THE ENEMY'S LINE


 
 

Kirby trudged along the damp roadside, helping Doc carry a wounded replacement. He grasped the stretcher with his bandaged hand, and the weight of the tall, heavy private in the litter made him feel as if his joints would snap. His fingers were numb from cold, making it hard to hold on. Kirby heard a soft moan behind him, and he glanced towards the wounded soldier.

Meeker had opened up on a Kraut point man back there, even when Sarge told him to avoid contact. Stupid Kid! Kirby'd gotten shot in the ensuing firefight when one of the Schmeissers' bullets grazed his hand. It hurt, especially while holding onto the stretcher.

"Easy, Meeker," Doc murmured, his voice calm and reassuring. He looked up at the BAR man, a look of concern on his face. "...Let's hurry it, huh Kirby?"

"I'm tryin'!" Kirby exclaimed, his voice straining.

Meeker's eyes were closed; his helmet was installed beside him. A blood-soaked bandage covered the replacement's thigh. His long, thin legs hung over the side of the stretcher, and they swung limply with each step that Kirby and Doc took. Meekers breathing had shortened in the last minutes, and a deep rattling sound emanated from his lungs.

Doc looked up at the hills to his left, trying to see if they looked like the ones near the village they'd been in that morning. "I think Mérion's that way," he stated. "I don't know. I've never used this road before, Kirby. The terrain's all different."

Kirby shook his head as he stared out across the incline to the west. "That's cause Sarge made us take a different route back in case any Krauts saw us heading out the first time," he muttered. "A longer way, if you ask me." With frozen hands, he hitched the wounded man up higher. "Aw, forget it, Doc," he snapped. "We've been ducking Kraut patrols since we moved out. It always seems longer gettin' back, that's all. Just clam up and get a move on."

"Sarge must've found the Kraut OP by now, Kirby. He's probably right behind us. ...Where exactly are we supposed to stop and wait for 'im?"

"Just up ahead, Doc. Crossroad 46. Come on, let's get 'im over to those trees."

Kirby huffed as he lowered the litter to the ground. He sank to his knees, letting the relief flood through his arms.

The medic noticed the bandage covering Meeker's leg. Even more blood had seeped through it, and the reddened gauze had become loosened. "Hey, there, Meeker. You're holding up fine!" he remarked.

Kirby slipped off the worn bandage on his hand, examining a deep gash on the back just below the knuckles. It was a swollen, purple line two inches long that a Kraut bullet had marked during the gunfight that morning. Kirby felt lucky that he could still bend his fingers to fire the BAR. He liked the sudden freedom he felt in them and decided that a fresh bandage would just have to wait. He stretched his fingers out slowly to get the circulation flowing, caressing the stock of his BAR with just the fingertips, and then grasped it tightly again, sucking in his breath at the burning flash the sudden movement caused.

He patted his stomach as he surveyed the area. "I ain't had nothin' to eat since this mornin'," he remarked. "The ole tank's empty. You got anything?"

Doc nodded worriedly in response as he quickly reached into his jacket to extract a small, green apple, and handed it out to the other man. "Only this, Kirby. From the orchard we crossed this morning. It's all I've got left."

The BAR man smacked his lips as a growl escaped from his stomach. He took the apple and bit into its side with a noisy crunch. "The American Army's supposed to be the best fed in the world, isn't that right, Doc?" he asked, his mouth overflowing. He pointed across the field towards the left. "Well, I'm wonderin'. If there's a farmhouse around here somewhere," the BAR man swallowed his chunk of apple with a loud gulp before continuing. "Maybe we can get us a little extra somethin?"

"You know that's a good way to get your head shot off," Doc replied, slinging the strap of his bag onto his shoulder. He sat beside the litter.

Kirby swallowed another mouthful of his apple. "Maybe the Krauts heard us comin' an' ran the other way."

Doc snorted tersely, tension filling his features. "You know better than that, Kirby. The last Kraut patrol we crossed sure didn't look like they were runnin' away. Remember, we're still behind their lines." He shuddered as he remembered how three Germans soldiers had unexpectedly rounded the corner of a house an hour before and just missed seeing them.

"Huh. What I wanna know is where they're gonna show up next and when, so I can be somewhere else when they do." Kirby wiped his mouth and threw the apple core away, grunting with fatigue; he couldn't wait to sink down in a cot he just hoped was out there at the village, quietly waiting for him. It'd be better than a damp bedroll on the cold, hard ground.

Kirby lifted the heavy BAR strap and then whirled around, startled by a loud noise echoing in the distance. He hit the ground with his weapon raised, gesturing for the medic to follow his lead, and Doc fell in next to him. Kirby's eyes narrowed as he scoured the field that stretched out on their side of the road. Dried out blossoms swayed softly along with the tall blades of yellowed grass. Beads of sweattrickled down the back of Kirby's neck, tickling him beneath his collar. He rubbed it with his right palm and settled his BAR strap on his shoulder.

"What is it, Kirby?"

"Hush! Stay down!"

Kirby aimed the BAR, straining hard to listen. The noise he heard might have been only the wind rushing through the trees; he couldn't be sure. The region around them remained deathly quiet, and it made a shiver ripple down his spine. He aimed his weapon in the direction that the noise had come from, trying to give himself a boost of confidence.

***

The German officer removed his cap and wiped his forehead as he watched his driver, a sergeant, open the staff car's hood. "Can you see what the problem is?" he asked impatiently.

"Well, yes. The radiator is almost empty, Captain."

"Get water for it, then," the officer replied. He replaced his cap and looked back towards the men who sat in the transport truck. "The 463rd is just behind that hill," he continued. The officer straightened, trying to get the kinks out of his stiffened shoulders, and stared down the incline beside the road. His coat pressed against his back, uncomfortably tight. A slight movement at the bottom of the hill abruptly caught his attention. He threw himself down beside the vehicle, taking out his Luger and aiming it in that direction. "Quiet, all of you!" he ordered tersely, straining to keep his voice down. "Look down there!"

The driver joined him in an instant, and both men stared down the incline at two forms crouching at the bottom, next to a stretcher holding an unmoving man. Their tiny helmets poked out of a patch of grass. One of them bore a Red Cross insignia.

"Americans! What are they doing way out here? Don't they know that...?"

"...That this is their day of bad luck, Heinrich." The captain waved curtly to get his men's attention. "All of you! Come! We'll go that way!"

Hurriedly, he led his men towards the left flank, and all of them silently circled the Americans' position.

***

Saunders signalled to Billy, Caje and Littlejohn to stay down and looked over a wooden fence. Just ahead, a lookout tower stood beside the road. Several sentries sat at machine guns inside it. One of the Germans smiled at another as he brought a tin cup to his lips.

"All right. It looks quiet," Saunders said.

Clasping Caje's arm, the sergeant indicated a stand of oaks bordering a hedgerow several yards to the left. "Caje, you're with me. Nelson, Littlejohn, you go that way. When I give the signal, move out," he told him tersely.

Caje nodded his understanding. Saunders turned and headed out towards the trees, his Thompson ready.

Nelson glanced as the Cajun stood to follow the Sarge along the fence. Caje's face looked taut and his eyes alert to danger. Billy couldn't figure it; even in a situation like this, he thought Caje looked relaxed, like a tiger ready to pounce or else sink back down on his haunches. Who could ever know which, the way Caje moved?

Littlejohn knelt beside him, ready to head towards his left like the Sarge had ordered. "Billy, youve gotta relax, or you're not gonna be any good to the Sarge," he commented, seeing the youngster gripping his M1 tightly.

