PONTDIEU









The German lieutenant took the radio receiver away from his ear, casting a glance at a group of soldiers taking a break playing horseshoes in the farmyard. "Feldwebel Kraus!" he called out to a barrel-chested sergeant standing at the edge of a wood fence, getting ready to throw a horseshoe. "Komm hier, jetz! Ich hab sonders Befehle für dich!"

Sighing, the man grabbed his helmet and approached his superior. This looked important, by the officer's tone. Kraus had obtained this short, but much-needed recreation period for his squad. Now, the men could probably forget about having the rest of their break today.

"Nimm Schwarz, Brunner," the lieutenant looked at the men and nodded towards a square-shouldered corporal, "...und Feldman mit dir. Ihr müsst zu Pontdieu gehen. Es ist äusserst wichtig!"

As the officer spoke to Kraus with tension in his voice, he gestured towards a pile of ordnance crates stored inside the barn, telling him the amount of explosive that would be required for the job that had to be done. He also emphasized the need for it to be done quickly. American patrols, he explained, had been spotted in the vicinity. Their tank columns would undoubtedly follow in their wake. The dogs were advancing relentlessly, keeping the regiment guns constantly busy. They were nipping right at the Germans' heels and the possibility had to be considered that they would soon overrun the sector.

Command leaders had made a decision on what to do to stop the Americans from getting hold of any observation point while the Wehrmacht regrouped in Sector G to launch their counteroffensive

***

Sprinting across a dirt road, Saunders reached a faded picket sign saying "Pontdieu," dropping to his knees beside it with his weapon ready and intently scoured the area.

Ahead, the street became cobbled as it entered the village. It wound its way beside a concrete-edged canal in which dirty water reflected a row of broken houses and rooftops that stood along its bank. The village seemed as silent and empty as all the other French towns that Saunders had led his men through in the last month, with only the shrill cry of birds echoing overhead. Sarge glanced upwards for a second, seeing a dozen crows circle above the tiled rooftops, and he let out the breath he'd been holding. He turned and signaled to Grady, Caje and Kirby to fall in behind him.

Kirby reached Saunders at a fast sprint, landing against Sarge's backpack. He clutched his M1 firmly, panting. His dampened shirt clung to his chest, and the heavy radio on his back pressed up against his spine uncomfortably. Why had Sarge made him carry it in this heat wave? Didn't he have enough on him already with his and Grady's ammo?

"Looks to be another dead town, Sarge!" Kirby declared, wiping perspiration from his forehead. "It ain't exactly dame central! He heard a clatter of boot steps behind him as Long and the Cajun sprinted across the open road to join them.

"Krauts've pulled back," Sarge replied. "But we're here to scout for OP's, and that's what we're gonna do." He wiped a sweaty palm on his pants. Saunders knew they all felt the midday heat; they'd taken off their jackets and rolled up their sleeves.

"A whole town, Sarge, and they only send four of us to check it out," he muttered angrily.

"There are other towns to check out, Kirby. Just send your complaint to the brass; they'll file it with all the others."

"Don't worry, Kirby." Caje said, grinning good-naturedly. So what if Littlejohn stayed in Avranches? He'll keep your cot warm while he's nursing that shoulder of his."

Kirby instantly wiped the grin off his face. Worry? The big lug'd probably break it, too! "Sarge, I don't like it. Every time we think the Krauts've pulled back someplace, we walk in on Kraut gun nests," Kirby grumbled with a pout. "There could be ten of 'em out there, just waitin' for us!"

Grady hefted the BAR, a broad grin on his face. "Kirby, you're a regular Kraut-sniffing hound, you know that? Don't complain just because you're good at it. Just shut up before you make me nervous."

"You're too crazy to be nervous, ya hairy turkey,"

"Well, you stick on my tail with the ammo, boy."

Despite his tension, Kirby half-grinned at Grady's comment as he glanced along the deserted-looking street. A lot of rubble lay strewn along it; broken crates, empty barrels and splintered boats littered the canal's edge right to the end of his vision. It would hamper their progress. He knew the Sarge was going to give the order to head out into the village in five, and he mentally traced a route through all of the rubble, trying to figure out where the Sarge was going to step to avoid their losing footing in it all. Thinking ahead of time along with the Sarge just came naturally to him now, after seeing how every other guy in the squad always did the same. Well, the ones who were still alive and had a half-chance of staying that way for a while, anyhow.

For the dozenth time, Kirby patted the ammo bag as trickles of sweat came down inside his shirt, and he gestured towards the faded village sign. "Caje, what's that crazy name mean, anyway?"

"It says Pontdieu. That means God's Bridge." Caje grinned good-naturedly.

Saunders took a map from his pocket and opened it on his knee. He pushed up his helmet to get a better view of the layout of lines, dots and squares on the paper. He could barely make out the name penciled in above one of the angular, black lines, but it had to be the street in front of them. "We'll go up along here," he said, running his fingernail along the line. "There's an alley after the third house. We'll split up into two groups there. Caje and I'll go through that alley and into the next street to work our way up to the church." Saunders took another look at the steeple that rose above the roofs, determining that it was, indeed, the highest structure in town and, therefore, the likeliest spot for an OP. He jabbed a finger towards the other side of town, where a smaller clock tower rose. "Grady, Kirby. You two stay on this street and check out that whole sector all the way to the bridge. You recon the area thoroughly and then meet us back here at fourteen hundred. Got it?"

As the men nodded, Sarge folded the map and replaced it inside his shirt. He gripped the Thompson and shifted the pack on his shoulders slightly to relieve the pressure on them. "Okay. I'll go first. Grady, you take the rear."

"As usual, Saunders." Long gripped the BAR tightly in his right hand and poised himself to follow the others.

Sarge stood, raising his weapon, and he glanced back to see his men get in file behind him. In a half crouch, he crept forward, leading the Americans through the debris that littered the street. They cut a careful path through the rubble, keeping their backs to the walls, and trained their weapons at the windows above them. Step by step, they edged the pockmarked buildings fronting the canal all the way to a red-bricked wall bearing a blue sign that read L'HAMEÇON D'OR. There, Saunders abruptly halted and flattened himself against the building's corner. The others froze, staring at the Sarge and waiting.

Catching his breath, Saunders jumped out abruptly and aimed the Thompson into the alley. He froze, seeing mounds of broken bricks and planks that littered the passage between the buildings.

The Cajun joined him, lowering his weapon a few inches, and squinted into the alley. "It'd be nice to find a clean town some day, Sarge."

Saunders acknowledged the comment with a head nod. "Krauts're gutting everything they can before pulling back. They've been doing it all along the line." Wasting no more time, he motioned to the Cajun to move out into the passage.

Silently, Kirby and Grady scurried over a mound of rubble to continue on their way. The BAR man watched Kirby gingerly step over loosened stones piled in front of the alley, cursing under his breath. Something moved under Kirby's boot, and his heavy pack shifted sideways, unbalancing him. His arms flailing wildly, the ammo carrier crashed into a mound of bricks, cursing out loud.

In a flash, Saunders turned and knelt at Kirby's side, quickly examining his chest and limbs for wounds. Thankfully, he saw none, only an expression of anger on the man's face. A check of the radio showed a long, deep scratch along the side.

Kirby rubbed his leg furiously, looking down at the bricks. Cursing, he put the helmet back on his head and sat up. "Sarge, how do you like that?" he muttered, shoving a piece of broken brick away. "Look at 'em! Them things could have killed me!"

"Grady? Anything out there?" Saunders muttered in a low voice.

"All quiet."

Saunders pulled Kirby up. "Awright, Caje, go on! All of you watch yourselves!"

***

Schwarz came down off the truck, cradling the explosives in his arms. As his eyes adjusted to the sunlight, he glanced up at the tower with the useless clock in it. His attention came back to Feldwebel Kraus as the group's leader signaled to each of the men to head out to their appointed sector.

He cursed as he followed Feldman along a rubble-filled street. Demolitions work was supposed to be done by 31st Engineers, not by a simple vehicle maintenance man like him. But the 31st were all off somewhere, doing something else; they were too busy. Schwarz stepped over a thick plank, cursing again, and started thinking on whether he'd brought everything that was needed for the job and about where they would set the explosives. It wouldn't be good to have to come back to that town later because he'd forgotten something. The sooner he got back to the farm they had been in that morning, the sooner he'd could have his frothless, tepid Hofbraü and maybe, finish the horseshoe game.

He thought he heard a soft scratching noise in an alley behind him, and he looked that way to see a pale, bony mongrel coming out of an overturned crate. The animal stared at him with black, round eyes. The German decided he might give it a morsel to eat later, if he could.

He went on, following Feldman, and soon forgot about the noise he'd heard.

***

Grady made a sniffing gesture with his nose to gently mock Kirby, but he felt relieved to see the ammo carrier get back on his feet. Gripping the BAR, Grady gingerly stepped over the mound of loosened debris, and then watched Saunders follow Caje into the alley. He signaled to Kirby to keep on his tail as the two of them prepared to follow the canal and make their way to the clock tower. He gritted his teeth unconsciously, all thoughts of bantering forgotten. Somehow, he just couldn't bring himself to believe that the town was as quiet as it looked. Quietness unnerved him; he didn't trust it. It was much better to use firepower and to be in the thick of action.

***

Caje's senses felt heightened as he advanced through the alley; he could hear flies buzzing around him, the careful steps of the Sarge's boots in back, and the cry of the crows circling overhead. The walls on either side seemed to close in, echoing all those noises back to him. Or else, maybe he was just dead scared with anticipation.

The PFC stopped at the end of the passage, gripping his rifle as he let the Sarge catch up with him. Together, the two Americans glanced up the side street, seeing only more gutted houses along both sides, deep bomb craters gutted out of the cobbles and mounds of dust-covered rubble littered everywhere.

The church steeple rose above the rooftops to their right, tall and eerily silent. An iron bell hung at the top, barely visible through an arched opening. The street remained quiet.

Sarge ran his hand across his forehead as he looked back through the alley where he'd last seen Kirby and Grady. Only the canal, with pockmarked buildings across it, could be seen at the end of the passage. He looked at his watch. Six minutes had passed since he'd seen them last; the two men were certainly well on their way to the bridge and clock tower sector.

He gestured to Caje to move out towards the church.

***

Grady led Kirby along the line of gutted storefronts, occasionally glancing back to make sure that his companion kept up with him. It was only from habit; he saw that the wiry man had no trouble scampering over the rubble at every turn like a rabbit.

Aiming his weapon at the street ahead, Grady cast wary glances at the empty windows along both sides, trying to spot Kraut helmets or machine gun barrels in them. He saw nothing but cracked panes and torn curtains all along their route. At the end of the street, he crouched beside a wall to inspect a fountain with a statue of a bare-breasted woman, which stood in the center of a cobbled town square, spouting up a small stream of water. The clock tower rose on the other side of the open space; a drab, gray structure with a cracked face at the top and an iron door leading into it at the base.

Grady gestured towards the fountain, making a barely audible lewd whistle. "Ooh, darling mine!" he whispered. "Hey, there's your dame central, Kirby," he quipped with a low voice. "First woman we've seen in days, and not bad, either!"

Kirby just stared at the generous forms on the statue without answering, his jaw almost dropping off. "Maybe we oughta take a minute and get her name..." he quipped, elbowing Grady.

"I'm only looking at her. I'm already married to this girl, m'friend..." Grady whispered, hefting the BAR. He patted Kirby's shoulder to get his attention off the statue and pointed towards the right, indicating an overturned cart next to a walk. "We go that way, ...around."

Kirby got up, giving a last, wistful glance at the voluptuous figure in the fountain. He was distracted by an annoying stitch between the shoulder blades, where the radio pressed against it. He grunted in spite of himself as he followed Grady along a curbside terrace, weaving around broken tables and chairs. He cursed at the unfairness of having to carry a double load.

The pack was just so damned heavy! Why'd Sarge make him do it?

***

Kraus threw the too heavy sack at the bottom of the steeple stairs and kicked it underneath the last step. Why take it up with him? It was much too hot today for him to exert himself needlessly, and it wasn't going anywhere while it waited for him. Besides, only he and his partner would know that he'd left it down there, unsupervised. And, he figured as he looked up the tall structure above them, the Holy Man Upstairs would sadly not be complaining about their mission of destruction in there either. God had long gone away from this place. The sergeant nodded at Brunner as he opened the jacket that covered his broad frame.

Kraus led the other man up the stairs, climbing the wooden rungs with labored steps, carrying only the barest of what he needed in his hands.

Time was short, American patrols would soon arrive in the sector, and Kraus wanted to be finished before that happened. The stocky German wiped a film of sweat from his face as he climbed, very unhappy at having been the one chosen to do this blasphemous job.

***

Saunders followed the street all the way to the church, sidestepping craters and debris and aiming the Thompson in the doors that stood along the way, checking the houses for Krauts. At the end, Sarge ran across the open space to reach the corner of the gray stone church. He tried to avoid crunching the shards of stained glass underneath his boots as he edged the wall. The damned things were all over the place. Flattening himself next to a side door, he listened for any sounds that might alert him to a presence inside the abandoned building. He heard nothing but silence on the other side of the arched door beside him. He spotted Caje crouching at the building's corner, aiming his rifle towards the street. After giving the Cajun a signal, Sarge kicked in the door and rushed across the stone threshold, his Thompson aimed forward.

Nothing but burned wreckage and junk heaps greeted his eye.

