, a moving figure caught Caje's attention. He twisted his body and fired a burst at it.

Another German several yards away fell sideways and landed headfirst into a small bush.

Caje swung the rifle around towards the German officer, suppressing a wince at a flash from the sprained ankle. He shifted his weight off it.

The Cajun focused on a dark box with a phone handle settled on the ground. The Krauts had been on the squawk box, directing mortar fire on the Sarge. Well, they'd sure as hell order it stopped. He eyed the German, gauging the amount of persuasion he'd have to use on him to get cooperation. "You!" Caje told Kraut. "Can you understand English?"

"Nein. Kein Englisch."

"You're lying! You understood me before." Caje thrust the rifle forward.

"All right!"

"Pick up the phone. Call off your mortars. Now! Got it?"

"It is stopped already. Listen!"

The man was right. A blanket of silence had settled on the field around them. Caje shuddered, remembering occasions when he, himself had been caught in the same kind of shelling. Sometimes, a barrage stops just because it's over. But a lot of times, it means that Kraut infantry is moving in right behind it.

***

Taking a huge gulp, Kirby sprang to his feet beside the vehicle. Pain shot through his injured foot as he clambered onto the muddy track and flung the grenade into the half-track's belly. As he jumped off the armored vehicle, his foot slipped, and he fell to the ground. With a grunt, he rolled to the side and broke into a stumbling run for it, just trying to get away from the grenade blast. One yard, two.... Go faster! But... wait! Where was the damned explosion, for cryin' out loud? The grenade he'd thrown was a dud?

A bullet ripped out a clump of earth next to his foot. Kirby stopped dead in his tracks, realizing that he had a Kraut on his back. He turned around slowly, expecting to get cut down any second. There, several feet behind him, stood the half-track's driver, bringing up a Schmeisser towards his chest. "Ergib dich, Amerikaner!"

Kirby reacted instinctively. He moaned and grimaced, making a marked show of agony, and pretended to double over. Acting as if he was suffering came easy to him right then. He almost didn't need to fake it. With his head bent, Kirby clutched his stomach, and he reached into his jacket surreptiously. His left hand found the hard, oval metal of the second grenade, nestled beside the zipper, and closed around it. His right hand pulled the pin.

The Kraut saw nothing. He kept advancing towards the "wounded" American, pointing his weapon at Kirby's chest.

Clutching the grenade, Kirby swayed and made out like he might crumple to his knees. As if by magic, his balance returned. As he looked down at the bloodied boots on his feet, Kirby shot a furtive glance at the Kraut driver. He groaned loudly, secretly clutching the grenade, as the Schmeisser's barrel came up next to him. Kirby didn't take time to think, he just reached out with a swift motion and pushed the Schmeisser aside with his right hand. With the grenade firmly clutched, he lunged forward and smashed it against the side of the Kraut's skull. The force of the blow knocked the German backwards. The Schmeisser clattered to the ground, but the noise it made didn't register in Kirby's mind. Both men fell alongside one another.

Kirby sat up instantly. The Kraut lay on his back beside him, completely motionless, but with his eyes wide open. He still looked surprised. Only the trickle of blood across the bridge of his nose indicated that the German was dead.

Kirby made a move to stand. Then, horror gripped him when he realized that the grenade had disappeared. Jeez! It had probably rolled right out towards the half-track! "It's gonna blow up!"

He ran, his legs churning as fast as propellers.

***

Saunders winced as he took another sulfa pack from his web belt. Ripping it open proved to be hard with a bandage wound around his hand, but the kid needed some badly before he could make any attempts to leave. Things had gotten damned quiet outside. It unnerved him.

"Quitters..." Selkirk uttered weakly.

"What about 'em?"

"God... doesn't like 'em. Someone I knew... said that... a lot."

Saunders froze for a beat, holding the pack above the wound. "Yeah, well. Same with me,"he replied. He sprinkled the sulfa over Selkirk's blood-covered wound and shook his head, sighing. The kid was conscious, but the whole front of his jacket had turned deep, dark red. The throat where Schaller had gripped him bore deep bruises, scratches and punctures. Selkirk was a fighter to have survived it. He was fighting even still, wheezing to get the smallest breath inside his lungs. Saunders pressed a bandage onto the wound.

The young man coughed. He wanted to talk, but it was getting so hard. Breathing, too. "I did quit... back.... there..."

"Death has you by the throat, you do what you have to. Forget it. Just take it easy."

Selkirk chortled for a brief instant, feeling a wave of nausea overtake him. "Yeah. And you... take the... Kraut map. Move out.... Leave me."

"I already took it, Sir. And you're movin' out with me."

"You... got it?" The lieutenant reached up with a bloody hand, stroking his jacket front. "Oh." He blinked, focusing on Saunders, seeing the disabled machine gun behind him. As Selkirk raised his head slightly and looked around, he recognized the room that they'd entered when all of this had started. How had they made it back there? He could barely remember Saunders carrying him up some stairs. Grunting, the young man tried to stand. "Help me... Sergeant."

A loud clapping noise startled him. A bullet whipped past Saunders' helmet and thudded against the wall. Selkirk had to turn away to avoid getting sprayed by flying rock dust. Instinctively, he grabbed his helmet and shoved it onto his head.

With a curt nod, Sarge indicated that Selkirk stay down and back away behind a nearby box, out of sight. He watched the wounded young man begin to slink backwards slowly, grimacing with effort. Red marks glistened on the floor where he'd been, making a red trail towards him. Then, Sarge spotted two figures standing at back of the room.