"Sorry, Littlejohn." Billy shuddered as he focused on the dark helmets in the lookout. Those Krauts were all on the alert. He wondered how on earth Sarge was going to knock that thing out and get his squad back home safely.

***

"Hear something, Kirby?" the medic whispered, watching the grasses swaying in both directions.

"Don't know, Doc," Kirby commented, releasing his grip on the BAR. A flash of pain burned through his left hand, rippling all the way up to his shoulder. "Ugh! This is killing me," he exclaimed unconsciously.

"Meeker! Stay down!" Doc shuddered nervously. "Kirby, what's goin' on?"

"There's somethin' out there!" Kirby whispered, his voice raspy with tension. His eyes stayed riveted onto the ridgeline a half-mile South of the two Americans. He examined the field that stretched all the way to their green foothills. Something about the way the grasses moved was different somehow. There might be Krauts crawling in them. He swung the BAR out towards the right.

"You sure?"

"Doc, you stay here and watch Meeker. I'll check out the area real quick. Keep low, Doc! If there's Krauts out there, we're dead ducks. Don't move 'till I get back!"

Doc desperately wished Sarge would show up soon. Then, they could all move out. But he simply obeyed Kirby's order, settling himself down beside the stretcher. He watched the BAR man sink down into the brush and inch slowly towards the right, separating the vegetation with his passage. Within seconds, Kirby's helmet vanished in the grass. An awfully long time, it seemed to him, stretched on after Kirby disappeared. Doc shuddered involuntarily, and then he returned his attention to Meeker.

Panting, the wounded G.I. tried to get up on an elbow and then fell back with a pained grimace. He grunted and brought his hand over his wounded thigh.

"Easy, there' Meeker. It's okay. Kirby'll be back soon."

Time was running short. Doc patted Meeker's arm to try and reassure him, but he felt very frightened himself. "He'll only be gone a little...."

Doc stopped talking, startled by a low-pitched noise. He could have sworn that hed heard someone whistle softly right behind him. He whirled around, unconsciously holding his breath, and listened. He felt his heartbeat drum out of control. He released his breath, trying to bring it down again. All he could see out there was a field of tall, swaying blades leading towards a stand of evergreens that edged the bottom of a hill.

And he could only think of himself, alone with Meeker. Without Kirby to give them cover, the two men were dead as ducks. Doc froze, trying to stay as still and as quiet as he could.

Another low whistle sounded, to their left. Meeker heard it also that time, and he turned his head that way to see what was making the noise. Fear gave the wounded G.I. renewed energy despite the blood he'd lost. Struggling mightily, he raised his M1 and aimed it in the direction of the sound. The rifle's barrel wavered up and down with each labored breath Meeker took, but the soldier kept his hold on it and aimed at the hidden danger, trying his best to protect himself and Doc.

All at once, three dark-clad forms surged out of the grass and came at them with bayoneted rifles. Doc had no time to react before one of the fixed knives jabbed him in the sternum. He heard the front of his jacket rip as the knife swung up again, mercifully gone from his chest. Stunned, he clutched it, instinctively feeling for a wound. A German soldier beside him shoved him down roughly, sending the medic's helmet rolling on the ground. Aiming his rifle at Doc's face, the Kraut grabbed the strap of his medical bag with his free hand and yanked it off his shoulder. He hurled it away where it landed in the grass, out of view.

Another German, wearing sergeant's insignias, wrenched away Meeker's rifle. The G.I. reached out for it instinctively.

"Nein!" The German ordered. He stood over the wounded private, stretching out a frame that reached above six feet in height. Keeping his bayonet on the private's chest, the German sergeant threw the M1 away. It landed several feet behind a bush with a muted thump.

Meeker bent his head down, making as if uncontrollable coughing racked him. When he thought the Kraut was looking elsewhere, he suddenly raised his head and shouted. "Kirby! Get away! ...Krauts!"

"Nein!" snapped the German sergeant with a spark of rage in his voice. "Schwein! Sei ruhig!" His eyes blazing, he kicked Meeker hard in the chest with a shiny boot and shoved a bayonet up underneath his chin.

"Hey!" Doc protested. "That's against...." He cut it out, biting his lip, when the bayonet drew blood from Meeker's face.

The medic watched, helpless to do anything about it, as the tall German kicked Meeker's ribcage yet again and sent the wounded man crashing onto his side in the grass. Meeker rolled off the stretcher with his back to Doc, letting out a muffled cry of pain and clutching his chest. He stayed there, his shoulders shaking.

The Germans didn't let Doc approach Meeker's quietly sobbing form.

***

The wooden lookout cracked apart, gutted by the force of the explosion. As Saunders watched, planks flew out in all directions. He winced as he saw two German soldiers' bodies fall out of the structure along with the twisted debris. A maelstrom of gunfire from Nelson and Littlejohn's position suddenly stopped short, replaced by a thunderous grenade explosion there.

Breathlessly, Saunders clambered out of the ditch. ?Fall back! Fall back!" He gestured towards a stand of trees behind them. "Best way is over there. Go on!! ...And watch yourselves." Anxiously, Saunders looked to see if his men were obeying before the whole German army came up on their tail. He saw Caje and Littlejohn come out from behind the fence, their progress slowed by a wounded Nelson. The kid limped between them, his face contorted with pain. Blood flowed down his left leg, but Nelson fought hard to keep up with the others.

***

Kirby heard Meeker's warning shout issuing from several yards behind him and instantly ducked behind a boulder. He froze there, listening for more sounds and trying to size up the situation. He'd heard no shots from the others' position. Should he go back there? Where were the lousy Krauts, anyway?

To his right, a shadow moved in the grasses, quickly but silently. A dark helmet glided between two bushes for just a second before disappearing from view. A German! Startled, Kirby aimed his weapon at the form, but it was too late, it was gone before he could squeeze the trigger. He felt Kraut soldiers all around him, even though none were visible. He ran the back of his hand across his mouth, panting as he scoured the area intently. The place was crawling with 'em.

"Amerikaner!" a voice from several yards away shouted. "Save your friends! Give yourself up!"

Kirby stayed silent, studying a shallow ditch several yards to his left. Maybe he could dart out that way and dive into it. He might have time to get back to Doc and Meeker through there.

"Amerikaner!" the voice repeated the word on a more insistent tone. "You will raise the white flag immediately!"

Still, Kirby didn't answer, preferring to keep the BAR aimed at the Kraut.

A volley of bullets slammed into the rock in front of him, sending him ducking for protection. Quickly getting up onto his knees again, he raised his weapon and fired a responding burst. Off to the side, he spotted a German soldier running past a thick bush, rushing his position with a bayoneted rifle pointed at his head. Instantly, Kirby swung the BAR towards the Kraut and fired another burst. As he watched the German spin on his heels and fall sideways, a sudden thudding noise behind him made the BAR man jump up, startled.

He was surrounded; he just knew it. There wasn't any more time. Placing his hand on the rock, he poised to leap out of his cover and head towards the ditch.

Something hit him in the kidneys, giving him no chance to react. Pain engulfed him instantly in a sickening wave, turning the world around him white. A searing jolt flashed up his spine all the way to the shoulders. The dark figure of a Kraut soldier appeared beside him. With a swift movement, the Kraut raised his weapon and struck him, brutally hard. This time, Kirby's legs buckled, and he doubled over, losing his helmet. He fell in a heap, barely conscious of his knees colliding with rocks. A cry of pain got stuck somewhere deep in his closed-off throat before it could even utter it. He felt like he was going to choke. As he lay on the ground, taking in heaving breaths, bayonet points jabbed him in the ribs and back, just below the shoulder blades.