Caje came up behind him, silently settling himself at his side. The Cajun could almost smell the adrenaline pumping in the Sarge. Its effects were rubbing off on him as well. He swallowed it down, waiting for the next order. He nodded as Saunders gestured towards an open door on the far side of the room. With agile steps, he picked his way through the debris and positioned himself at the doorframe, quickly followed by the Sarge. There, he took in the sight of a cavernous church with a broken stone altar beside them, several rows of pews and blasted-out windows along the sides. The place looked ghostly empty, just like the rest of the village, and Caje crossed himself mentally as he spotted the white and gold cross lying on its side behind the altar at their right.

With their weapons thrust forward, the two men silently made their way into the church and began to inch forward along the length of the center aisle. Their steps echoed eerily on the stones as they made their way towards two tall oak doors at the front entrance.

***

"Halt! Brunner, hör mal!" the larger German called out tersely as he took a step down the stairs. He raised a hand towards the other man, and indicated the direction of the church. Alerted, the smaller German cocked his ear to listen and heard what his sergeant had indicated; footsteps in the church, coming towards the steeple area.

"Komm!" the sergeant ordered, grasping his weapon. "...Und, sei vorsichtig!"

***

Caje thought he heard light-sounding footsteps in the distance ahead of them. The sound came to him again, and this time he became sure of the presence of someone in the entrance. He looked at Sarge quizzically, wondering whether the parish priest was still in the church, maybe coming to meet them. He didn't wonder long; as he and Saunders reached at the last row of pews, two dark-helmeted figures appeared in the front part of the church. They stopped, dropping to their knees at the sight of the Americans, and turned their Schmeissers on them.

Saunders and Caje fired back, blasting out rows of holes from the door.

One of the Germans clutched his face and went down, wailing loudly, his weapon clattering onto the floor at his feet. The other, larger one knelt at his companion's side, waving his Schmeisser in the Americans' direction. After quickly attempting to pull back his companion, he fired a long burst at Saunders, raking the back of the pews, and then ducked out of sight.

Saunders careened backwards and crashed into the back of a pew, his left shoulder blazing with pain. He saw Caje duck at his side and fire at the Krauts. Gasping, he cast a quick glance down at his shirtfront, seeing a dark stain below the collar. He couldn't feel his left arm; only a flaming hot stake tearing all the way through his chest. He cursed; he had no time for any of that now. He tried to will the pain to a standstill and get back up to fire the Thompson to keep the Krauts from escaping, but it was no use. The weapon slipped from his hand, and he fell back onto the stones, panting, barely catching sight of a maze of arches criss-crossing the ceiling above him. He struggled to breathe, wincing as a hail of bullets whizzed through the air just above his head.

"Caje!" he rasped.

In a flash the Cajun bent over him, firing his rifle at the Kraut. The Cajun grasped his jacket and dragged him behind the pew, ducking as a line of bullets ricocheted off their cover. Caje raised the Garand over the back of the pew and fired a quick burst in response. He managed to silence the Kraut and gain a few seconds of respite, but the Schmeisser's barrel still poked through the frame, aimed right at them.

The Kraut opened up in another series of short bursts, sending Caje ducking for cover once more.

On his knees, he raised his Garand above the pew and fired again, seeing the bullets bounce off the walls and doors. The empty church echoed with the deafening roar of gunfire.

Saunders tried to haul himself onto his knees and shoot along with Caje. His weapon had become too heavy to hold. The Thompson slipped out of his hand again, and he fell back onto the stones, gulping in strained, heaving breaths. Sarge forced himself to focus on Caje and get him to go around and circle the Krauts, but his throat was constricted from pain. A fireball had engulfed his shoulder. The bullet had gone in under his collarbone, and Saunders saw a dark, gleaming stain almost covering his shirtfront. He could feel the slug still inside his shoulder, setting the muscles ablaze. His hands shaking, he clawed at his belt to get out the sulfa.

Caje pushed a fresh clip into his M1, hearing the empty one eject noisily and land underneath the church seat. He heard the Sarge curse under his breath beside him, and he winced at the sight of his wounded leader's bloodied shirt and grimacing expression. Sarge was bad. He grabbed the sulfa pack and tore it open with his teeth. His own hands shook as he took out a bandage from Saunders' belt and opened it.

A volley of bullets slammed into the back of the pew protecting them; one shot ripped through the wooden planks inches above Caje's helmet and lodged itself into the next pew. Caje flinched as splinters rained down across his face. He threw himself over the Sarge to protect him, pressing the bandage onto the wound. The sound of retreating footsteps made him look up towards the church entrance just in time to spot the Kraut's disappearing figure.

The Kraut was going to bring back an army with him; Caje just knew it. Cursing, he grabbed his Garand and left Saunders' side.

In an agile half-crouch, he reached the holy water font and crouched behind its marble column for a few seconds. Then, he darted for the tall entrance doors and positioned his rifle against the frame, listening for the noise of the Kraut's scurrying steps. The rat was going to get away. With agile movements, Caje sprang over the body of the dead German lying in the entrance and rushed across the threshold with his weapon raised.

The place was dark and silent; fear made Caje's eyes adjust to it instantly. He waved the rifle around, scouring the room for the Kraut. A bunch of footprints weaved crazily through a thick coat of dust everywhere. The outside portals stood closed with chain looped across the handles and a fallen statue of Saint Joseph lying on its side in front of them. On his right, a section of wall paneling lay in a broken heap, with only the bare bricks left standing behind it. A staircase went up in that corner of the room, evidently to the steeple, and for a second, Caje thought the Kraut might have decided to climb it to reach high ground.

A dark bundle about a foot wide lay just underneath the first steps. Even in the darkness, Caje could discern that the thing didn't bear a speck of dust, unlike everything else in the room.

The Cajun had seen enough German patrols to recognize a Kraut jacket or equipment sack of some kind. His hackles instantly raised, he pointed his rifle at the thing, his forearms gleaming with sweat in the pale light. He took a careful step towards the object, listening intently, and then advanced even more on it. He held his breath as he cast wary glances between the suspicious bundle and the top of the stairs, always expecting to see the Kraut's figure show up there. He cursed at having no one to cover him. At having left the wounded Sarge alone. At not having eyes all around his head right then.

He could feel the Kraut somewhere nearby, and he shivered, the hairs on the back of his neck on end.

***

"White..., this... is Kee Two. Ack..., over! Rep.... This... King T... ...knowledge, over!"

Grady stopped in mid-stride, making out the lieutenant's code name. The voice barely came over the waves, but it had an insistent tone to it. "Kirby, give me the radio!" Grasping Kirby's arm, he indicated an open door beside them. They entered it and took cover inside a darkened storefront.

He had to flip his helmet sideways to put the receiver onto his ear. "This is White Rook. ...Report, sir?" He stared at Kirby, his eyes registering feigned exasperation. "The nest looks clean except for eggshell fragments and strewn feathers," he uttered into the phone. "No reported sighting of doves. I repeat, King Two. No doves sighted in the vicinity of the nest. Do you copy? Over!"

Grady nodded, listened, and nodded again at Hanley's voice in the receiver. He doubted if, by some miracle, the lieutenant had heard the message. A loud burst of static as the lieutenant barked out "Over!" made Grady jerk the receiver away from his ear with a grimace.

"What a time for phone calls!" he declared. "And anyway, what's the use? I can't hear a thing out of this dumb box." Grady slammed the receiver back into its cradle. "I don't think he's picking us up too well either. Okay. Ready, Kirby? Let's go!"

***

Kraus leaned back further into the darkened recess, keeping his large frame out of sight. His heart racing, he desperately hoped the narrow space would hide him well enough. He saw a thin-faced American soldier with a netted helmet and single chevron on his rolled up sleeve silently enter the room, rifle in hand. Kraus waited for a few seconds; he saw no others follow the man.

The American closed in on his position quickly and silently, always casting furtive glances everywhere, and stepped over a broken plank right in front of his hideout without seeing him.

Kraus let him go by, grasping the stock of his Schmeisser with one hand and his ammunition with the other, waiting in the dark for the right moment to push the clip into his weapon without bringing the enemy's attention to himself.

Under his watchful eye, the American went towards the sack that Kraus had unfortunately left in full view beneath the stairs. After scouring the room once more, the American bent beside the bag, his face tense. He jerked the barrel of his rifle into it, and then swung it up towards the top of the steeple for a few seconds. Then, he lowered the rifle again, right in his direction.

Kraus tried to move back, certain that he'd been seen; his Schmeisser raked against the wall behind him.

With the clarity of utter horror, Kraus saw the American stare up right at him, certainly alerted by the noise his weapon had made. Kraus realized he would never have time to reload his Schmeisser now, but the American was very slightly built; Kraus could easily have at least 30 kilos on him. He took no time to think further. With unexpected agility, he sprang from his hiding place and launched himself at the American.

Caje barely had time to realize what was going on before a huge figure came at him out of the darkness and pushed him down. Both men fell onto the floor, fighting in the broken stones and rubble with desperation. The German hit Caje across the face and brought his Schmeisser down onto his neck, bearing his considerable weight down on it.

As the Cajun thrashed against the German's hold, he tried to push the stock of the Schmeisser away from him. The German lifted it and brought it down against the Cajun's jaw, knocking the wind out of him. Dizzied, Caje redoubled his efforts to push the lousy Kraut off.

Kraus panted with exertion, finding himself pitted against an opponent with unexpected strength and vigor. The smaller man was fighting him much harder than he could have imagined. "You surrender! Give in, American!" he rasped, his voice strained. "Leave your weapon!"

Caje did, and then he reached for the knife at his belt. He managed to slide it out of its sheath and swing it up to the Kraut. The German let out a mad bellow, and the crushing pressure on Caje's neck lifted. He squirmed out from underneath the Kraut and brought his knife up in the man's direction, his fingers firmly on the handle.

"You surrender, Kraut!" Caje exclaimed. His voice barely worked as he spoke, his ears rang like a thousand bells and his vision spun dizzily; he didn't let it show.

The German soldier got to his feet, letting his Schmeisser clatter to the floor in a show of submission.

"Your knife, too. Now!" The Cajun waved his bayonet towards the scabbard hanging from the German's belt to accentuate his meaning.

"Caje..." Saunders' voice had come from somewhere near the oak doors. He cast a quick glance there, expecting to see the Sarge.

The German saw Caje turn his head slightly. He whirled around and jumped for the stairs, scrambling up the first two steps. Caje looked for his rifle, cursing as he realized that the Kraut was getting away. He'd never get it in time. He sprang after the German and just managed to grab the Kraut's boot, pulling hard on it. The German tried to shake Caje off, but the Cajun stuck to him, grasping solidly, and finally brought him down off the stairs.

The German thudded to the ground beside Caje and instantly turned on him, bringing a closed fist across his face.

Blinded by a searing flash, Caje lost his knife and stumbled backwards, crashing into the fallen paneling, and he cursed at the sharp sting of splintered wood in his hands. He rolled over and saw the German make a move towards him, a knife gleaming in his hands. His knife. As the Kraut thrust it towards him, Caje twisted his body sideways, avoiding the blade. The German's momentum sent him crashing to the ground beside the Cajun, missing his target by inches. On his side, Caje sprang after the Kraut again; jumping his opponent, and he grasped the German's wrist to force the bayonet out of his hand.

Grunting, the two men struggled for possession of the knife. Caje held on with the strength of despair, locking his hands around the Kraut's wrists like a vise. He brought the man's forearms down onto a broken stone repeatedly, hitting without letup, until the blade finally slipped out of the man's hands and clattered to the floor.

Caje held on until he heard the German beneath him gasping for breath. The Kraut went limp after several seconds, and then finally became still. Panting, the Cajun scooped up his rifle and backed away to settle himself beside the stairs as the German sat up.

The Kraut soldier remained where he was, looking at him with a pained expression as he held his leg.

Caje saw that the German's uniform bore a darkened stain at the knee. The man was bleeding. No matter. At least the fight seemed to have gone out of him; the Kraut wasn't making any more moves in his direction. The PFC glanced at the oak doors, anxious to see the Sarge over there, but his squad leader still lay on the other side, out of view, maybe bleeding to death. He knew he'd heard Saunders calling before. He waved towards the oak doors, ordering the other man to get a move on. The Kraut was taking too long getting back up with that lame leg of his, but Caje wouldn't get near him to help. He would just have to walk on his own all the way back to Sarge.

As Caje stood, waving his rifle at the Kraut, a deafening explosion ripped through the room.

Caje gasped, certain that an eighty-eight had hit the place. The roar of the explosion almost ripped out his eardrums. Screaming inwardly, Caje dropped his rifle, gripping his ears to block out what he could of the deafening noise. His heart skipped a beat as he saw a large stone shake itself loose from the wall behind him and crash to the ground. The knife dropped out of his hand as he covered his face to protect himself from the conflagration.

The walls around him shook for interminable, heart-stopping minutes. Chunks of ceiling fell around him, and Caje feared it might all come down before he could get out of there. The floor trembled, unbalancing him. His legs went limp as he saw fissures snaking out across the stones beside him. He fell to his knees, desperately wanting to get back to the Sarge, but in the confusion, he moved the wrong way; heading towards the stairs.

The wooden structure shook and then cracked apart just as Caje reached it. With a deafening roar, it collapsed all around and on top of him. He couldn't get away from the falling pieces in time. A massive beam landed across his thighs, sending a fireball through him. Suddenly pinned down and gasping with pain, Caje tried to squirm out from beneath it. He couldn't move, but he could feel something sharp piercing his thighs. Splinters in the beam, or maybe nails, he realized with growing panic, stinging him badly. Shaking, Caje clawed at it and tried to push the heavy wooden beam off.