A Kraut officer slowly entered, aiming a Luger at his chest. Saunders took a good look at the man's face, instantly recognizing the young officer he'd captured in the ditch along with the colonel. A second Kraut stepped out from behind him, waving a Schmeisser all around the room.

The German officer took a careful step forward, staring at the American sergeant before him. He saw a yellow-colored wisp of hair falling down from beneath a camouflage helmet that he'd seen once before. "I know you, Sergeant." The German ordered his soldier to head out and take the weapon away from the Americans.

The guard approached Saunders carefully, and then froze, swinging his Schmeisser down behind one of the boxes.

"Herr Leutnant! Viel Blut hier!" he exclaimed.

Grabbing back the Thompson, Saunders lunged to the side and rolled towards the machine gun stand. In a swift motion, he made it over to it and ducked behind the cupola before the officer could accurately aim in his direction. But bullets passed just next to the muzzle. Saunders readied his weapon; the MG made precious little cover for a full-grown man, but it protected him momentarily while he turned and shot off a burst towards the German guard near Selkirk. Panting, Sarge curled up into a tight ball and tried to catch his breath. As he brought up the Thompson to fire again, a bullet grazed the Thompson, almost knocking it out of his hands. The vibration sent a painful flash up his arm as Sarge gripped it to stop from falling. Cursing, Sarge ducked behind his cover once more and ripped off the bloodied gauze around his left hand. He needed to hold on tight to the thing.

Where was the guard beside Selkirk? Saunders hadn't gotten a good look at him as he fired. The Kraut had been out there just a second before, but now he couldn't see a thing. Saunders wasn't sure whether he'd gotten him, whether he should aim there again. Damn! He crouched, cursing that the thing against his back barely gave him cover. He mustn't waste his precious few chances to shoot. Every single opportunity had to count.

A bullet banged off the MG's barrel, ricocheting past his helmet. Saunders tucked his body down behind the cupola for a heart-freezing second, then turned and fired at the Kraut officer near the door. He just managed to duck away from the return fire. He clutched the Thompson, waiting for a chance to shift back onto his knees and shoot off another burst.

Schmeisser fire roared out in the close quarters of the bunker. Burst after burst, in an incessant, ear-shattering volley.

Bullets flew across the room; Saunders held his breath and ducked out of the way instinctively. His eardrums almost shattered with the noise. Bullets bounced against the machine gun and off the wall behind him. Many whipped by just inches from him. His helmet almost flew off as one bullet bounced off it. Saunders held it down and ducked, trying to ignore the pounding in his ears. Sudden heat in his arm made him glance down at his sleeve in surprise. A few inches of material had been burned out of the jacket, just above the stripes.

A pained cry rang out from somewhere near the trapdoor.Through the roar of gunshots, Saunders heard a metallic clatter, and he quickly turned to see what was going on. He saw the German officer lying near the door to the back area with his face against the floor. The man was dead; the crossfire had gotten him. That left one Kraut left inside the room. Where was he?

Saunders ducked back down behind his cover, searching for the figure of the last German.

Like a thick blanket, silence fell onto the bunker. Sarge sat immobile, panting as silently as he could while he listened to any more sounds coming from inside the pillbox. He heard none. The guard was keeping quiet just like he was. He clutched the Thompson and tried to gauge the location of the German.

Kirby's familiar voice rang out, cutting through the heavy silence. "Sarge?"

Saunders looked up from his spot behind the machine gun, his ears still drumming loudly. He could see the BAR man at the rear door, clutching his weapon.

Kirby peered into the room, taking in the scene around him. The German officer lay on his back near the doorframe. The dead man's hand still looked as if it reached out for the Luger that lay beside it, useless now. He strode carefully over to the dead Kraut. With a bloodstained boot, Kirby made sure the man wouldn't move anymore. "They've both had it, Sarge"

"Good job, Kirby."

"Well, it wasn't me. I didn't shoot, Sarge, I just got up them stairs. Listen, Caje told me to warn ya. We took out the half-track, but there's somethin' else..."

"What?" Saunders asked. He shouldered his Thompson and strode over to Selkirk's side, gesturing to Kirby to follow him.

Both men stared down at the young lieutenant. Selkirk sat against the wall beside the door, balancing a Schmeisser across his chest. He must have managed to grab it from the guard somehow. Maybe when the Kraut guard fell down next to him, Saunders figured. Right now, the German lay sprawled on the floor next to Selkirk, a line of bullet holes snaking across his back and an expanding pool of blood seeping out from underneath his body.

The lieutenant no longer resembled the nervous kid who'd gone on patrol that morning. Selkirk gazed up at the others when he heard them approach. A flicker of recognition came across his face. "What something is that... Private Kirby?" he asked.

"Well, looks like we can get out through there," the BAR man explained, indicating the main exit beside them. "Caje is waitin' outside with a Kraut prisoner. An' he says we gotta turn back the exact same way we came once we're outta here. Everythin' on the other side is mined." Kirby pushed open the metal door. "We'd have gotten it if we'd tried to go around this thing before! Huh! Good thing we was ordered to come inside. Right, Sarge?"

"Lucky break, that's all."

Saunders stood at Selkirk's side. "Let's go, Sir. The Krauts can still blow this place wide open. We have to head out."

"Still have the map... don't you?"

"Yes, Sir."

Selkirk stood, and he found it amazing that he could stay up at all. His arm went around Saunders' neck for support. His knees buckled slightly as he struggled for balance, and then firmed up again. The sergeant's strength kept him up, and he took a tentative step towards the open door.

Lyne Tremblay

January 2001