His field of vision spun; this was all happening too fast. Sick with fear, he clutched his chest and tried to roll away. He wanted to yell out "I give up, you bastards!", but the words barely sputtered out. He felt knife points jabbing him, and he curled into a tight ball, terrified that he might get one deep in the chest.

After a minute, hands grabbed him and forced him up on his feet. As he stood, trembling, several Krauts clustered around him, keeping bayoneted rifles aimed at his chest and face. He raised his hands in surrender and froze, not daring to push them away. Terror gripped every fibre of his body as two of the enemy soldiers pulled off his BAR. They examined the prize weapon and peered into the chamber with excited curiosity, studying it closely. Two soldiers pulled off his munitions belt. Then, they spun him around and led him towards a German officer who stood quietly watching the scene from the background.

That one wore a cap and heavy coat. The officer's pale, square face registered an air of authority and he stared at the American prisoner with the coldest blue eyes that Kirby had ever seen. The German was blond and clean-shaven, and he looked young. A line of scar tissue disfigured the right side of his mouth, making it droop lower than the other.

The German leader sneered quietly and crossed his arms over his chest as he watched his men unzip Kirby's jacket. Roughly, they jerked it open, exposing a sweat-covered uniform shirt underneath.

"Your name, Amerikaner?" he asked, finally. The tone of that German's voice chilled Kirby's blood instantly. It had sounded like the hiss of a big, slimy snake. Snakes gave him the creeps.

"Kirby," he answered, fearing he'd soon be getting more of that Kraut's questions. "William G. Private. Serial numb..." his mouth went dry. He stopped talking, swallowing a hard lump in his throat, "...number, one, three-oh, two, eight, eight, two." He shuddered. No way they'd be satisfied with that; he could feel it. Kirby watched his captors to see what reaction their leader would have after hearing him speak.

He concentrated on watching the Kraut leader's face, erasing the image of tanks rolling through Mérion at dawn, stars painted on their sides, their infernal noise driving him awake. He hadn't seen battalion trucks right behind them. He didn't know about any aid station back there. He was just a buck private lost behind the enemy's line, and he knew nothing about other Americans' location, nothing at all.

Oh, Damn! He felt so scared right now. Inside, he was screaming like a banshee. Good thing the Krauts couldn't hear it.

The German leader looked at him with slitted eyes, studying him, then he gestured to his subordinates and spoke curtly.

At once, two soldiers beside Kirby grabbed his jacket and yanked it down from his shoulders. They pulled it off and searched through the pockets, ripping them. One of the Krauts emerged, triumphant, with a set of keys and Kirby's Zippo lighter, while another waved the American's cigarettes all around, showing the open pack to his buddies. Kirby stood still, shivering, as they searched his pants pockets and emptied out the contents. Two guards spun Kirby around and patted his chest roughly, checking to see if he carried anything underneath his shirt.

One German slipped off Kirby's watch and dropped it into his own pocket. Another Kraut grabbed the bracelet on his right wrist and yanked it off. A flash of anger surged through Kirby when he saw the links break apart, sending bits of metal to the ground.

"Hey!" he cried. "That's mine!"

The German whirled around and brought his fist into the side of Kirby's face.

Like a flash, Kirby jumped on the thieving Kraut, raising his fist in an attempt to pummel the man's nose in. He landed a blow on the German, connecting squarely, and then something struck the side of Kirby's head. He fell, stunned and sick; vaguely aware of several dark boots massing around him. He groped through the grass to get try and get onto his knees. He heard the captain order something to his men.

Krauts clawed him back to a standing position again and yanked his arms way up behind his back, almost wrenching out his shoulder joints. His legs wobbled, unable to hold his weight. The pain in his shoulders hurt Kirby so badly, he yelled out. His head drooped, and he saw one soldier unbuckle and then pull off his belt. He cringed, fearing that he was going to get hit with it, but the soldier went behind him and used it to bind his wrists tightly; Kirby felt it biting deep into his skin. Panting, he shut his eyes and gulped while bayonets waved close to his face.

The German officer parted his soldiers and came to stand in front Kirby, only inches away.

Still miserably sick, Kirby gagged on the sickly-sweet smell of the German captain's perfume.

The officer locked ice blue eyes onto Kirby's panting face, considering whether the American might have anything useful to tell. He examined his prisoner intently for a moment, noting the shape of the prisoner's skull and face, and the line of Kirby's chest and shoulders. Good proportions, he found. High, well-defined cheekbones, straight shoulders, white teeth. Racially, he could detect no defects in that one. He was just very frightened. That was good.

With a gloved hand, he yanked off Kirby's dog tags to read the embossing on them. As the captain released the tags, they fell into a carpet of damp leaves at their feet, and he ground them in with his boot. "You are quite a fighter," he told Kirby. "...Und, as of this day, you are mine," he added. He turned to his sergeant. "Ich glaub er kennt Auskunft. Also. Nehmen sie ihn mit."

The Krauts whirled Kirby around and led him away. His vision blurring, Kirby tried to follow them, but the Germans were shoving him on roughly, and he couldn't hold their pace. After several yards, his legs went limp.

As the Krauts carried him forcibly back towards the others, his boots dragged on the ground.

***

"Sarge, you sure this is the route that Kirby and Doc were supposed to take?" Littlejohn asked. "We could use Doc right now." He put his canteen to Billy's lips. The bandage on his shot-up leg was soaked. "Sarge, he'll bleed to death if he keeps walking like this."

"Okay, let's find something to make a stretcher."

***

Doc was finally allowed to go kneel next to Meeker, and he gently turned the wounded man around. Meeker's face was contorted with a pained grimace. He gulped in air with great difficulty, but what worried Doc most was the blood trickling down the side of the wounded man's mouth. Some of his ribs could be broken, and Doc feared they might have punctured the lungs, too. The Krauts had kicked him much too hard, and for nothing. Doc couldn't do anything for him right now. Meeker needed a hospital soon.

He heard a noise and looked up.

To his right, a German captain led a group of men towards him. Two of the soldiers behind the officer were dragging Kirby. The BAR man looked only half-conscious. Kirby wore no jacket or helmet. His dark, short-cropped hair looked wet, and his head drooped down onto his chest. As the group strode over to him, Doc made out a gash on the side of Kirby's face. Blood streamed from it. Kirby had a bad concussion judging from the looks of it. The Krauts had roughed him up; no wonder he couldn't walk on his own.

At gunpoint, a German guard ordered Doc to stand. Frowning, the medic complied. "What about him?" he asked, indicating Meeker. "He needs a doctor." When the Kraut motioned for him to step back, Doc stayed put, refusing to leave the wounded man's side. A knife jabbed Doc's chest, harder this time. It stung him. He moved back reluctantly, understanding the message.

The German officer ordered him to go stand next to Kirby and help carry him. As Doc obeyed, the captain made a move towards the stretcher, examining the wounded man in it. He pursed his lips, then turned and ordered the group to move out. Doc asked the Krauts to pick up the stretcher. Seeing that they just stood still, he told them he'd carry Meeker himself it they wouldn't do it. Then, after several seconds, he pointed at Meeker and frantically tried to make the Krauts understand that leaving a wounded soldier behind was against the Geneva Convention.