***

Sounds of gunfire erupted from the distance, startling Grady and Kirby. They stared at each other. "Krauts!"

Grady stood, hefting the BAR, determined to head back to Saunders. He froze at the edge of the walk, staying in front of Kirby. But the other man had already spotted the same thing Long had; two dark-clad figures had suddenly rushed out of the door at the base of the clock tower at a dead run. The two Germans froze on the walk, turning their heads in the Americans' direction. All four soldiers stared at each other across the square as the distant sounds of gunfire rent the air.

The Krauts swung their weapons up and fired at them.

Grady saw a shot puncture a hole in the radio, and he ducked behind a cart, pushing Kirby down with him. "What the hell are they doing here?" he asked loudly, as he tried to raise the BAR above the cart and fire towards the tower. He lowered it again as a bullet tore through his shirtsleeve. The two men across the square were accurate shots. "Give me cover!" he cried, gesturing towards the door to a yellow house a few yards behind them.

Kirby fired several bursts with the M1, already having understood that Grady was going to find a way to circle the Krauts. The BAR man was quick on the draw, Kirby knew, but certainly wasn't much for explaining his plans right in the middle of a fight.

With cat-like agility, Grady darted towards the house, zigzagging all the way to the open door. He dropped to his knees for the last two yards, sliding into the opening like a base stealer, and barely made it before a volley of bullets blasted out the yellow plaster on the front walls. He got back to his feet inside the house, alertly watching for Krauts, and scurried over a pile of rubble towards the rear.

Kirby's attention stayed on Grady's movements towards the doorway. He watched the BAR man enter the yellow house, and then he heaved a sigh of relief when Grady's footsteps trailed off and then fell to silence inside. Feeling very alone behind the cart, Kirby glanced over it to take another look at the Krauts across the square. He found his view of them blocked by the formidable statue in the open ground between them. He kept the Garand aimed at the figure, swallowing hard as he watched the ample curves on it.

A dark-uniformed figure darted out in the open, heading towards the left. Kirby fired at him, realizing he'd missed; the Kraut rounded a corner and disappeared.

Stopping at the rear of the yellow house, Grady stared down the two sides of a darkened passage. He quickly headed towards the left. The alley seemed clear enough to go through it without stubbing his toes on rubble like Kirby did before, so he went forward, keeping his weapon trained on the opposite end of the alley. Grady advanced warily, keeping the BAR aimed ahead, listening to the loud report of the Schmeissers and the M1's furious response.

A sudden scratching noise beside him made him jump, his heart in his throat, and swing his weapon towards what turned out to be a small, white terrier standing against the wall. Disturbed, the animal snarled at him, baring its teeth like a tiny wolf. Grady let out a breath, figuring the mutt was only there to scratch for anything it could to eat.

As he turned to continue, the dark shape of a man appeared at the end of the passage, framed in light. The figure raised a weapon and fired at him. Grady jumped backwards just in time, rolling behind a garbage can as a line of bullets raked the wall beside him. Brick dust rained down on his face, stinging his eyes, and he felt a thump on his helmet as a bullet glanced off it. He fired his weapon, and even squinting, he saw the mutt beside him sprint away with a frightened yelp.

The German ducked behind a corner. Grady thought he saw the Kraut stumble, maybe because he was hurt. Grady definitely hoped for that.

Crouching behind his flimsy cover, Kirby made a conscious effort to steady his hands as he raised the M1 and fired. He didn't dare raise his head, but it was damned hard to shoot accurately without looking at the target.

A volley of bullets slammed against the edge of the cart above his helmet. He ducked out of the way of the falling wood chips. With mounting anxiety, he watched the cart begin to disintegrate in front of him. It would be chopped to bits in a few minutes. Kirby fired a few more rounds, deciding to take a chance on moving back to the yellow house before it was too late. His heart skipped a beat when the Garand in his hands went silent.

Cursing inwardly, Kirby heard footsteps rush towards him on the cobbles. As he pulled a clip from his ammo belt, he heard the Kraut close in on his position, and damned quickly. The German was right on top of him now; he had to know the M1 was empty. Kirby had no more time to make it to the house, and he couldn't reload and shoot fast enough. He was going to wind up dead right there in a French town if Grady didn't show up soon.

What was taking him so long, anyway?

As the sound of the boot steps came up beside him, the loud report of the BAR thundered in the square, filling Kirby's ears with a deafening, wonderful echo. When it abated, he heard the Schmeisser bang against the cart that protected him. The Kraut's helmet rolled on the cobbles, close enough for Kirby to touch it. He raised his head above the cart to take a look, and he saw the dead German sprawled on the ground just a yard away. Kirby got up and scurried past the German to join Grady.

The BAR man stood beside the fountain, panting. With a gesture, Grady indicated the direction of the church. Kirby understood right away; in the last few minutes, the noise of gunfire out there had abated. "Sounds like the trouble's over, maybe," Grady commented.

"...And maybe you believe in fairy tales!" Kirby snapped, jerking back the bolt on his rifle. As far as he was concerned, the trouble wouldn't be over until the Krauts had them all dead and buried. "Them Krauts're makin' a move on this town! There's gonna be more of 'em. I'm tellin' ya, we need some backup in here!"

"Yeah. Like a Sherman! Come on, let's go back and check on the others!"

Kirby settled the rifle strap on his shoulder and nodded.

"I winged the other Kraut," Grady continued. "But he might be going for help. Dammit, the radio's busted and I just told Hanley the place was clean!"

Suddenly, bullets glanced off the shoulder of the statue, blasting a chunk out of it. Grady grabbed Kirby's sleeve and pulled him down behind the fountain, instantly tucking the BAR's barrel against a concrete knee. He held his weapon aimed at the house across the space, his eyes alert. He saw the barrel of a Schmeisser poke out of a doorway several yards away and fired at it, the bullets slamming into the wall in front of the German and ricocheting upwards.

The Kraut responded with a furious burst in their direction.

Grady ducked behind the fountain as bullets whizzed through the air above his helmet. With quick, agile movements, he raised the BAR again and shot a burst at the house, raking the front of the structure. The Kraut's helmet ducked out of sight.

Kirby waited, panting for breath, wondering how the hell he was going to cover Grady if the man was going to run right out in his line of fire to shoot the BAR. The two of them hadn't gone over that small detail yet.

Instead, Grady signaled to him to hold his fire and lowered his own weapon, suddenly looking as if he were listening to the very air around them, and damned suspiciously, too. Kirby squinted at the sky, wondering what the other man was getting at. A shiver rippled down his spine, and then he realized what was so different; all the squawking birds everywhere were dead silent now.

As Kirby gazed out across the square in anticipation, a thunderous explosion shattered the stillness. Startled, both men turned a worried gaze in the direction of the blast and saw the iron bell in the steeple waver, making a furious clang that echoed loudly above the rooftops. Kirby and Grady looked on from their position as the tall structure blew up in a maelstrom of dust and wood. As a series of violent explosions ripped through the spire, the bell was torn from its hinge and fell to earth along with the rest of the structure.

***

As Saunders put a bloodied hand on the oak door, the explosion threw him violently aside, slamming his upper body hard against the wall beside it. He gasped, instinctively ducking as a hail of debris flew past him. He rolled onto his stomach, clutching his ears, staying on top of his Tommygun to ride out the concussion wave. It seemed to him that several explosions followed each other in quick succession. The floors and walls shook, almost collapsing on top of him.

After several minutes, the explosions stopped, replaced by welcome silence.

Saunders raised his head, his head pounding, and listened worriedly for any noise coming from the entrance. Just a sound, anything, coming from there would reassure him, but Caje there stayed silent. Saunders figured the Krauts had dynamited the steeple to stop the Americans from using it as an OP. It had come down, maybe on top of Caje.

A slight scratching sound wafted across the door, and then a man's voice called out, his tone barely audible. "Bitte.... Hilfe...."

The voice trailed off as a violent fit of coughing gripped the man.

Saunders winced at the sight of a fresh stream of blood coming down his shirtfront. The bandage had come off at some point, and the wound bled profusely. He took another field dressing from his belt, wincing as he pressed it onto the bullet hole. He worked feverishly, hurrying in spite of the pain because he feared that the Cajun had gotten it in the next room; that it was going to be too late when he reached him. Then, Sarge shook himself; wounded or not, he had to get Caje out any way he could before the church finally came down on all of them.

Clutching the Thompson with his good arm, he began crawling towards the door once again. Each of his movements made him gasp. The bandage wasn't doing anything to ease the pain, and fiery agony coursed through his chest and shoulder as he headed for the door. He ignored it and crawled forward, passing in front of a gleaming bloodstain on the wall beside the doorframe.

Nothing mattered now but reaching Caje.

***

"Sarge! He's still out there!" Kirby exclaimed, springing to his feet and grasping his rifle. "Hell, those aren't mortar rounds. The Krauts're sending big stuff!

Grady stared up at the clock tower, rising up above the houses, instantly understanding what had happened to the steeple. Danger bells rang inside his head at the sight of the tall structure beside them. He shook his head, his face frozen in horror, and sprang to his feet like a cat. "No! That's..." Grabbing Kirby's sleeve, Grady pulled him backwards, away from the tower. "The Krauts are destroying anything we can use for OP's. ...Like this thing! Come on, Kirby! We have to get away from it! Now!"

Grady's alarm infected Kirby, and he took off behind the BAR man, rushing down the street towards the church. As the two men sprinted away from the tower at a dead run, a thunderous explosion ripped the air behind them. The ground shook beneath their feet, and Kirby fell forward, feeling a sharp pain through his knee as he slammed it against the cobbles.

As stinging debris rained down on them, Grady threw himself over Kirby to protect him.

***

"I'm gonna... put this under your head..." Saunders's said in a voice rough with effort. Perspiration covered his face, and he grunted audibly with every move.

Lifting his head, Caje went dizzy for a moment; his vision blurred as he cast a sideways glance at Saunders's bloodied shirtfront.

The heavy beam pressed down onto his legs, and the splinters in it sent jabs coursing through the muscles. The canteen still hooked on his belt bore into his back. Panting, Caje brought his head down onto the jacket that Sarge had rolled into a pillow and put a hand over his forehead. It helped to concentrate the pain away. At least he could feel pain, Sarge had pointed out, with a try at a reassuring smile. It was a miracle he hadn't been paralyzed. The bell could have crushed him as it fell, or his legs could have been twisted out of joint by the beam. Instead, most of the bone-crushing weight rested on the rubble beside him.

"You pushing on it yet, Sarge?" Caje asked.

"In a minute...." Saunders took another look at the mess lying on top Caje. The biggest of the beams would need several men to budge. He rolled onto his side, catching his breath as he pulled a Lucky from his pack and placed it between Caje's lips. "Here...."

Caje shuddered involuntarily as he took a drag from the cigarette.

Saunders turned towards one of the Germans lying nearby, his attention drawn by a sudden movement of the Kraut's arm. He steadied the Thompson as well as he could and watched the German slowly bring a hand up to his face.

Through tear-filled, stinging eyes, Kraus looked around the room, seeing only filtered light and moving shadows at first. His throat burned from the foul air, and as he reached for the canteen at his belt, he made out the back of Corporal Brunner's body lying near the door, as still as death.

A voice snapped to life behind him. "Hände Hoch!"

He looked up and saw an American soldier with a camouflage helmet settled in beside a man who lay trapped beneath a jumbled mass of timber. The sergeant he remembered having seen before in the church; the American now held an automatic weapon on him. Kraus could see only the top of the trapped man's head, but he recognized the American he had fought with just moments before the explosion. He shuddered when he remembered the explosion.

"You would kill me?" Kraus asked, carefully taking his hand off his canteen. "In this place?"

"Yeah. ...Right there." Saunders steadied his finger in the trigger as he replied. "If you... try so much as one trick..."

"No tricks. I wish only for water, not for pistol," Kraus said, keeping his voice even. "Please let me have a drink."

Saunders heaved a heavy sigh, feeling dead tired. "All right."

Kraus took a sip from his canteen, holding Saunders' stare. In seconds, he measured the situation. He saw an enemy with a pale, drawn face, a shirtfront covered with blood, a wounded friend beside him and a loaded weapon in his hands; the most desperate and dangerous kind to face. "Your friend," he told Saunders calmly. "He must have help, or he will die."

Saunders positioned the Thompson higher, wincing. "Get over... here... help lift this thing off 'im..."

Sighing, Kraus stood on wobbly legs and took an unsteady step in Saunders' direction. With a deliberate, slow motion, he held his canteen out to Saunders, gesturing for him to have some water. When Saunders shook his head, Kraus turned to Caje and knelt at his side, putting the canteen to the trapped man's lips. He looked up into the remnants of the steeple, seeing slivers of sky through the rubble. He sighed and placed a hand on a beam to see if it could be pushed sideways, causing Saunders to raise the Thompson towards him with a pained wince. Then, the German tried to lift up the topmost of the beams. After a minute's effort he let go. "This post is too heavy, Sergeant. I cannot lift it."

Kraus turned to Caje. "Perhaps one goes to God faster if he dies in His house. But you," he told the Cajun, "you have been granted a miraculous chance." The German found the canteen at Caje's belt and unhooked it, providing him relief from the pressure, and then he put it beside the Cajun.

"Do me a favor, Kraut. Leave God out of this!" Caje rasped. "You did it..."

"It was a duty, as no doubt it was yours to shoot my corporal; a duty only to destroy an edifice. But hear this, soldier. If you were in any other... place, I would have the mission to kill you if I could. But I will not kill a man in here. I say, let God himself come and claim that which he has decided to spare."