Ignoring his protests, the Germans ordered him to take Kirby's arm and move out.

Doc looked back once as he walked away, but it was enough to see the horror and fear in Meeker's face as the helpless man stared at their retreating figures, left alone with only the tall Kraut sergeant pointing a Schmeisser at his back. For a second, Doc wondered if things would have been different had he used Meeker's rifle.

Doc jumped when, minutes later, a shot rang out, echoing through the damp, cold air. His heart leapt, and then sank like a lead ball, his blood curdling. Instinctively, he clutched Kirby tighter. Kirby was more alert looking now, and Doc wondered if he had heard the shot too.

Kirby had. And the angered look on his face spoke volumes.

The prisoners were led to a foul-smelling transport truck and ordered to lie down in it. In darkness, with muddy boots lined up around them, Kirby and Doc felt the vehicle rumble to life and roll away.

They travelled for a short while, being brutally jerked and tossed during the trip. When the truck halted, two of the Krauts stood and shoved a tarp aside, revealing a curtain of drizzle falling just outside the opening.

Kirby shivered as Doc helped him stand. He got down off the truck, getting soaked by rain, and looked up at a grey building. Three stories of huge, square stones surrounded windows that had no glass in them, only metal bars. He saw a line of French words carved into the wall over the front entrance. A statue of an open-armed Jesus guarded it; looking as if it beckoned people to go in there and, maybe, find peace. The place looked like an old, empty school; it resembled the one he's gone to as a kid. He'd always hated school like it was hell on earth. Except when he and Eddie would watch the girls jump rope in the yard, their skirts ballooning up over their knees. That, he had liked just fine.

Something told him the Krauts were going to put him into a special kind of detention hell in there. Fear washed over him, and he resisted going towards it. A brutal push from one of the guards sent him forcibly towards the entrance, and he stumbled ahead.

They entered an empty hall, their steps echoing against the bare walls. The Krauts shoved their prisoners along the passage, passing many doors on each side. They entered a long room that had tall, arched windows. Dark, grey sky shone dully through them. Doc thought this place to be a small chapel, emptied of all its statues and pews. A table resembling a stone altar stood at the far end of the room. A black SS flag draped the wall just above it, streaked with white letters. It probably covered a cross; Doc couldn't be sure. A desk and several chairs stood in one far corner beside a dark door.

Kirby gagged at a sickening scent of perfume that filled the air there, just like he one had smelled before. His wrists were bound tightly behind his back. The edge of the belt bit deeply into his skin, cutting him. Pain flared through his shoulders joints from the strain being put on them.

Doc helped Kirby advance further into the room. "Easy, Kirby..." he said, his voice taking on a practised tone. The BAR man was being tight-lipped now, he noted. He looked scared. The medic could hear brash-sounding music coming from somewhere in the back of the room. The notes had a grating, tinny quality; like a vinyl record being played on an old machine.

The German captain strode by them on his way to the table. Turning to look at the prisoners, the officer slowly removed his gloves. Then, he unbuttoned and took off his overcoat, revealing a black tunic, and hung it on a hook. He picked up a phone receiver and spoke into it with a high-pitched voice.

"Jahwohl, Herr Oberst. Ich verstehe schön. Heil Hitler!" He cradled the receiver.

Quietly, the captain reached over to a gold-colored box lying on the corner and took out a cigarette, placing it in his mouth. He watched his prisoners as he lit it, letting a flume of smoke curl up around his face. As the captain drew on his cigarette and inhaled deeply, staring from Kirby to Doc and back to Kirby again, he weighed the potential for cooperation in each of them.

These men were hated enemies who had come across the sea to hinder the master race and slow down its achievements in Europe. The German officer studied his American prisoners, noting how they looked. One had clear blue eyes, and one had bruised, brown ones. These soldiers were of low rank and therefore a small catch. He would have preferred a bigger one. Still, they looked as if they might be of some use.

He turned his attention to the prisoner on his right; a simple rifleman named Kirby. This man was a front line soldier, most certainly seeing action every day, and might have some useful information concerning American activities. He looked very white and trembled on his feet as he stared out a window. He was definitely thinking about escape. He had carried quite a heavy weapon, needing much strength and agility to wield. The captain considered the prisoner's stature. He seemed smallish compared to his own guards but lithe and tough, a healthy male specimen who looked very fit. He would be capable of enduring much before cracking. The officer kept a rigid expression on his face but inside, a delicious thrill went through him.

The other prisoner was a medical aid man. The non-combatant's eyes looked alert, he noted. They were sky blue and registered keen intelligence. Compassion for his friends, both the dead one who had been left behind and the live one beside him, filled that man's whole face and demeanour.

The officer looked from one prisoner to the other, wondering which of these two Americans' shell would crack first and then spill out its content. "My name ist Hauptmann Karlheinz Stengel," he told them quietly. "I know yours."

Indignation still seethed in Doc. "You had our wounded man shot, Captain. Why?" he asked.

"'Cause he couldn't walk any more, remember?" Kirby interjected, ignoring the rubbery weakness of terror in his legs. He stared daggers at the Kraut captain. "You don't line your stack with somethin' you can't bet with, isn't that right?"

The captain remained beside his desk, considering the words he had just heard. He knew the non-combatant had referred to his companion or else to the wounded soldier who had been left behind. Language would be a difficulty, he realized. Stengel had reached deep into his school English to talk to these men. It would have to do; the American rifleman had cut down his interpreter in the field, earlier.

"Your other American had no value," he stated, his voice cold.

Doc didn't insist further. As he gripped Kirby's arm to steady him, he felt a spasm ripple through it. With a head movement, the medic indicated his companion. "Captain, I think you ought to untie this man's hands. He can't do anything to you now."

"Forget it, Doc," Kirby told him, shuffling his feet nervously. His shoulder joints were screaming. He spat out the rest of his sentence. "We ain't talkin' to creeps like him."

Stengel realized that the smallish rifleman had made joking comments. That prisoner seemed to try and handle his situation with attempts at irony. He seemed not to understand the seriousness of it. Deliberately, making a show of each movement, he took out a riding crop from a desk drawer. Under the prisoners' watchful stare, the officer rapped it against his palm.

"Kirby," the BAR man said, wincing. "William G. Private. One, three-oh, two...."

A guard beside him swung his rifle up and hit his upper arm, hard. A flash seared through Kirby's shoulder like a hot brand. Crying out in surprise and fear, he fell sideways and crashed into Doc, who caught him and almost fell beneath the BAR man's weight. He got back up again, helped by the medic.

Several German guards surrounded the prisoners. At a command from their leader, they grabbed Doc and brutally and forced him away from Kirby.

Left alone, Kirby fell to his knees, gasping as they banged against the stones.

"No, don't hit him!" the medic ordered, trying desperately to stop what he could see was about to happen. It was in the officer's glazed eyes. "Captain, it won't do any good!"

He wasn't sure what to add to try and bring some reason into the captain. The Kraut had ordered his men to do the unthinkable to a wounded, helpless man. He sure wouldn't back down at having Kirby tortured in there. The man just wasn't acting normal.

Two Germans approached the BAR man and raised their rifles over him.

Kirby cringed but could do nothing to protect himself. One of the guards swung his weapon and rammed it into his right arm, just below the strained shoulder. Kirby crashed onto the hard stones, engulfed in pain. Two Germans placed their hands beneath his elbows and dragged him back up. Even in his world of fire, Kirby struggled to get out of his bonds and fight them, but the edges just bit deeper into his wrists, cutting him.