Kraus plunged his hands further into the rubble. Caje could hear him rummage through the debris at his feet. "You see," the German continued, "...my brothers, two of them. And an uncle, ...all are priests, in Dresden. ...But, me? Pfff! I never wanted it!"

With slow, careful movements, Kraus pulled the cloth sack out from beside the American's feet and opened it, inspecting the contents. He sighed with relief when he saw the sticks and cords inside it, seemingly intact despite the conflagration. Reaching into it, he delicately brought out a red-colored metal box and showed it to Caje. "These are the detonators," he explained, letting out a breath. "I wonder at your luck, American!"

In response, Caje just looked at the German, his face awash with pain and anger.

"Give 'em here..." Saunders ordered.

Looking across from the Cajun, Kraus saw the American sergeant holding out a hand, evidently to receive the box of detonators.

He spoke quietly as he reached Saunders' side, indicating the dark-clad body curled up beside the door. "My corporal; a man with young sons who was obligated to enlist. He had no taste for war."

With slow, deliberate movements, Kraus placed the detonators on the ground beside the sergeant and backed away a step, watching him. He saw Saunders blink down at the box, running a hand across a face that looked deathly white under his sideways-bent helmet. The American's chest heaved, wet with blood, perspiration covered his face from the effort of holding his weapon. He saw the sergeant nod off, for just a second, and then struggle to raise his weapon in his direction again.

Shock, Kraus concluded, as he noted a shiver go through the wounded man.

He kept his face calm, meaning to be reassuring, and reached out a hand towards Sarge. Slowly, carefully, he pushed the tip of the Thompson away from him. Getting blood on his fingers, he pulled up the bandage that covered the shoulder, exposing torn flesh underneath. The wound looked such as Kraus had seen many times in battle before; open, ragged and surrounded by swollen tissue. It bled openly, matting the American's chest in blood.

"Do not move, sergeant," the German uttered in a low voice, reaching towards Saunders' web belt.

A voice in his back startled him. "Aufstehen, Kraut! Right now! Put those hands right where I can see 'em!"

He turned and blinked into the barrel of a long, heavy-looking rifle solidly held by a tall American soldier. He saw another, shorter American limp up to the armed one, anger flashing in his eyes. Kraus thought it better to comply immediately, putting his hands up in a show of surrender. "I was only getting a bandage," he explained. "This man is bleeding."

"I don't believe 'im!" Kirby exclaimed as he shoved the Garand forward, almost prodding the Kraut's shoulder with it. "He was all over the Sarge! Good thing we came in when we did!"

"You stay put, Kraut," Grady almost shouted, not sure if from relief at seeing the big German step away from Saunders with his hands up, or from fear at the sight of so much blood on his friend. A few more seconds, and the Kraut would have had his lousy paws on the Tommy gun.

"...Cover 'im good, Kirby!" he ordered. Then, clutching the BAR, he quickly knelt beside the wounded man.

"You're doing it again, Saunders!" Worry gnawed at his heart as he checked for an exit wound, finding none. "Hell, what is it with you? I can't leave your side for a minute or you try to buy the horse farm!" Grady pulled a bandage from his belt, ripping it open with his teeth. "Listen, you told me lots of times to hang on, that the American Army needs all their best soldiers if they wanna beat out those Krauts. Well, I'm sending it right back at ya, Saunders. You hear me?"

Saunders cornered a tired smile and gestured to Grady to shut up. Then, his hand fell limply to his side, right next to the box of detonators.

Grady turned his face. "...How're you doing, Kirby?"

"The Kraut ain't movin', does that answer ya?" Kirby replied. But the louse was watching everything real closely, he noted.

Grady pressed the bandage down over the bullet wound, staunching the flow but feeling helpless to do any more. He was a fighter, not a medic! The red box lay alongside the sack of explosives beside him. He quickly stashed them in a corner, away from the Kraut. Then, he went to check on Caje.

Testing himself against the large beams piled on top of the Cajun, he finally abandoned it, wincing with helpless defeat as he punched the side of it in anger.

Sagging to the ground beside it, he turned his head up towards the German. "Get over here, Kraut. Let's try it, all three of us!"

"Not Kraut. Feldwebel Jürgen Kraus. ...Yes, I will help him."

Kirby prodded the German over to Caje, gesturing for him to place his hands on the higher end of the beam. Grady grasped the lower end. With Caje pushing, all three men worked at lifting the beam, their grunts filling the room. A blood-curdling cry from the Cajun froze them. They let go, sagging down onto their haunches beside the beam. Grady winced when he saw an even bigger pool of blood underneath Caje's thigh and the PFC straining to hold in another cry. "Easy, Caje...."

"Radio...." Saunders voice came out barely more than a strained whisper. "Grady, ...where is it? Call for help."

Grady sat up, rubbing his forehead to clear his thoughts. "Hey, Kraut! You got a radio?"

"We used it before your friends killed my corporal. I tell you. All of your patrol activities here have been signaled to Regiment. Within the hour, our guns will destroy the town of Pontdieu. No matter that I am your prisoner. It cannot be stopped."

"Bullshit!" The BAR man exclaimed, as Kirby scrambled to his feet, grasping his rifle.

"I assure you it is the truth...." Kraus stated.

"Don't give me that. Just shut up!"

Grady noted the wiry man's reaction to what the Kraut had just said; Kirby's eyes were darting from Saunders to Caje, frowning. Kirby was doing his best not to show any pain from his twisted knee. The BAR man stubbed his cigarette on the ground, slowly exhaling. "Kirby, I'm thirsty right now. And we're all gonna need stamina for this job." He rapped his hand on the beam. "Wine'll do the trick. ...So, why don't you go look in the priest's things out there and try to find us a bottle? Go on, I'll cover the Kraut."

"Yeah. Sure thing." Kirby was off, clutching his rifle tightly. After a worried glance at the Sarge, he disappeared through the oak doors.

"He believed me," Kraus stated quietly. "But you are not like him, American."

"He's a good soldier, and a damn good rifleman. He'll cut you down and then eat his lunch."

Grady glanced at Saunders, seeing the pain in his friend's face. Even in the shadow, Saunders' shirtfront gleamed with blood. His shoulder drooped; he looked bad. Grady settled himself against the wall, aiming the BAR at the German. "I'm gonna ask you again, Kraut. If you have a radio, tell me where it is."

"No radio."

What Grady needed was a medic for Saunders, wheels, and an axe to put to that beam.... Grady sat up, suddenly getting another idea. "And I suppose you goose-stepped all the way over to this lousy village."

"Of course not."

"You have a truck?"

The German hesitated. "There is a vehicle," he finally answered, staring at Grady with a brow set in a pensive frown. "And a... how do you say a Wagen-heber?"

"I dunno about that. But I want a jack to get that beam off this man." Grady pulled another Lucky from his pocket. He took a deep drag before giving it to Caje, who took it with shaking fingers.

"Yes," Kraus replied. "A ...lifting jack. It may work, if you can go past German patrols to the vehicle and retrieve it."

"Patrols?"

"My army. It will soon come here in search of us...."

"I'll get it." Grady took a look at Saunders. "...And you're gonna help me, Kraut."

Saunders whispered his agreement, his voice barely audible across the room.

***

Schwarz grunted as a light touch sent a flash of pain through his arm, and he opened his eyes.

He looked up, seeing a dark-uniformed man kneeling at his side, checking the ragged hole in his sleeve. Help had come! The soldier hushed him as he pushed a button on his field radio and spoke into it.

"Diese ist ein Notruf! Bitte, antworten sie.... Amerikanische Streife sind hier! Melden sie sich! Ich bin mit ein verwundet!"

Schwarz forgot all about the pain he felt as he ran a hand across his beardless chin. He wanted to shout his relief at being rescued, but he didn't dare raise his voice. Americans would hear him; they'd surge from every cranny with guns blazing and shoot the Germans' heads off. The young man had seen enough American Western movies to know they all did that.

No answer came from the radio, and Schwarz feared that the call hadn't been received.

Then, the speaker suddenly came to life, in the familiar tones of the squad leader. "Wer is das? Geben sie ihre Deckname."

The proper code name! The young soldier almost cried with relief as the corporal answered the officer.

***

Kirby grumbled angrily as he wound the bandage around Saunders' arm. "It's a bad idea, Sarge!" With stiff fingers, he tied a knot in the gauze, securing it into a sling. "Watch it! Watch it! Okay. ...Sarge, I'm tellin ya, I don't trust that Kraut!"

Saunders sat up straighter, taking a long breath. "What else do you... want, Kirby? He'll lead... Grady to his truck."

"To an ambush is where he'll lead 'im!" Kirby replied. He crawled over to Caje, wincing at the flare of pain in his knee, and settled down beside the Cajun. He scooped up the green-colored bottle he had found in the church and took a mouthful of the contents before offering it to the other man. "Here, Caje. Drink up, slow and easy..."

Caje lifted his head and turned a face filled with perspiration towards them. "I think Kirby's right, Sarge... That Kraut could be lyin'."

Saunders shook his head. "The Kraut said... he'd help..."

Kirby had heard enough. A flush of anger swelled in him, and he whirled around, facing Saunders. "That's right! You told us that he said it in here..." The wiry man waved his arm all around. "Cause of this place. He likes churches. He's a real saint! Well Sarge, you know just like me. That Kraut ain't in a church any more! He's gone out there, alone with Grady!"

"He'll... get 'im back..." Saunders felt so very tired. "With the jack..."

***

According to his prisoner, Grady would find the truck wedged into an alley at the other end of the next street. They were almost there.

As Grady turned the corner he stopped, halted by the sight of a deep crater surrounded by loosened cobbles and debris. That made the third one he'd had to get across in as many streets. He cursed, figuring that no truck would manage to pass through that town for a hundred years. How the hell had the Krauts gotten it to where they parked? He stiffened his shoulders and shoved the German onwards.

Kraus stumbled his way into the crater, trying to avoid the stones.

Grady clambered into the hole after him, sticking to the Kraut's tail, watching his prisoner so closely that his eyes almost bored holes in the man's jacket. At the bottom, Kraus' boot suddenly sank in the softened earth, tipping over. Instinctively, the German reached out, grabbing Grady's sleeve to steady himself. The BAR man shook him away and waved him on with his rifle.

A noise across the street made him jerk his head up, pushing his helmet back to see better. He ordered Kraus to duck at the bottom of the crater and threw himself down, placing the BAR across the lip of earth. Suddenly, a dark figure came out of a building in front of them and sprinted across the street. Grady watched him disappear inside a door.

"They have come," Kraus said, panting lightly.

Clutching his weapon, Grady pulled the prisoner up by the sleeve, ordering him towards their right, into a shop.

***

"Wait, Sarge!" Kirby's helmet flew back onto his head as he whirled around and listened. There it was again! Somebody was right outside, climbing up the church porch, and for sure it wasn't Grady. Patrols comin'!"

German-speaking voices called out. The chained portals rattled furiously for a few seconds. Kirby watched silently as the doors thudded inwards; the Krauts were banging their shoulders against the oak. After several unsuccessful tries, the Germans stopped. Schmeissers started chattering outside, chewing a line of bullet holes out of the doors. Kirby ducked out of harm's way. Panting, he crouched beside the Sarge with his rifle raised.

The thick chains held up against the onslaught.

The Germans' tone changed, sounding like they were starting up a terse discussion. Even without understanding the words, Kirby could figure out what the Krauts were talking about. He jumped when the doors rattled again. Then, footsteps trailed off down the cement steps, headed towards the left, growing dimmer by the second.

"Hole up... there. Wait 'em out..." Sarge said, reaching for his helmet. He pulled on Kirby's arm, gesturing towards a recess in the wall, just to their left. Kirby understood what Sarge meant; it was about the only place to hide, other than behind the pile of beams lying on top of Caje. Kirby pulled Saunders over to it, trying to be as quick as he could about it.

Then Kirby froze, stopped by a sudden, gnawing realization. The Krauts were going to come in real soon, using the same way they all had. And they sure as hell would see Caje when they did. Kirby glanced at his squad mate, still lying trapped with his legs under the beams. Caje had his face turned towards the portals, panting, his expression registering complete fear and helplessness. The Cajun had missed nothing of the ongoing situation, but still waved Sarge and him on.

"Caje! I'll stay with ya!" Kirby didn't dare speak above a raspy whisper.

"No!" Saunders objected. "...Caje, you play d... ead!"

"He's gonna be dead, alone out here! I say, let's just blast them Krauts!"

"We'll... fight if we... have to... Go on." Saunders stopped talking, catching his breath. With Kirby's help, he crawled towards the recess, the Thompson heavy in his hand, and finally crawled into its darkness.

The two men stayed there, not moving, and waited. Kirby held the M1ready, his finger on the trigger, his eyes alert to any movements.

From his vantage point, Saunders could see a shaft of pale light come down on top of Caje, illuminating him in the darkened room. He clutched the Thompson despite the weakness in his arm and fought off the waves of agony that each breath sent through his chest.

Footsteps sounded in the church. Boots clattered softly on the stone floor in the main hall; several Krauts were cautiously leapfrogging towards the entrance, by the sound of it. The Germans came nearer, reaching the other side of the doors. Kirby grasped his rifle nervously, and felt a touch on his arm; Saunders was gesturing for him to stay put.

Nodding, Kirby silently leaned his rifle against the wall and took out his knife. He kept a steady eye on the room as two Germans entered, armed with automatic weapons.

***

Grady pulled Kraus through a broken door at the back of the shop and entered an alley lined with the backs of two-storied houses. He stopped momentarily to get his bearings. Then, ignoring the Kraut's protests that the way ahead was impractical and dangerous, he forced the German to head towards the right. The two men made their way through broken glass and the debris of fallen balconies. Grady stopped at the end of the passage, waiting to see if any more Krauts would come out of the shop after them.

Kraus settled himself onto his haunches beside him. "My men are moving into Pontdieu. They possess heavy weapons. Soldier, you will have no chance. They will be many, and you are alone."

"Let 'em try!" Grady clutched the BAR, feeling twitchy as he aimed it into the next street. "Your men come in here, and they'll know what firepower really is!" He forced the tone of bravado, hefting the comforting weight of the BAR, but he'd have really much preferred to have Gibson's Sherman or Bob McCauley's Tiger roll into the place and cover his rear like they always did. With either of those two tank men at his back, he could really charge out there and hit those Krauts where they lived. It'd be better than scurrying around in the shadows like a weasel.

"Where's your car?" he asked after several seconds.

Kraus gestured towards the right, raising two fingers. Grady nodded. Two houses, and then the alley where the car was parked, but yards of open ground to cover before they got there.

Without stopping, Grady forced Kraus up and lead him down the street, sidestepping a broken cart along the way. Inside the narrow alley the German had indicated, Grady saw a mud-covered staff car parked in front of a pile of rubble. It looked a hundred years old; he couldn't figure how the Krauts had maneuvered it through all the rubble in town. He pushed the German towards it, crouching low with his weapon aimed at his prisoner. "Get the jack, quick!"

A noise coming from behind him made him jump. He whirled to face it, aiming the BAR at a gray house across the street. His spine prickled as he thought of the German prisoner behind him, maybe coming at him with the heavy car jack right now. Damn! Turning, Grady saw only the back of Kraus' jacket as he leaned into the trunk and rifled through the contents. "Get down!" he cried. From the edge of his vision, Grady spotted two dark-clad Germans carrying automatic weapons running out of the gray house. He flattened himself against the bricks, his senses alert.

The Krauts sailed off the porch and started heading in his direction.

He raised the BAR, feeling trapped into a possible fight that he didn't want to have just yet, but kept his finger squarely on the trigger.

"Do not shoot." Kraus' voice spoke up quietly behind him. "Take shelter behind the car. I will talk to them. ...Make them go away."

Grady didn't have time to answer. The Krauts in the street were right on top of him. He dove behind the fender just as Germans appeared at the alley's entrance. As Grady sat, his back flattened against metal and his weapon trained on the prisoner's head, he listened to them. Some of the simpler words he understood from his memories of long-ago German-born neighbors.

"Greetings... well... go over, or back to Corbigny." He listened nervously, translating as best he could. He heard a long thread that he lost the meaning of, and then he heard "31st, continue... car..." The German patrolmen didn't seem aware of his presence; the big Kraut was doing exactly what he'd promised.

One of the Germans turned tail and headed back into the street.

His heart pounding, Grady clutched the BAR as the second Kraut came around the side of the car, jabbering about the tires or something. Kraus was telling him to go, his words unheeded. As the sentry reached him, Grady jumped up, giving him no chance to defend himself, and shoved the BAR across the man's windpipe.

The sentry fell back against the brick wall, his eyes bulging. His arms flailed wildly as he lost his balance, making him drop his Schmeisser. Before he could grab it again, Grady kneed him in the groin and brought a closed fist up against the side of the German's skull, wincing at the sickening crack of his knuckles against bone. The sentry became quiet and limp, crumpling to the ground at Kraus' feet.

Panting, Grady kicked the Schmeisser underneath the car, his eyes locked on the prisoner.

Kraus knelt down beside the limp soldier, taking his head in his lap, and wiped a red bubble from the side of the man's mouth. Unable to breathe, the sentry looked up at him, gasping. A single, violent spasm racked his body, and then he lay still. Kraus tore his gaze away from the dead man's face, looking up at Grady with a mouth set in fiery anger.

The American was wincing and rubbing the knuckles of his left hand against his chin. ...And he held that long rifle upon him, waving it.

"Awright," Grady uttered. "Let's get the jack." His tone softened as he watched Kraus stand. "...Come on. Let's go, huh?"

***

As Saunders and Kirby watched from the recess, two Germans entered the darkened room, armed with automatic weapons. Their silhouettes darted through the shadows at first. Then, one headed over to Caje, entering the clearer area, and stood beside him.

Caje felt a boot crunch down on his shoulder, and what he figured to be the cold tip of a rifle poke him in the ribs. He dared not cry out or move. ...Or breathe. The Cajun let his neck go limp as the Kraut shook him.

The other German came up beside the first one and put a hand in Caje's shirt pocket, lifting a pack of cigarettes from it. The first German lifted his arm off the ground and slipped the Cajun's watch off his wrist. Caje stayed very still, his eyes shut, listening to their incomprehensible talk. He clasped his bayonet underneath him with his right hand as fiery pain coursed through him at the rough handling. The Krauts were kneeling right beside his chest; he dared not breathe, no matter how starved his lungs were getting for air. His heart beat thunderously as the Krauts continued to circle around him. Why didn't they take what they wanted, and then leave?

One Kraut turned away from him. His lungs bursting, Caje decided to chance it and took a quick, silent breath.

"Hallo! Was ist das?" the Kraut asked from several yards away, breaking the silence.

His heart started pounding even faster. Caje feared he'd been seen. He willed his muscles not to budge any more, clutching his knife behind him hard enough to hurt. I'm dead, just a corpse, ...dead!

Kirby watched one Kraut move the through the grayness towards the spot he crouched in, getting a damn good view of the curiosity and suspicion in the man's face. He held his breath, clutching his knife, and nervously glanced at Sarge beside him. Saunders wasn't crouching any more; he had dropped down beside him, his chest heaving, and yet was still fighting hard to hold the Thompson. Kirby put a hand on Sarge's shoulder, shaking his head.

The German took a few more steps towards the hidden Americans and then dropped one knee beside the sack of explosives near the crevasse, reaching out to touch it.

For a few seconds, that dark jacket filled Kirby's whole vision, too close for his comfort. He backed up a step, swallowing a cry as pain flashed through his sprained knee. He almost stumbled as his boot rapped against the wall behind him. The German whirled around and stared into the recess with narrowed eyes. Wincing, Kirby sprang up on his wobbly leg and launched himself at the Kraut with his bayonet thrust forward. As the German swung his Schmeisser around, Kirby pushed him down and fell on top of him, plunging the blade into the Kraut's jacket below the ribs.

The German tried to shout out, but only let out a gurgled cry as he thrashed feebly against Kirby's desperate grasp. He continued to struggle for a few seconds, and then fell back.

Kirby stared everywhere, panting, as he retrieved the knife, looking for the other Kraut. He'd expected to hear the blast of the Thompson; to hear Sarge cut that one down. It hadn't happened. Now, that other Kraut was going to open up on him. He'd get a bullet; Kirby was sure of it.

Instead, he saw the second German sprawled on top of Caje, inert, his weapon lying on the ground beside them. Caje had his arms around the man like he was hugging him, his face covered with sweat and contorted with a grimace. The Cajun grunted loudly as he pushed the German off, and the man rolled away, revealing a handle sticking out of his body.

Panting, Kirby scurried over the Cajun. "Easy, Caje! Easy..." He looked under the beam, hoping not to see any more blood coming down the Cajun's leg. His voice betrayed his worry as he tried to sound reassuring. "Hey, them Krauts sure were nosy, right, Caje? How're ya doin'?"

Caje grunted, putting a hand over his face, and nodded.

"But we got 'em without firin' a shot!" Kirby continued. "Thank God for that, Caje. ...I mean, ain't this the place for it?"

"Yeah."

Kirby stopped talking as he saw Saunders slowly crawl out of the recess. Sarge raised his hand in a slight gesture and then settled himself against the wall.

Footsteps rang out in the empty church. Kirby jumped, suddenly shaken out of his peace. More Krauts already! He stared at Saunders, wondering what he was going to do. The Sarge's face looked pinched as he gestured towards the door. Kirby limped over it, posting himself at the frame with his bayonet ready. He waited, grasping the handle, and listened as the footsteps in the church approached; those guys were making time!

Kirby steeled himself as they came in, getting ready to pounce. He drew back, heaving a sigh of overwhelming relief, when he recognized the big Kraut from before, quickly followed by Grady.

"We got it. Here, take this," the BAR man said, holding up the jack. He looked around the room. "Where's Saunders? ...Is he okay?"

Kraus reached the middle of the room, and then froze when he saw the inert body of a German soldier beside the pile of timber. Blood covered the man's field jacket, and his chest wasn't moving. Another dead man lay near the wounded sergeant. Kraus shook his head and took a step towards the first one.

A hand grabbed his sleeve, stopping him. He whirled around and came face to face with the tall American.

"You," Grady ordered. "Just sit down there. ...Watch 'im, Kirby."

In two hurried steps, Grady was at Saunders' side. His heart skipped a beat at seeing the amount of blood on the damp shirt, but he forced a smile as he put the Thompson down beside him. "Saunders, I was just about to warn you there're Krauts in town. ...No need. See you noticed already." He carefully tugged at the sling, bringing the gauze lower on Saunders' arm. "And I learned where those Krauts're having their hoedown, too. Think S2 will be interested?"

Saunders coughed, almost choking as he attempted a chuckle. "Get... Caje out."

Grady's grin widened. "Don't rush me, I hate that...."

Saunders smiled weakly in turn, not speaking any more. He had trouble getting enough air to fill his lungs as it was; his ribs flared with each shallow, rapid breath he took. He blinked, trying to focus the pain away.

Wincing, Grady took his wounded friend's face in his hands, cradling it. Despite the stifling heat, the skin felt clammy and deathly cold. His heart sank with worry as he forced a soothing tone in his voice. "Easy, Saunders... It's okay...."

"You guys gonna be singing soon, too?" Kirby quipped suddenly. He shifted the rifle strap on his shoulders as he stared at them.

Kraus watched the angry American soldier, feeling an overflow of anger and fear, himself. Anger that these Americans had taken the life of two good soldiers; ambushed and killed them during his absence. This even after he had tried to make his position clear to them on those matters. His captors were wounded and trapped in the village. Their desperation might turn into madness and consume them all. If that happened, Kraus felt certain that his personal safety would be of no value whatsoever to those men.

He jumped, startled, as the tall American got up and then suddenly rammed his foot into a crate, shattering it.

Grady glanced at Caje, unable to erase the worry from his eyes, and ordered the others over to the pile of beams. He tried to wedge the jack solidly underneath it for leverage; it turned out to be harder than expected. "Caje," he said, taking a breath, "did I ever tell you about the frog and the toad who wanted to cross a bridge?" He noted a slight smile from the Cajun. "Kirby, go get that flat stone over there and put it underneath this...."

Grady swung the lever until the sheer weight of the beam stopped, noting a frown wash across Caje's face. He reached for the bottle of wine, bringing it to the Cajun's lips. "Here, just pretend this grape juice is Jimmy Beam, pun intended. ...Listen. Any pain, and you tell me to stop. Got it?"

Caje took a mouthful of the wine and waved them on.

With the German holding the high end of the beam, Grady gritted his teeth and pushed down hard on the lever. Nothing happened. Grady gave it another try, pulling up and then forcing it down hard again, fighting against the heaviness of the beam. With a cracking sound, it lifted, just a quarter of an inch. Caje sucked in a breath as a stab of pain jolted him, putting a forceful end to the numbness he'd felt. Splinters tore away from the beam as it rose, Caje could feel them.

Grady shook his head at seeing the Cajun's reaction. But he wasn't about to stop when he was so close to freeing him. Once more, he pulled up on the lever and then pushed down so hard, the veins in his neck bulged.

The beam rose another quarter inch.

Caje muffled a cry as Kirby grabbed his arms. Pain jolted through his body as Kirby pulled, but he helped, matching with his own efforts as best he could; squirming and crawling out from his confines.

Kirby placed him on his back, panting, as Grady came up beside the Cajun. Silently, the BAR man ripped the trousers open to expose the wound. He winced at the sight of a large sliver of wood lodged in the front of his leg. Caje looked down silently, wanting to see the damage for himself. A flow of blood trickled down from the wound, but the circulation was already returning now that he was freed, stinging him with the sensation of pins and needles.

Grady made a quick inspection of the wound. The skin around it looked swollen and bled slightly. "I don't think anything's broken, Caje," Grady whispered. "That doesn't look too deep. You'll live if you get back. Man! You're one lucky Son-of-a-gun!" he said, pouring a trickle of wine onto the wound.

"Not as lucky as ya think," Kirby declared, cocking his head. "Listen!"

Grady turned his attention to German-speaking voices ringing out in the street. Orders were shouted, and footsteps suddenly clattered onto the church steps. Several of the Germans sat down in a tight group just outside the portals and started an animated conversation, their weapons clattering against the concrete.

Kirby stared at the recess he had hidden in before, wondering if he'd be ordered to hole in it again. He saw Sarge sitting next to it, tension filling his face. Kirby shook his head as he realized that tiny spot would never contain all of them. "They're sure to find us this time. Come on! We gotta move out!" he whispered.

"Too risky. We stay put," Grady answered.

"What? Fight them?" Caje asked, reaching for his knife. He looked up at Grady, his unshaven face pinched with pain. He noticed that Sarge sat gesturing towards the recess, and he kept quiet about the blood he saw covering Saunders' chest.

"Just what I mean." Grady whispered, striding over to Saunders with urgency in his step. "Unless you find us all a place to hide in real quick! ...Kirby, here's your rifle."