"There must have been more American soldiers on mission with you. Where are they? My men have been listening to your radio. Tell me what is... code for Saint-Exult?" the captain asked impatiently. "And for Mérion?" He watched the prisoner as he articulated the two names, feeling that he'd spotted a hint of a reaction at the last one. "Code line Green is American line of assault? Where?"

If only these prisoners possessed the words to communicate with him properly, he raged internally.

"Kirby. William G..."

Undaunted, the captain continued. "We learn," he said. "You go to Mérion," he measured his words carefully, studying Kirby, trying to note any flinching. The prisoner before him was a frightened but tough little man, he decided. The American stood with his face to the floor, and he sullenly stated a series of numbers with a strained voice. Impatience boiled in the captain. That wasn't the answer he wanted.

Captain Stengel glanced up as his sergeant entered the room. "Heinrich! Komm!" he exclaimed.

His tall subordinate carried the American prisoner's weapon in his hand, the captain noted. Good. It was a long, heavy rifle unlike those his men used; almost a light cannon. Pursing his lips, he spoke to Kirby. "You shot my soldier, now you die also," he stated quietly. "I show you... what you have... done with this."

The captain gestured to his sergeant and watched as two of his soldiers dragged the prisoner over to the far wall and propped him against it.

Kirby almost swooned as he looked out into the room. Everything in it registered clearly to him. He saw Doc surrounded by Krauts. He saw five others line up in front of him, several feet away.

Then, the blond-haired captain signalled to his soldiers. Kirby felt his heart freeze up and stop dead when he saw the middle Kraut, a very tall sergeant, hold up the BAR and point it directly at his chest. Oh, Jeez! He was looking at his own weapon from the wrong end, and they all looked dead serious about shooting him. He was about to be turned into a shooting target in there. He couldn't think any more. He feared the barrel of his own weapon was going to be the last thing he ever saw.

Throwing off the terror that gripped his nerves turned out to be easier than he imagined. He just swallowed down the acid in his throat and kept his eyes trained on the line-up before him.

Silently, the captain appeared in front of him, staring straight into his face. "Let us discuss ...Mérion," the Kraut said.

Time froze. Several of the Krauts lined up in the room shuffled their feet. The tall German soldier in the middle of the firing squad raised the BAR, pointing it right at his chest. The room became deadly silent, except for the music that came from the distant corner. Kirby heard one of the Krauts sniffle, like he had a cold, and another one coughed silently.

"Captain!" Doc took a step towards Kirby, stopping as a bayonet swung up next to his chin. He swallowed. "Stop it, please! I'll tell you. Mérion is just an aid station. That's all."

The captain considered Doc's words closely. "Aid ...station?" he asked. It didn't sound like the truth to him.

"A hospital. You know, for the sick and wounded? You understand?" Doc continued.

"Ein Lazarett," a man in the firing line said.

Kirby saw a few rifles waver as several Krauts chuckled, then snap back up again when the captain turned in their direction. He glued himself against the wall, feeling naked and helpless before all those rifle barrels. He couldn't imagine how getting hit by so many bullets at once was likely to feel inside his body. Would he even have time to hear the shots or feel any pain before he fell? He swayed on his feet, trembling, feeling sick and weak. He closed his eyes, and an image of a buxom nurse called Trixie flashed in his terrified mind. And, what a figure she had, too. Full and beautiful! Focusing on it blocked out the fear a little bit.

"Captain, wait!" Doc exclaimed, shaking his head as he stared from Kirby to the commander. "It's the truth!"

The captain strode over to Doc. "As a medical man, you must understand us. The S.S. makes medical operation. We cut away the sick tissues of society in order to permit the healthy and the strong to live. We do the good in world. You and I are both reasonable men. We are of the same race. Our triumph will be yours also. It will ensure the freedom of the superior..."

"Forget it. We ain't buyin' your line,"Kirby interjected.

With a gesture of impatience, the captain raised a hand to signal his men to fire, giving Kirby no chance to continue.

A thunderous roar of bullets echoed through the room, deafening Doc. The medic turned his face away, unwilling to take in the sight of Kirby's riddled body falling to the ground. He tried to shut his ears to the noise, too. This couldn't be happening! Everything in the room had turned to horror; the captain had coldly ordered another helpless man shot.

After what seemed like an eternity, silence returned. Doc's ears still pounded from the thunderous noise. He raised his head and half-opened his eyes to see what was going on. His knees buckled at the sight of the German officer striding over to Kirby, whose chest heaved violently as he tried to gulp in air, but who still stood.

The BAR man's face was white as a ghost. His whole body trembled; his legs looked about ready to give way. Bullets had gouged out the wall around him. Deep holes appeared above Kirby's head, and large chunks of plaster still fell away, raining down on the BAR man, even after the volley of shots had stopped. As Doc turned a practiced glance at his companion, he saw several scratches on Kirby's face and the effects of deep shock. His eyes were closed; his lower jaw trembled. Thank God he'd seized up like a scared rabbit during the volley and hadn't moved. The Krauts had only meant to scare Kirby.

Doc shook his head, wiping his mouth with his hand. "Kirby!"

"Mérion," the captain insisted. "You talk of ... all what is there."

Kirby tried to work some spit back into his mouth. His teeth still clattered badly. His head spun, dizzying him, and the image that he'd been concentrating on to bury his terror vanished. The feel of her milky skin left his mind. The view of the lousy, scarred-mouth creep replaced her.

"Awright. I'll... talk," he croaked. His voice barely came out. "It's no use. That place has..." his head drooped a little, and his voice trailed off as he caught his breath.

The captain bent his head to listen more closely.

"Women," Kirby continued between two gulps. "...Their breasts 're... like rocks. Wait'll you try 'em out!"

The German blinked, translating the prisoner's declaration in his mind. Nothing but childish jokes, he concluded; they were not codes. Blinding rage surged through him, as he understood what had happened. "Hund!" With a swift gesture, he drew his pistol from its holster and rammed into Kirby's stomach, shoving him backwards.

Kirby's shoulder thudded against the concrete wall behind him. Stifling a cry, he slumped and fell halfway to the ground. His boots crunched on the chunks lying around him as he regained his balance. He wobbled on rubbery legs, panting, and gritted his teeth.

The captain lowered the pistol, realizing his efforts were being wasted. Hitting the prisoner until sense could be drawn from the answers he received would be satisfying, but it would take too long and tire him. Notes of orchestrated music came to his ears, catching his attention. As he paused briefly to listen to it, the captain examined the prisoner. His enjoyment of Wagner's lyricism was short lived, as he thought of his interpreter, dead in the field.

"Heinrich!" he told his sergeant, indicating the prisoner. "Hilf mir mit den Gefangener!"

Kirby had no idea what the Kraut had said. He only knew enough German to order beer, and that was about it. Trembling, Kirby watched the tall sergeant approach him and unbuckle the belt that cut into his wrists. Released, his aching arms fell limply to his sides. He couldn't move his hands or fingers when he tried to wiggle them. His joints felt like they were dislocated after struggling so long to loosen his bonds. They hurt.

Breathless with fear, Kirby was taken to a tall concrete post at the end of the room. He stared at it, unable to move his arms, as the Krauts ripped his uniform shirt open and pulled it off him. One of the Germans threw the tattered cloth onto the stones while another pulled off his undershirt, exposing his sweat-covered back to the cold air. Kirby shivered involuntarily.