Caje propped himself up onto an elbow. "Our church in New Orleans had a basement. Don't they all have basements, Grady?"

Saunders pointed frantically towards the back of the recess. "...In there!"

Grady nodded, placing a hand on the wall at the back of the hideout, just beside a plank. His heart leapt when he felt the wall budge slightly under his touch, and he ran his hands along its surface, frantically searching for a knob or something to open it with.

"Watch it! They're all around the place, now!" Kirby whispered, his voice tense. He jammed the M1 against Kraus's shoulder, keeping the rifle barrel steady and his attention riveted to the sounds echoing outside. "You. Stay quiet!"

The Germans on the porch clambered to their feet, talking right outside. More voices rang out, issuing calls that Kirby didn't understand but could clearly hear through the doors. The handle rattled suddenly; he knew the Krauts could see all the bullet holes gouged out of the wood from the last bunch that shot it up. Again, the thick portals shook under a violent onslaught of gunfire, and held. Kirby ran a hand across his forehead. His heart screamed that there were a million Krauts about to come in soon. What the hell was Grady doing back in the recess; having a beer with the Sarge? What were they waiting for to order them all to move out?

Grady kept on sliding his fingers against the smooth surface. Then, he froze, listening worriedly to the sounds outside. Several Krauts scrambled down the steps and started running alongside the church towards the back. He stared at Sarge, his eyes filling with steel-hard determination as he grasped the BAR.

"Showdown time, Saunders. They're coming."

Saunders shook his head. "There's... space back there, ...sure of it..." He stared at the far wall in there; cursing, and finally spotted the dark space along the edge at the back, which he had seen earlier. He raised a bloodied hand towards it.

Kirby was instantly at Saunders' side, pointing at the space. "I see it, Grady!"

Both placed their shoulders against the door and pushed as hard as they could. The thing refused to open despite their efforts. More footsteps sounded outside. Grady stopped, shaking his head, and then suddenly had a thought. He put his hands in the crack along the edge and pulled the blocked door towards him. It creaked inwards, its underside rubbing on the stones. The widening gap he created released a stale, musty stench that filled their nostrils.

Kirby's heart leapt at the sight of the large, black void at the back of the recess. Beyond it, he could see a stairwell leading down to what he hoped would be a dark, stinking, and safe cellar. He grabbed Saunders' arm, finding Sarge weaker than before, and helped him up. "Come on, Sarge." As he helped Saunders through the door, Kirby saw Grady give Caje a Schmeisser and pull him up.

Kraut footsteps broke out in the church, rapidly moving towards their position.

Grady turned his weapon towards the big prisoner, tersely ordering Kraus to go into the cellar with them. His face indicated that he'd stand for no tricks.

As Kirby helped Saunders down the cement stairs, avoiding cracks and debris as best he could in the darkness, Grady pulled the door shut behind them.

The Krauts burst into the room on the other side just as it closed.

Grady had no time to follow the others down. He crouched at the top of the stairs, silently listening to the German as they went around the entrance, evidently in search of something. They made a lot of noise as they turned rubble over. Grady heard their loud curses, and he understood the Krauts had found the bodies and seen the blood on the floor. He held the BAR ready, aiming it at the door, and stood guard in the darkness, always expecting one of those Krauts to get smart and come open the thing. It was only a matter of seconds now, he figured, caressing the trigger.

Kirby came off the last step, disoriented in the darkness at the bottom, and felt packed earth under his feet. He spotted the faint outline of a crate a few feet away, and he half-dragged Saunders towards it, wincing at another jab of pain through his knee as he reached the crate. Caje followed on his heels, leading the German in the same hiding place.

Behind the crate, Kirby felt Caje settle down beside him and Saunders, noting that they weren't doing so well, but the Kraut stayed quiet and didn't try any stupid tricks, at least for the moment. He shuddered as he listened to the Germans above moving stuff around and talking very loudly. As he eyes adjusted to the darkness, Kirby barely breathed, constantly expecting Grady to open up, and that all Hell would break loose up there. He clutched the M1 in silent waiting, observing Grady's back like a hawk. He wished he'd had more than just a Garand in his hands to do it; Grady always insisted on having heavy firepower at his back. ...Always.

After a time that Kirby found very long indeed, the BAR man came down the stairs, hunkering to the ground beside the others, and took a look at a row of small, barred windows at the far side of the room. Only pale light came in through the debris piled in front of them. "They're setting up in the church. Don't know when they'll decamp, but we'll just have to stay put 'till they do."

"We ought to tie the Kraut up, Grady." Gag and blindfold him, too, but Kirby got cut off before he could say it.

"With what? Primer cord? It's still up there, the Krauts probably have it by now." Grady settled at Saunders' side and pulled up the gauze sling to look underneath it, getting his fingers moist and wet. Saunders' breathing had become much shallower, he noted. He pulled out his canteen. "Easy, Saunders..."

"Just use his belt or something," Kirby continued. "Look, he can go for our throats any time we got our backs turned, and you know it! What are we gonna do then?"

Grady looked up at the silently immobile Kraus, barely making out the German prisoner in the half-light. "Technically, we're still in the church," he commented.

"What? You too, now?"

Well, that was just great! Kirby shook his head in anger, taking out the long-necked bottle he still carried inside his shirt. All of them were going to wind up dead for trusting that Kraut. "Want some, Caje?"

The wine trickled down the Cajun's throat, warmed to exactly Kirby's body temperature, but Caje felt a bit better after having swallowed a mouthful. "I think Kirby's right for once," he told Grady. "I say we tie him up."

"Huh!"

"All right, then. Do it. ...Kirby, give me a bandage" Grady said, placing the Camo beside him.

Grady felt a tremor go through Saunders' shoulders as he pressed the bandage down onto the wound. Pursing his lips, he touched Saunders' arm, looking at him quizzically. Sarge nodded, indicating that he was all right, just bushed. Grady let out a breath and looked at the others, feeling a heavy responsibility to them all at that moment.

"Saunders, I'd rather be fighting those Krauts," he said in a solemn voice, "but I 'm going to get you back to the medics. ...You and Caje. You hear that, Saunders? One way or another, I swear it."

He spit into his hand, feeling the sticky wetness mingle with the blood already there, and then he locked his palm onto Saunders, squeezing it hard. Saunders squeezed him back, more feebly, and smiled slightly before nodding off.

For the first time that day, Grady thought Saunders' face looked almost peaceful. He looked up at Caje, and at Kirby as the wiry man made the prisoner sit. "These aren't the best barracks I ever saw."

He grasped the BAR against his chest and sat down next to Sarge, lost in thought.

***

Schwarz sat up in the truck, finding the seat too hard to lie down on any more. Beside him, a soldier manning the big gun smiled and handed him a cigarette. Schwarz accepted it gratefully, picturing his mother, all gray hair and string-tied aprons, come up, shove the tarp aside and see it in his hands. He smiled as he put it in his mouth; the woman would swat his behind with a rolling pin.

Someone came up behind the truck, his boots clattering loudly on the cobblestones. Schwarz saw the corporal from the next squad clamber into the vehicle, looking very businesslike. The young man sat up straighter, stiffening his back like the soldier he was supposed to be.

The corporal stared at him for a few seconds, a stern look on his face. Then, his expression softened somewhat. He gave the young man a signal, ordering him to remain at his post, and took out a map from his pocket. The corporal unfolded the paper and spoke with the other soldier.

Schwarz turned his gaze out towards the streets and scoured the horizon with renewed alertness.

***

Kirby jumped, knocking against Caje's shoulder, startled by the sound of a dog's bark. How much time had passed since he'd dozed off? He rubbed his eyes and looked over at Grady, seeing him sitting against the wall a few yards away with his eyes wide open, settled in next to Sarge like he always was. Kirby listened more closely, wondering if he'd only dreamed the dog. Then, he heard the noise again. A high-pitched barking sound rang out from really close by, as if a dog were in a corner of the room with them. But that was impossible.

Then again, maybe he hadn't dreamed it after all; Grady sat up straight as a board and aimed his weapon at the same spot the sounds came from. Caje, sitting beside him, grabbed the Schmeisser and swung it over there too.

Grady clutched the BAR, hearing the dog bark another time. He'd heard that exact same yipping noise not long before. It was a shrill sound, higher-pitched than that of a big animal. He scrambled to his feet. "Come on!"

Kirby got up too, feeling a jolt in his knee the instant he put his foot down. He cursed as his boot caught on a hard object. He stepped around the thing cautiously; cursing at the junk that littered the room everywhere. Then, he froze, distinguishing another, scarier sound coming from the top of the stairs.

Krauts were shuffling around the entrance, just on the other side of the recess. One of them hushed the others, and they all went silent. Kirby cocked his ears intently, shuddering.

Grady wanted to signal to Kirby to quit stalling and move. He stuck his foot out in front of him once again, finding the same thing he had before; a fissure, or crack in the floor in that corner of the room. The barking sounds were coming from its depths. He dropped down to his knees, investigating the opening, smelling a slight odor of sewer coming from it. Hope sparked inside him as he plunged his Zippo lighter deep inside the hole. Yes! He saw semi-circular concrete lining the sides of a packed earth tunnel. The town drainage system certainly came up underneath there, and the fissure gave them access to that system; it looked just big enough that they might squeeze through it.

In the flickering light of the flame, a small, white dog appeared at the bottom of the hole. Grady looked at it, certain that he recognized the hairy little terrier from the alley the day before. It kept jumping up on tiny legs, yipping with excitement at their presence. Frantically, Grady hushed the dog.

Kirby reached his side, cursing. Gripped by anxiety, Kirby jerked his Garand up towards the stairs. "The whole Kraut army's gonna start knockin' on the door! Grady, that rat better shut its trap, or I'll..."

The tall man nodded; he'd take a bayonet to that mongrel himself, to shut it up. "Get back with the others. Quick!" He watched Kirby hurriedly limp across the darkened cellar, waiting worriedly to hear if the barks would be bringing the Krauts on them. Then, he quickly squeezed into hole, bent on scooping up the damned animal and making it quiet.

The terrier scurried away in the half-gloom as Grady thudded down onto soft, foul-smelling ground. The BAR man froze there with his knife in his hand, gazing out towards where the dog had gone. The storm drain seemed to stretch on, free of obstacles from what he could discern, but Grady's heart skipped a beat at the thought of having to plunge into that dark sewer. It wasn't what he'd meant when he'd told Saunders that he wanted to be buried in France if he should ever buy it.

Footsteps echoed beyond the recess door above. Kirby posted himself next to Saunders, giving Sarge a worried glance as he listened to the Krauts upstairs. He winced with helplessness as Saunders moaned, trying to hold the Thompson. "Easy, Sarge...." He gave Sarge the M1 and picked up the heavier Thompson, aiming it at the top of the stairs. Under cover of silence, Kirby held the Tommygun with baited breath; ready to plug any Krauts who stepped out.

A glance over at Caje showed the PFC holding his weapon to the German's head, stopping him from.... Good thing they'd put a gag on the Kraut when they did! He wiped the sweat beading across his face with his right hand and hardened his grip on the Thompson, much preferring the heavier weapon to what he usually carried. Alerted by a sudden scratching noise to his left, he cocked his head, his finger on the trigger. He let out a breath when Grady's figure appeared, heading his way.

The BAR man quietly dropped to his knees at Saunders' side, checking the wounded man's face intently. He heaved a sigh when he saw his friend's regular breathing, but Saunders had lost a lot of blood and looked weak. Gently, he touched Saunders' arm and took out his canteen. "Tide's low right now, I found a way out, Saunders."

Loud thumps rang out upstairs, sounding as if the Krauts were banging against the wall of the recess all of a sudden. Grady turned to Kirby, then to Caje. "Both of you get ready. We're going to the river," he told them, as he helped Sarge to his feet.

"Well, sure, but.... What do we do about him?" Kirby asked, incredulity in his voice. He pointed at the stocky German.

Grady simply didn't know. He hesitated; listening to the sounds of the Germans only yards away at the top of the stairs.

"Leave me here," Kraus said. "I promise that I will make no noise to alert them. I will let you escape."

That made Grady snort.

"We're not gonna bring 'im with us!" Kirby insisted, exasperation evident in his tone as he took a hobbling step towards Grady.

The BAR man sighed and cursed all at once. More boot steps rang out upstairs, just beyond the door. As the bound prisoner turned a pleading stare towards him, Grady felt Saunders flinch at his side and caught him, feeling a sudden impulse to just take his knife and use it to end the problem. Tersely, he ordered the prisoner to stand. "No damned way, Kraut. I want you where I can see you plain. ...You stick on 'im, Caje. We'll ditch 'im first chance we get."

With the BAR man covering them, they squeezed through the fissure one by one and dropped into the storm drain. Kirby followed the Cajun inside, aiding Saunders over decaying refuse that littered the drainpipe. Enclosed in the dark, stifling passage, they moved on, occasionally flicking on a lighter to see their way. They cast nervous glances behind them as they hurriedly made their way down its length; their boots padding on soft, dried out soil, and finally reached a crossroads where daylight filtered down through grates above their heads.

There the Americans stopped, looking up through the bars at the familiar fountain with the statue of the half-naked woman.

Kraus leaned against the wall, rubbing his wrists together, trying not to show that his ties had loosened. He saw his captors' attention intent upon the grating for a second.

Throwing off his ties, he shoved his massive frame against the Cajun, setting himself to make a run for it. Caje stumbled sideways, crashing an empty bottle against the wall, and then managed to steady himself and aim the rifle at the German.

Kraus took two bounding leaps towards the darkness and then froze when he heard a hushed order to stop. Turning around, the German saw that the thin soldier still stood; he wasn't on the ground as Kraus had hoped. The American took a hobbling step forward and thrust a weapon at his chest.

Cursing, Kirby held up the Sarge as he aimed the Thompson at the prisoner too, watching Grady stride over to the German. The Kraut's hands were loose, he saw with a sharp stab of anger. He watched the BAR man spin Kraus around roughly and... Kirby suddenly felt Saunders' legs give out from underneath him. He almost lost the Tommygun as he caught the Sarge.

Grady came and knelt at Saunders' side touching the side of his face. He could see Saunders' drawn and pale features in the filtered light as the wounded man struggled to haul himself back up again. Groaning, Sarge fell back, his shirt wet with blood. "Easy, Saunders. Easy...." Grady soothed. He turned to Caje. "He's getting weak," he said worriedly.

He turned towards the Cajun. "He's soaking, dammit. Caje, give me a bandage!"

Footsteps rang out in the street just over their heads as he ripped it open, making Grady stare up at the grates above. Several Krauts appeared through the bars; they knocked over a table and chair, making no effort to mask the noise they made. Grady winced as a violent cough seized Saunders.

"Keep 'im quiet!" Kirby snapped anxiously.

Caje trained his rifle on the bound Kraut, his face drawn with worry as Grady clamped down hard over Saunders' mouth. Sarge suppressed his fits as best he could; the BAR man felt Saunders' breath on his palm as he pressed down hard.

Kirby crouched with the Thompson raised up at the grates. He watched as several Germans' boots clanked on the bars of the grate. Chuckles and jeers sounded as the Krauts stepped off the metal and strode over to the statue, taking forever to look at the woman! Sarge coughed again, seized by a violent fit. Kirby raised the Tommygun higher, his heart in his throat, and watched the Krauts in the street. He saw them caress the statue's bosom with hearty laughs and then head off, their footsteps trailing off. Kirby let out the breath he'd been holding and knelt as Grady's side, grumbling quietly. "Rats in a drain. That's what we are!"

Clutching his weapon, Grady looked up through the bars as a German straggler rushed by, going the same way as the others. "Point taken!" he said, gripping Saunders' arm, as the Kraut disappeared. "Okay, help me get him up. Get over here, Kraut." The BAR man ordered the prisoner to help support Saunders. "Since he'd been so anxious for exercise," he pointed out.

"Caje, take the rear!" he added, grasping the BAR.

Caje held Kraus' icy stare as the prisoner strode in front of him. Suspicious flared in the Cajun; he waved the prisoner on again with his rifle. Quietly, he watched the prisoner's massive shoulders as Grady led the group straight into the next drainpipe. But Kraus only held up the Sarge as Grady had ordered, lifting him over objects strewn in their way.

They stopped after several minutes, their way blocked by a mound of large chunks of broken concrete.

"The river's right across this." Grady shouldered the BAR and strode towards the left of the obstacle, signaling for the others to follow him. "There's space enough through here."

Metal rods snagged their clothing as the men inched their way around the obstacle. Kirby cursed inwardly as he helped Saunders across it. He leapt off a large slab on the other side of the concrete mound and froze with his mouth open, gaping at a bright opening several yards away, framing the canal and row houses that he had seen before.

Grady strode over to the opening, carefully stepping across a metal grille lying at the edge, and threw himself down on his belly to inspect the view. He saw the concrete embankment leading down to the dark-green water below. A moss-covered plank floated past, drifting westward. Grady stared in both directions, seeing an arched bridge to his right, about a block away. Beyond it sat a truck with a canvas tarp in the back.

"There's a boat down there," Caje said, coming up beside him and pointed at a mass of planks lying just an arms' length below them.

Grady nodded; in fact, there were several, he saw. He would have called them wrecks. He shuddered at the thought of floating Saunders downstream in one of them. "How's Saunders?"

"It's rough. He's..."

Grady pushed the Cajun back into the pipe, out of sight, as German helmets appeared in the street on the other side of the canal. The two Americans watched the dark figures rush towards the bridge and disappear, and then they went back inside. Grady crouched at Saunders' side for a moment, contemplating his options. He saw Saunders' eyes flutter open.

"You're... doing fine..." Saunders whispered with effort.

"Not so much. This blasted mission sure got messed up along the way, Saunders," Grady said. He caressed the stock of the BAR, thinking that he would have preferred to go out and face the Krauts with it, right from the first trouble, rather than hole up in a dark drain. He saw the German prisoner, sitting against the pipes, glance at his friend's chest, and he pursed his lips. "I'm a rotten medic as you can see. ...And crap at making decisions...." Grady though he saw a hint of a smile on Saunders's face.

"Grady, we gotta move!" Kirby exclaimed, worry in his voice. "Look, maybe we can use that boat down there and get across."

"Too risky."

"We'll just flip it over and hide underneath it, then. Float right by 'em! They'll never see us."

"Grady..." Saunders had to strain out the words. "Do your...best. That's all..."

Grady hardened his grip on the BAR, nodding his full agreement. He hushed Saunders as he looked out towards the canal, focusing his thoughts. The worry fell away from his features as his decision took hold. "Kirby, give me the ammo," he said, popping the mag out. "I'm gonna go down and set a boat into that swill. Go across and flank the Krauts from the other side. Kirby, you go up and wait for my signal. ...Don't ask; you'll know when you hear it." He rammed the magazine into place and then stuffed the ammo belt with full mags.

"Remember, Saunders. ...If ever I don't make it."

He shook Saunders' hand and scampered towards the opening. He stopped there for a beat, adjusting the thick strap of the ammo belt on his shoulder, and looked pointedly at the others. "Guys, keep it together, we're going to leave the Kraut and roll outta this place!"

Caje thought Kirby's sarcastic remark didn't quite mirror his own thoughts. He aimed the weapon at the prisoner, watching him, while Kirby went out after Grady.

***

Silently, The BAR man pushed the boat against the far side of the embankment. He stayed in the water for a few seconds, keeping a close eye on the row houses above, and then went up the steep incline with his weapon ready. A cobbled street stretched on behind a concrete railing. He crouched behind it, aiming his weapon, as a soldier hurried by and disappeared around a corner. Looking back where he'd come from, he saw Kirby trying to gain a foothold and then slip, almost falling into the water. Kirby grabbed his knee, grimacing with evident pain.

Grady instinctively made a move towards him, worried that Kirby was going to bring the Krauts from the truck out after him. Then, he sighed with relief when Kirby hoisted himself up and settled into position at the top of the embankment with the Thompson perched on top of the railing.

He turned his attention back to the street in front of him.

***

Caje looked at Saunders, worried about the sweat and pallor in Sarge's face. He was getting badly dehydrated in the heat. "Here, Sarge. Have some water," the Cajun told him, bringing his canteen up to Sarge's lips. There were only a few sips left in it.

He gasped as the big German turned on him with a sudden jump. Kraus shoved the Cajun violently aside, bringing up a closed fist to the side of Caje's head. A violent flash blurred his vision as Caje fell backwards. The German reached down to grasp the Schmeisser; Caje swung it against Kraus' ankle as hard as he could. The German cried out and stumbled, steadying himself against the side of the pipes as Caje got the weapon back into his hands. Both men jumped, as a deafening shot rang out, coming from Sarge's position. Startled, Caje stared up and saw Sarge holding Kirby's rifle on the Kraut.

Kraus got to his feet; his eyes boring down the rifle barrel. He winced as a bullet whizzed by his arm. He turned and ran back into the drainpipe, where darkness engulfed him instantly. He expected shots to ring out behind him; he kept on running, knowing the Americans would be shooting blind if they did. But he always expected the thin one to come after him, lame or not. A shot suddenly bounced off the cement walls beside him as he reached the mound of concrete slabs. He went for the space at its side, panting so hard he thought his lungs would burst, and squeezed his massive frame though it.

"That tears it!" Kirby exclaimed to himself, as he heard shots ringing out in the drainpipe. What was going on down there? The Krauts were all going to converge on this place if that noise kept up! He wondered if Grady was hearing the commotion too. He jerked his head towards the drain's opening, startled by Caje's voice coming from below.

"The Kraut escaped!" Caje shouted from the canal. "Come on and help me bring up the Sarge!"

"Aw, Caje! Ya gotta be kidding!"

Kirby cursed because he wasn't sure what to do. He figured on going back down with the Cajun, and then he froze, remembering that Grady was about to give him a signal to go up and do something. As usual, Grady hadn't explained that part before heading out. Kirby shifted the strap of the Thompson nervously, digging inside himself for an answer. What Sarge would do is help anybody in trouble. Grady? That was easy; he caused trouble.

Casting wary glances above, Kirby followed the Cajun down to the Sarge.

***

Grady swung his legs over the railing and half-crouched towards a broken wagon a few yards away, dropping to his knees behind it. He balanced the BAR over on the top of his cover, waiting to see if his movements had alerted any Krauts. All stayed quiet.

He jumped out, zigzagging over to an overturned cart, and ducked behind it. Hefting his weapon, he glanced into the street, counting nine or so such wooden obstacles to crouch and hide behind before he was finally at the bridge. Wasting no time, he sprang out from behind the cart and reached a broken crate. He flattened himself behind it, panting, feeling his heart racing. Taking a deep breath, he darted out again, heading towards the next cover.

***

Kirby and Caje helped Saunders across the railing. "Let's take 'im in there!" Kirby exclaimed, wrapping Sarge's arm around his shoulder, indicating a red-bricked house with a familiar sign reading L'HAMEÇON D'OR just across the street. "Come on, help me, Caje!"

Caje sucked in a breath as a violent spasm shot through his leg. He ignored it as he helped Kirby lift Sarge over a pile of loose planks near the door to the café. The loud roar of gunfire in the street made him jump. As a hail of bullets ripped chunks off the bricks beside his helmet, stinging bits of rock flew across his face.

The Americans broke into a labored sprint across the last remaining yard to the door. They pushed Sarge through the opening and crouched down at the frame.

Kirby raised the Thompson, scouring the street to see where the shots had come from. He could see a machine gun barrel in a lower story window up the street, several houses away. He fired at it, cursing as he saw the thing swerve towards him. He ducked back inside, his heart leaping into his throat.

"I'll watch 'im, Kirby!" he heard Caje's voice shout above the din.  He turned and saw the Cajun at Sarge's side, next to an overturned table, his unshaven face looking pinched and more tense than usual. Blood darkened the side of Caje's trousers; Kirby felt a sharp pang at the sight, but Caje kept calm about it. The PFC took a grenade from his shirt and held it up towards him. "Go 'round, and throw that in the window. I can't do it, and the Sarge is out. Go, Kirby!"

"This your only one?" Kirby asked, incredulous at having a single, solitary chance at getting it right.

He took the pineapple that Caje shoved into his hands. Slinging the Thompson across his shoulder blades, he crouched towards the rear of the building, wincing as more shots rang out in the street. He heard Caje fire back at the Krauts.  Pain stabbed through his knee as made his way to the rear of the café; he barely noticed it. All he could feel was the hard sphere against his chest.

***

Kraus came out of the metal grate, jumping onto cobbles, and felt warm sunlight on his face. The town square with the voluptuous statue stood before him; he remembered seeing some of Sergeant Richter's squad members walk up to it before. Where were they all now? He scrutinized the broken building fronts all around the square.

He whirled around as machine gun fire rang out from somewhere near the canal. American weapons thundered in response. The loud noises in the distance gave him his answer. He felt alone, wishing he had a rifle to back up his men. Gulping, he turned and headed out towards the sounds of gunshots.

***

Kirby crouched at the back door, looking into the alley in both directions. There was rubble lying all over the place, he noted. It would give him cover as he crept up to the house with the machine gun.

He stood, poised to enter the alley, and then heard the clatter of boot steps to his left. Kirby froze as he saw four Krauts running towards him, their weapons raised. Ducking back down, he swung up the Thompson in their direction and fired. The recoil and shoulder-numbing vibration almost sent him sprawling onto his backside.

Two of the Germans staggered backwards. Turning over a crate as they fell, their weapons clattering beside them. Kirby was still shaking as he stuck his head out and looked at the prone figures in the alley. The Tommy gun felt warm in his hands all of a sudden, like it was alive. He ran a hand over his forehead, watching the alley for the other Krauts, and felt very unsafe in that spot. He heard the other Krauts talking to each with low voices out in the alley. He didn't dare step a toe across that threshold any more. Not now.

Caje raised the Garand and fired at that damned gun barrel up the street. It opened up in response, spewing fire in his direction. The Cajun ducked back inside with his hand on his helmet; flying debris scratched his neck anyway. An upturned wagon lay near the next house. He thought of going out into the street to try and approach the Kraut gun, but it roared to life again. He ran a hand across his forehead, looking across at the canal water, and briefly wondered if it hadn't been safer for them in the dark enclosure of the drain after all.

Anything would be better then this.

Saunders opened his eyes, blinking his surroundings back into focus. He took in a shallow, painful breath and glanced across a cluttered room with white walls and a high ceiling. A round, dark object stood beside him, and he spotted an M1 propped against it. Caje's voice called out from a few yards away. The Cajun was crouching at a door with his rifle raised, and suddenly flinched as bullets slammed into the frame. Saunders gasped with pain as he reached out to grab the rifle at his side, seeing blood on his fingers, and listened to the roar outside. He could listen. He struggled to hold up the rifle, and then he lowered it again, finding it too heavy. Panting, he just sat with his finger in the trigger and watched the door.