The German captain examined Kirby a moment, taking in the wiry shoulders and gleaming back. The prisoner was frightened, but it wasn't enough. He snapped his fingers to order him bound to the post. As his soldiers complied, he strode over to Doc and nodded towards the armband on the medic's sleeve. The medical prisoner's face looked pale and taut as he stared back at him with blue, narrowed eyes. "You answer," he told Doc. "...And I spare your friend."

The medic held the officer's stare. "Hurting him won't do it, Captain." Doc said, biting his lip.

"Mérion. Saint-Exult. Tell of your codes and your tank locations."

"I'm a medic. I don't know any codes. I was taking two men to an aid station, and we got lost. You had a wounded soldier shot. That's against the..."

The captain gestured to his tall sergeant. Obeying, the German swung Kirby's belt up in an arced movement and brought it down, whipping the buckle across Kirby's back with a loud snap. A thick line of blood appeared, instantly spreading across the BAR man's shoulder blades. Choking, Kirby stifled a cry and pressed his face against the post, trying to regain his breath. His back burned like the Chicago fire. Regaining his breath, he muttered, "My third grade teacher... hit harder'n... you." He shut his eyes, waiting for another blow. He sensed that the Kraut captain had paused, seemingly thinking on his words.

An image of Saunders flashed through Kirby's mind. He remembered Sarge's tousled-haired, bleary-eyed face bending over his bedroll in the early dawn, shaking him awake and telling him to move out in ten. Some mission it had turned out to be!

He winced as the German captain asked about Mérion again.

Sarge's image disappeared. The figure of the buxom Trixie appeared in Sarge's place. When she closed the cubicle's curtain and bent down next to his cot, he liked that a whole lot. Thinking about it shut out the fear a little bit. He pictured that image, needing to focus on it or go crazy. Kirby froze up tight as the belt whistled through the air above his head again. He grabbed the post tightly, hugging it, as the metal buckle sliced through his skin once more. Still, the snap made him gasp. Nothing could prepare him for that much sudden pain. He cried out this time as his legs gave out. He sank to his knees, his mind gone blank.

"Captain, there's nothing in Mérion," Doc yelled, almost bursting with the horror unfolding before him. "It's just an aid station!" Doc insisted. He saw the BAR man's face looking drained and white, Kirby's chest heaved, and he looked about to pass out. Already, several long, bloody cuts had appeared across Kirby's back, the skin around them reddened and swollen. Blood trickled from them in several spots. Doc flinched as the belt swung up over Kirby's head again. The buckle whipped across the already broken skin, even harder that time. Doc swallowed a scream forming in throat and, as calmly as he could, asked the German captain stop.

Stengel raised a hand and looked at the medic's face.

Concern filled the American medic's features as he stared at the soldier chained to the post and yet; his hands were fisted tight as rocks. The contrast interested Stengel. He looked forward to learning more from this man better later on. He brought the riding crop against Doc's arm, startling him. "You hate... yes," the officer stated.

Startled, Doc turned his gaze away from Kirby.

The S.S. man stared down at the medic's hands, a smile curling the corner of his scarred lip. Doc looked down at his own hands too, and he realized that his knuckles were white with strain. Doc reeled with the desire to crash them against the captain's face or use a rifle on him to make him pay for what he did. The feeling disgusted him, but he couldn't help it. He heard a moan coming from the post, reminding him of Meeker's last sounds on earth. A pang cut through his chest as he saw the BAR man struggle weakly to get up. Unable to, he sank back down again.

Kirby took in a long, gulping breath. The woman was gone from his vision. He wanted her whole image back but through the pain, he could only see fragments of her; an elbow, a knee and then her shirt button. He remembered the feel of her skin. That was all. He heard the lousy captain barking questions. He didn't answer. The Kraut soldier swung the belt above his head and snapped it against his broken skin another time. A ripple of agony went down his back again. Gasping, he hugged the post and shook, beyond the ability to cry out, and tried desperately to get back the woman's image.

Dimly, he became aware of the officer's voice, sounding like it came from behind a curtain. He seemed to be arguing with someone. He craned his neck to see what was going on. He saw the captain standing next to Doc, holding that stick of his against Doc's neck. The medic was shaking his head, his jaw clenched, and then Kirby sagged to the ground and saw no more.

***

"Sarge, Billy's not doin' too good. Could we take a breather?"

"Later, Littlejohn. We should find traces of Kirby and Doc soon. Rendezvous point is just ahead. We gotta make time. Come one, we'll take five when we get there, huh?"

Up ahead, he saw Caje turn and wave at them.

***

Stengel took the crop away from Doc's neck and stepped back, re-thinking his tactics.
The non-combatant was certainly too well acquainted with pain and death to buckle easily under questioning. Soldiers of his kind run into gunfire without hesitation. They can and do harden themselves to open up wounded men. Stengel realized that he quite admired the American medic's composure, and at once felt that calm to be an affront to him. He decided he would wait until later to test the steel of this man's nerves.

He heard a clatter of footsteps behind him, lots of them. Stengel glared at two men who appeared at the door. "What is it?" he snapped. Impatience dominated his expression. He was busy now, not to be interrupted by this unforeseen situation. Always, interruptions occurred just when progress might be achieved. He would get nowhere with his prisoners this way.

"We beg to interrupt," the guard said, "but these were hiding in the kitchen, Captain. What shall we do?"

Doc stared at the door, startled. He saw a boy in short pants and grey jacket in the doorframe. The kid stepped slowly inside the room, escorted by an armed guard, and his eyes widened at the sight of two American prisoners. Behind him, another guard shoved a young girl with long, dark hair and tattered dress through the doorframe. She looked about six or seven.

"Sir," a soldier continued. "We found he had stowed food, also."

Captain Stengel spoke to the boy in French, his voice full of impatience.

"Je m'appelle François Duculot." The boy hissed out his name and said that he lived in the orphanage. "Et puis, vous les sales boches aux tuniques noires êtes venus ici avec vos armes et vos radios!" The boy spat on the S.S. captain's boots. Guards grabbed his arms. He tried to shake them off. "Allez-vous-en! Laissez-nous, moi et ma soeur!"

"This is your sister?" The officer looked at the young girl, disgust flashing across his face. Blowing out a flume of smoke, he strode over to the girl. He lifted her tiny chin and asked her a question. The child raised a blank-looking face to him and did not answer. She remained silent, looking up at him. Stengel found the girl's eyes looked empty of intelligence, seeing a trickle of saliva come down the side of her thin mouth. He let go of it, disgusted. "This child is handicapped," he snapped.

Agitated, the boy tried to push away the hands that held him. "Salauds!" he screamed. "Touchez-pas à ma s?ur!" A German soldier clamped a hand over the boy's face and pulled him back.

"She is born defective," Stengel declared. "All such are to be removed." The German turned to his men. "It is more merciful to forget them. Take her away!"

"Non! Non! Laissez-la tranquille!" the boy screamed, wild with agitation. He tried to wrench the guard's arms away and reach the girl. "Sale boches!"

"Captain!" Doc tried to explain. "She just looks shell shocked, that's all. ...She'll come around if you give her a chance." He had to watch silently as the soldiers lead the girl away. The child followed them silently, looking plaintively at her brother as she disappeared through a doorframe.

"Captain?" Doc asked, his eyes darting from the door to Stengel. "Where're they takin' her? What're you going to do with us?"

The Kraut only signalled to his men and hissed out an order in German. At once, several soldiers stepped forward and grabbed Doc's arms. They hustled the medic away through the interrogation room door. Roughly, he was led into the hall, along with the boy. They were led down a flight of stairs and taken to a downstairs room.

***

Saunders knelt beside the body of Private Randolph C. Meeker, not caring that his knees were getting chilled in the wet, brown grass. His face looked strained as he turned Meeker over, exposing a dark hole just above the dead soldier's shoulder blades. "He's been shot."

"Shot? Here?" Billy asked.

"Yeah. Someone put a bullet in his back. He had no chance." He pulled off the tags around the dead soldier's neck, imagining Hanley dispatching a letter to this kid's family in order to explain the circumstances of his death; execution while unarmed and helpless. Shaking his head, he slipped the tags into his pocket.

"But, what about Kirby and Doc? What happened to them?"

Saunders didn't give an answer. He stared silently from Billy's bloodied leg to Meeker's and sighed.

The sound of rustling branches made him whirl around, weapon raised. Caje and Littlejohn rushed out from behind a stand of nearby evergreens. Saunders' heart leapt at the sight of a helmet in Caje's hand. Even from so many yards away, he could tell by its netting that it was Kirby's. Littlejohn carried something that looked like a badly tattered field jacket. It was almost certainly Kirby's too.

"Any sign of 'im?" Saunders asked.

"Only this, Sarge," Caje replied. "But there's more of his stuff back there. ...I didn't see any trace of him.

"Doc's gone, too," Littlejohn added.

Sarge hefted the broken medical bag that he had found a few yards away. It had been rifled through; most of its contents were gone now. He shook his head. "The Krauts probably took them both."

Saunders took a map from his jacket and opened it. After several seconds, he indicated a stand of oaks bordering a hedgerow a few hundred yards to the left. "Home is that way. Caje, take the point!" He slung his Thompson across his shoulder as he stood. "And if you spot any patrols, you give a whistle signal. Got it?" Littlejohn helped Billy settle into the stretcher.

"Got it, Sarge!"

***

Kirby remained tied to the post, surrounded by German soldiers, feeling damp and cold. He knelt, sickening fear over the medic's fate growing in him. It was harder not to see Doc and have no idea what they were doing to him. Kirby imagined the Krauts working Doc over somewhere. He would have spilled his guts to that Kraut captain just to have some kind of good news about the medic.

He cringed as a German soldier came up behind him. The man knelt down beside Kirby and unbuckled the American's boots. As they were brutally pulled off, leaving his feet bared, the cold stones chilled him. His teeth clattered in spite of him. A thousand ideas about painful things that the Krauts might soon do to his feet gripped him. Kirby curled up instinctively, and he tried to conjure up the woman's image again to block out the anticipation of what might happen to him next.

The Kraut's music wafted to his ears, playing incessantly on the record player in the room. It unnerved him badly. But the Nazis seemed to love it because it kept on.

He heard the captain come up to him again. "You do not enjoy our great Wagner, Amerikaner?" Stengel asked. His voice had a hissing quality to it. Maybe it had something to do with his scar. Kirby thought his face even looked like a rattler's.

"If he tried jazz," Kirby said, not feeling the bravado he put on. "To bring some life into this party."

He stopped, remembering that he was supposed to give only rank, serial number and... and then the damned music filled the room with drums and basses. Kirby grunted as two Kraut soldiers untied his hands and pulled him up roughly by the shoulders. A world of pain engulfed him at the contact with the cold stones, and he gasped. He stood, staring quietly at the officer.

Stengel slapped his riding crop across his open palm and squared himself in front of Kirby. This private seemed quite spirited for such a small, ratty-looking soldier. He had rightly judged this W.G. Kirby when he had concluded that the private would not buckle quickly after feeling physical pain. Still, the snap of the buckle as it lashed the American had made him ecstatic at first. Stengel had watched it raise gashes in Kirby's bare skin and had silently rejoiced at the prisoner's moans. Each time it landed, the officer had remained convinced of his own eventual victory. In fact, it now appeared that the prisoner would let himself die rather than answer truthfully. He wondered if all Americans were as stubborn as this one. He would have sent that pig-headed private to the Eastern front long ago.

"What is the Americans' location and strength?" barked the German impatiently.

"We always bounce back. We're better, Fritz. That's why we're gonna win this war!"

Stengel swung the riding crop and slapped it across Kirby's face, hard. "Your childish remarks do not amuse me," he stated. "You will talk." He shook his head, raging that the American had only answered his questions with rude jokes and insults so far. Of course, the blood filling the American's mouth at present would be an impediment to speech, but there were ways around that.

The phone rang, interrupting him. Quickly, he picked up the receiver. "Stengel hier!"

"Time is wasting!" shouted the voice on the other end of the phone. "The information this prisoner possesses could turn out to be crucial to the German response action. We need results! You are taking too long; expect me over there in an hour!"

"Sir! Very Good! Heil Hitler!"

Stengel clasped his hands behind his back and turned his attention to Kirby again, feeling a mounting frustration. "Du wirst sprechen, Amerikaner!" he cried out.

He hit Kirby's face with the crop again. His men held the prisoner up as Kirby knees went limp. His head drooped onto his chest. Kirby squinted at the floor beneath him and saw red drops spatter onto the stones. He knew that they had come from him. As Kraut soldiers pulled him back to his feet, acid-tasting blood filled his mouth.

The captain stared at the crop in his hand. It gleamed with blood despite the room's dim light. "Talk," he continued. "Tell me where are your tanks stationed. Answer, American!"

Kirby saw the captain standing right in front of him, so close, hissing in his snake voice, sickening him with his lousy perfume. He spat in Stengel's face, realizing right away that it had been a mistake. The S.S. man's eyes blazed with crazed fury, his face was covered with the red spit he'd received. Kirby tried to inch backwards as the officer took out his Luger and yanked the safety off, but guards held him in place. He thought he was going to faint as the pistol's barrel came against his chest. Several interminable seconds passed as the captain kept his weapon trained on him, shaking with the desire to shoot. Slowly, Stengel brought the barrel down towards his feet. Kirby held his breath but he didn't tremble. He wouldn't give the son-of-a-bitch the satisfaction.

He barely heard the pistol's detonation. The room went out of focus and got darker. Then, seconds later, a fireball of pain came roaring up through his body.

***

Doc sat beside François in a dank, empty room. A series of pencil marks and tiny numbers ran up the wall beside them, one above the other. Long ago, his mother had pencilled in a growth chart just like that one on his bedroom wall. Strange he'd think of that here. All those French kids were surely dead and gone now, thanks to the Krauts. François had, through mimes and words, explained that the S.S. had come and taken away all of his friends. With his very eyes, François had seen them kill one who could not speak or walk. To them, he had explained, pity itself is a defect.

The cold air made the boy shiver as he gesticulated and spoke to Doc. "Ces barreaux-là sont desserrés," he explained, indicating the bars on the windows. "Avant les boches, nous sortions parfois, sans que les religieuses le sachent. Pour aller fumer en secret, vous voyez? Cigarettes? En secret, dehors?" François pretended to bring a cigarette to his lips.

Doc nodded. Even in France, kids sneaked out to smoke cigarettes behind the stables. He stared at the angry youngster, feeling more like he was talking to a veteran soldier. Boy! Children sure grew up fast in this war! "You mean there's a way out?"

"Oui!" François replied. "Je dois trouver Marianne. My sister."

Hope of escape sprang to life in Doc's heart, just a little. But first, he would have to see if there was a way to take Kirby out with him. He didn't know how, since Kirby was with the captain.