***

Grady ground his knee onto the cobbles as he stuck his head out from his cover and stared at the bridge. He saw a narrow asphalted road that spanned the river with a gradual slope, flanked by concrete railings.

He could see only the top of the truck on the other side. All of a sudden, the tarp was flung aside, revealing two dark-helmeted figures standing at the back of the vehicle. From his angle, he could hear, but not see, the Germans fire a cannon at a target further up the street. Its sound made Grady wince and pull back out of sight, clutching the BAR to his chest. The thick strap shifted onto another spot on his shoulder. He took a grenade from inside his shirt, grasping it with his left hand, and went out onto the bridge.

He scraped his elbows on the asphalt as he bellied up the incline, sticking to the railing for cover. At the highest point, he tucked his head down and looked out towards the massive vehicle. What he saw at the end of the bridge was an armor-plated half-track with a wicked-looking set of caterpillar wheels. Grady watched in fascination as the two Krauts loaded ordnance into a long-barreled FLAK anti-tank gun mounted on an open-top turret at the back, spewing a fire of death out towards Kirby and the others.

Grady's heart leapt at the sight.

He started crawling faster towards the vehicle, clutching the grenade, bent on getting close enough to reach what he always called accurate hurling distance. The Germans in the truck kept boring down on their target, unaware of the presence of the American creeping up on them. At the end of the railing, Grady leapt to his feet and launched the grenade into the truck's well, hearing it clatter against the sides. Instantly, he ducked back behind his cover, clutching his helmet, and counted down the seconds to the explosion.

Panicked shouts rang out from inside the vehicle. The MG's thundering fire stopped as the Krauts scrambled frantically. Then, the grenade went off, shaking the vehicle for several seconds.

Distant sounds of machine gun fire kept on after the explosion, uninterrupted, echoing from somewhere near Kirby's position.

Grady thrust the BAR forward and almost flew across the last remaining yards to the truck. Clambering up the side, he aimed the weapon into the well, seeing two prone, twisted bodies inside. He put a foot down off the truck, aiming to high-tail it out towards Saunders, and then gasped with surprise as a large, dark-clad figure carrying a board the size of a railroad tie came out from behind the fender.

With the swiftness of lightning, Kraus swung his plank around and thudded it against the tall American's back, knocking him hard against the side of the truck. Grady lost his footing and fell, landing beside the wheels with a grunt. With blurred vision, he recognized the big German, almost on top of him. He kicked at Kraus' boots, and saw the German jump back. Trying to regain his breath, and he swung up the BAR to cut down the Kraut, a fraction of a second too late. The German thudded his plank against Grady's chest, knocking the breath out of him.

Grady lost his hold on the BAR; the world spun, and then went black.

***

Once more, Kirby took a chance on sticking his neck out and checking what was going on in the alley. Hushed voices sounded nearby, issuing orders in German. Two helmeted figures burst up from behind a pile of barrels, aiming their Schmeissers at him. Instantly, Kirby thrust up the Thompson and fired back, seeing the Krauts dive for cover again. Kirby knew he'd missed them because their weapons opened up again, sending bullets bouncing off the walls beside him. Kirby ducked out of the way, his knees weak, just cursing for them all to stop. They never stopped, those lousy Krauts!

***

Grady grasped his chest as he fell, rolling onto his side. Some of his vision came back along with his breath, and he saw the big German standing beside a helmet, still holding up the plank. He winced as he coughed more air back into his lungs. He reached for the weapon at his side, gulping with surprise as he came up empty. Out of the corner of his eye, he finally spotted he BAR lying on the cobbles several yards behind him, the strap broken off.

"Stand up, American!"

Grady fought off the fire in his chest. He took a deep breath and slowly got to his feet. Putting his arms on the caterpillar wheels, he buried his face in his forearms to take second's breather. His ribs felt broken just below the shoulder blades, making each panting breath difficult to take.

A soft moan coming from the truck made him look up. Kraus copied his gesture. Again, the sound came to Grady's ears, barely audible and plaintive; a young voice. "Hilfe.... Es blutet.... Ich hab Schmerz..."

"He says he is hurt and bleeds badly," Kraus asked. "Bandage him, American."

"What do you want? I haven't got any bandages, Kraut."

"You will not do for mine what I was about to do for yours?"

"I can't. I already said I haven't got any left." ...And pigs would have flown before that Kraut would really have helped Saunders back at the church. He saw the German look up towards the moaning sounds. Without warning, Grady lurched sideways, launching himself at the BAR.

Kraus saw the tall American reach for the long rifle, unbelievably fast. He reacted by lunging forward, bringing the plank hard against Grady's already bruised rib cage. Grady cried out at the crushing blow against his ribs, but kept on rolling towards the BAR.

The Kraut gasped loudly and made for the truck.

Grady scooped the weapon into his hands and swung it up, trying to steady it despite his blurred vision, and shot a quick burst into the wheels just as the Kraut's figure disappeared inside. Pain coursed through his chest where the Kraut had hit him. He winced as the distant sounds of Schmeissers thundered in the distance, and the Thompson responded with ever-shorter bursts.

Kraus ducked inside the gun well as bullets ripped out a line of holes from the metal plating above him, very close to his head. He caught the sight of the young soldier, Schwarz, lying next to a body in there. The recruit was clutching his stomach as he lay in a pool of blood, panic on his face. The floor of the well swam in blood. Kraus waited for the shooting to stop and then threw himself down beside the youngster, his stomach lurching at the sight of a long shard of metal protruding from the kid's belly. But gunfire sounds raged on further in the village, and the American beside the truck was poised to use his powerful rifle to rush his men.

"I give up! Enough, American!" he called out, desperately hoping American wouldn't start shooting again.

The BAR man gulped in a painful breath as another moan rang out from inside the armored vehicle.

"I surrender!  Do you hear? The wounded here is a mere child," Kraus shouted out to the American as he spread the dark, wet jacket apart, exposing a gaping wound in the young man's abdomen.

Grady winced at a renewed burst of machine gun fire in the distance. From the vantage point here, he could even see the gun barrel poking out of house window near the canal. Kirby and the others were really under it. He clutched the BAR; dying to head out towards the MG and make it shut up. Then, he thought of the job that long-barreled 88 would do on him if he rushed out to help Saunders with those two left alive in the truck.

Kraus stood up, raising his hands in full view of the American.  "Are you are an animal, then?" he spat at him.  "Soldier, this man's life is at stake!"

Grady rubbed the side of his mouth angrily as he stared up at the big German standing beside the 88.  How had the Kraut managed to bait him so damned easily?  He was as good as pinned down there, now.  He saw Kraus raise his hands over his head in a big show of surrender, wielding that helplessness of his like a weapon.  Grady took a measured step backwards, grasping the BAR; watching the German intently, and then turned his back on him.

"Stop!" Kraus called out, putting his hands on the gun.  He watched with disbelief as the tall American whirled around, dropping a knee to the ground, and raised the long rife up towards him.

***

Sarge set off in a slow, painful crawl towards Caje; he saw the Cajun fire a furious burst outside with the weapon and then duck to the floor to avoid another volley.  Saunders' breathing stopped when Caje's helmet came rolling towards him.

Trembling, the PFC leaned over and scooped up his helmet.  His ears rang like mission bells as he put it back on, but he could hear the loud reports of the Thompson in the rear, having it out furiously with Schmeissers.  Kirby was back there, pinned down just like he was.

"Caje..." Saunders's voice sounded weak, and Caje looked over at Sarge, seeing him coming towards the door with the M1 in his hands.  The Cajun opened his mouth to tell Sarge to get down, and then flinched as more bullets screamed past his arm. "You can't help now, Sarge!" he cried out.  He raised the weapon and fired outside again; worried about seeing Sarge start crawling towards him again.

"Sarge, get down!"

***

Kirby popped the empty mag out of the suddenly silent Thompson and reached to his belt for another one.  He stopped in mid-motion, remembering he didn't have the right kinds of bullets in there.  He shook as he realized he needed time to change weapons or change ammo.  Hell, he needed to change countries....

He took the pin out of the grenade, the last useful weapon he had, and knelt at the threshold to wait for the Krauts to come up firing. Seconds later, he spotted two helmets rise up behind a stack of rubble with their Schmeissers aimed at him.

The wiry man hurled the grenade in a high arc towards the Germans, quickly ducking back into the doorway with his back against the wall.  He hid his face as the explosion rocked the alley, followed by shrill, pain-filled screams.  Kirby chanced a look outside and saw Krauts lying in front of a pile of rubble, their helmets still wobbling beside them.

Kirby didn't know how many more Krauts were out there.  He decided not to stick around to find out. He grabbed the empty Thompson and crawled back into the café. Inside, Kirby saw Sarge holding the M1 with evident effort, his shirt and gauze sling filled with blood, and staring at the door.  Kirby turned his gaze over there, too, and almost died of a heart attack when he heard the sound of a heavy vehicle rolling in towards them. He forgot all about Krauts back in the alley as the whole place shook from vibration, and he heard the rubble lying all around in the street crunching under its violent passage.

"Back! Back!" Caje cried out, crawling out of the way as fast as his wounded legs could move.

Kirby felt beads of sweat drip down his sides as he grabbed the Sarge and pulled him towards the bar in the corner of the room. The building shook, like an earthquake had hit it. "This plan ain't turnin' out too good, Caje. An' on top of it, Grady hasn't showed!" Kirby exclaimed above the din, not even listening whether the Cajun had heard him or not.

The Americans crouched at the edge of the bar, watching the window, as an armored vehicle with a long-barreled cannon rumbled past. It stopped in front of the broken-down café, in plain view. With the motor idling, its gun swiveled out towards the canal, making a loud creaking sound. Caje stayed in front of Sarge behind the counter and watched the cannon with horrified fascination as it swerved slowly to the left and bore down right into their throats. Then, it mysteriously swiveled the other way again, aiming dead center at the machine gun up the street.

A deafening blast pounded the Americans' ears as the cannon opened up, belching a stream of fire towards the Kraut machine gun. Caje and Kirby threw themselves in front of Saunders; their weapons ready, and waited out the blast. Kirby got his breath back after it stopped and thrust his rifle out towards the mechanized vehicle, aiming for the cannon. No way he'd give up without giving those Krauts a fight!

A clatter of boot steps sounded on the cobbles behind the vehicle as a man jumped down from the truck and strode over to the rail fronting the canal.

Kirby flattened himself beside the counter, his finger on the trigger. He held his breath with anticipation as he watched the door, almost feeling his chest burst. He ignored it, waiting for the Kraut to come around the truck and move into his cross hairs. He heard the man's voice call out from behind the vehicle.

"Kirby! Caje! Where the hell are you? What've you done with Saunders?"

***

Grady heard the truck driver shouting that they were arriving, and he opened his eyes with a start. Still pressing down on Saunders' shoulder, he thrust his head up over the side and saw half a dozen of the most beautiful American soldiers he'd ever seen come rushing towards the truck. He plunked his helmet back on, seeing blood on his fingers, and he looked down as his wounded friend opened his eyes.

Caje sat up, wincing and smiling all at once. "You're awake now, Sarge?"

"Yeah!" Kirby chimed in. "It's about time we got there! Hey, Grady. Somebody better warn them nurses in that Evac, cause they are gonna be having ole Kirby in their be..."

"Shut up, Kirby!" Grady told him. He patted Sarge's arm lightly. "No farm yet for you then, Saunders," he added with a sigh of relief. "Want that down payment back?"

The truck stopped beside a man wearing a long, white coat. The doctor jumped aboard and instantly knelt at Saunders' side. Under Grady's watchful stare, he started pulling off the bloodied bandage. The doc looked worried when he saw the torn flesh, Grady noted. He listened to the doctor's concerned explanations with an occasional head nod.

"Looks like the bullet hit an artery," the doctor told Grady. Then, he went on about how blood had likely gotten into part of Sarge's lungs; that Saunders suffered from shock and could have bled until holy doomsday from all the jostling that they'd given him. They should have been more careful with a wounded man.

The BAR man chuckled slightly at the comment, and looked up as a stretcher materialized beside them. An uncharacteristic moment of silence gripped the tall soldier; his grin faded as he took on a thoughtful expression. He took out a Lucky, feeling a load begin to lessen on his shoulders, and put the tip of the cigarette into a flame that Kirby held out for him. He exhaled, and he watched as two medics climbed aboard the truck and gently placed Saunders on a stretcher.

"Watch it! Watch it!" Kirby complained loudly as another medic put a hand to his knee. "I'm wounded! That hurts, buddy!"

Grady ran a hand across his forehead and helped place the Camo at Saunders' side. "Doc. What the hell do you know?"

***

Schwarz clutched his stomach as he lay beside the road. He'd never had so much pain in his life, and in the back of his mind, he remembered that being scared like he was right then made it worse. But he couldn't help it; his heart seized up like a stone every time he saw the dead men with half-open eyes lying beside him. He felt very alone, hearing the bark of a dog far away in the village. He sobbed, burying his face in the ground as a flash of agony coursed through him. "Sergeant Kraus! Please help me!"

But the sergeant remained silent.

The young soldier looked down at his stomach and saw the bandage there. His teeth clattered at the memory of the tall American soldier dragging him down to the ground along with the others before stealing the truck. It was the most unsolvable mystery Schwarz thought he had ever seen. He'd been so sure that American would kill him, but instead the enemy soldier had taken a moment to put down his rifle and place a bandage on his wound, telling him, in German, that he was sorry and hoped he would soon be all right.
 
 
 
 
 
 

Copyright, Lyne Tremblay
Feb. 2002