He saw François staring at the barred window, seeming lost in his thoughts. Rain continued to pour steadily, chilling the air. He swallowed a painful lump in his throat at the memory of Meeker. "You're worried for your sister, aren't you?" he asked. "I know it's hard. I'm worried about Kirby."

He hoped they hadn't already taken him away or killed him; that they'd bring Kirby back when they were through. If not, he hoped that they might let a medic in to see him.

He stood and knocked on the door, calling for a guard. As the sentry stood quietly with a rifle trained on the door, Doc tried his best to explain that he wished for them to let him out to go check on Kirby.

***

A clatter of footsteps echoed on the stone floor. Kirby craned his neck to see who had just entered. To his surprise, he saw Doc's figure approaching him. He sat up, feeling relieved that Doc was still unhurt, and that they had let him come.

The medic knelt down beside him and put a hand on his forehead. He shook his head. Kirby was in bad shape. His chest bore raised welts and bruises from the whipping. His forehead felt very cold. Kirby was shivering in the damp air. He had almost no clothes on. He needed something to cover him up. As Doc scoured the room to see what he could use to do it, he felt Kirby's chained wrist for a pulse. As he figured, it raced. "Sorry Kirby, I can't give you any morphine," Doc whispered in a low voice. "I have to talk to you."

"Doc, I was about to get to... third base with..."

Doc lowered his voice even more; worried that the guard at the door would hear him. "The boy told me how some kids from this place used to sneak out. He says the Krauts don't know about it yet. It's going to be dark in a few minutes, we're going to try it."

That got Kirby's attention! What he wouldn't have given to be able to head back to the Sarge! He just shook his head.

"Come on, now, Kirby! You can get that chain off. Just tell the Krauts you need to answer a call of nature."

With evident pain, Kirby worked his right leg out from behind him. "I ain't goin' nowhere on this, Doc."

The foot bore a dark, raw bullet hole with blackened burns charring the skin around its edges. Doc had treated many wounds like this before, but suffering etched on a friend's face made it worse. Gingerly, he turned Kirby's foot over and examined underneath it, already knowing from experience that he'd see extensive damage. He winced in spite of himself. The bullet had shattered bones. Kirby was going to need a doctor real soon. All hope of helping Kirby escape vanished.

Kirby struggled to sit up a bit straighter. "Go on, Doc... Go and... let me score here before... them Krauts get back," he insisted, forcing a note of levity into his voice. He knew Doc wasn't fooled, though. He shuddered as a sharp pang shot through him.

"No. I'm staying. Kirby, there's no telling what'll happen if I make it, and they find out. They're all runnin' on square wheels around here, you know?"

"I'll keep 'em busy. Go on."

Footsteps clattered at the door, and Doc stood to watch the sullen German guard approach him, Schmeisser raised. Time was up. He couldn't give Kirby something to cover up with. Silently, Doc followed the soldier out of the room.

***

Ignoring his fear that more Krauts might be nearby, Saunders slung his Thompson and signalled to the men behind him to hurry it down the narrow stream below them. Together, he and Littlejohn carried the wounded Nelson down the roadside embankment, and they hunkered down at the grassy edge of the water.

Littlejohn helped Billy settle onto his side. "Here. Have some water, Billy!" He dipped his canteen into the clear water.

All of them spun around; startled by the sound of vehicles drawing near. A German transport truck rolled into view, its engine sputtering in the frosty air. Seconds later, a staff car came in, following right on its heels.

"Take cover!" Saunders yelled. Damn! There was only a rotting tree stump to hide behind. A stand of trees stood several yards away. Billy wouldn't make it over there in the condition he was in.

The Americans flattened themselves along the embankment, holding their breaths, as the vehicles approached. The truck drew nearer, slowing as it came up beside them. A groan from Billy made Littlejohn wince. "Shhhh, Billy. Shhhh..." the tall man said.

They heard the Kraut truck screech to a halt. A line of bullets raked the ground above them, sending clumps earth and grass flying around their faces. Saunders signalled to Littlejohn to stay there and cover the wounded Nelson, and then he turned to the Cajun.

"Caje, you got any grenades?" he asked.

"Yeah!"

"Come with me!"

Under Littlejohn's cover fire, they crawled along the stream bank towards their left until they reached the trees. The forest hid them from view as they entered its darkness and headed across the road to circle the German trucks.

At the stream, Littlejohn stayed in front of Billy, giving him the protection of his body, and aimed his rifle at the Krauts. He pulled the trigger repeatedly, trying to space his shots. The impact of the M1's bullets cut two of the Germans down. They splashed into the water.

Above, Saunders and Caje both stood up from the grasses and hurled their grenades at the two vehicles. A wall of fire erupted from the transport truck as it exploded. A ball of flames rose for several feet above the truck. Saunders turned his face to avoid the flames' heat. Still, he heard panicked shouts ring out from inside it.

The second grenade exploded beside the staff car. A volley of Schmeisser fire spewed from it as it revved to life and backed away. Saunders saw it turn eastward and roar off with its tires screeching. He sprayed it with the Thompson as it moved off; feeling certain that he'd seen a man with an officers cap in the back seat scream and then go down. It might have been a colonel; he couldn't be sure.

Before he could shoot it, the car rounded a bend and disappeared. Saunders grasped Caje's shoulder. "Come on! There could be more of 'em around!" he ordered.

They joined Littlejohn and Billy. Making sure he was all right, they gently placed him into the stretcher again and headed out.

***

François clasped Doc's sleeve in rushed panic and then scrambled out the window. Doc heard him fall to the ground outside with a muted thump. After a moment's desperate hesitation, he followed the boy out, leaving the darkened schoolroom and a wounded, helpless Kirby, behind him.

He landed on the wet ground, chilled to the bone by the damp, cold air, and he ran behind François towards the stable visible across the schoolyard. As they rounded the building's corner, a flash of lightning lit the yard, showing two German sentries at the furthest edge. Just in time, Doc pulled the boy inside the building through an open door. The two hid in a stall, peeking through a crack in the boards, as the two German sentries strode past the open doorframe, Schmeissers hanging from their shoulders.

"De l'autre côté," François said. He indicated a small dog door on the far wall there. Doc nodded. It would be more dangerous for them because the house was on that side, but it would have to do. Doc hoped that the Germans inside would be busy and not look at it while they crawled out of it.

"Come on. Hurry up."

Time was slipping away. Kirby wouldn't be able to hold out forever. The BAR man was going to need help, the sooner the better. "Lead the way, François."

As quietly as they could, the two of them crawled through the stable, passing empty stalls. As they reached the other side, a small, white chicken ran by them, squawking angrily at the unwelcome presence of two humans in her domain. Instantly, François grabbed the bird, sending feathers flying, and bent its neck to silence it. He tossed the dead chicken into a pile of hay. The noise of a weapon cocking near the stable door sent Doc and François rushing into the last stall, cringing against the planks, listening to find out if the sentry had heard them. Without warning, a neighing sound erupted from the stall across from theirs. A brown-tailed mare began to stomp her hooves loudly on the floorboards, disturbed by their presence.

"Wer ist das? Otto? Bist du hier noch mal gekommen?" shouted a German at the door. "Antwort mich...." Waving his weapon on each side, the guard inched forward with slow, wary steps.

His face taut with apprehension, Doc pushed the boy behind a trough and then followed him into the narrow hiding space. François shook Doc's arm, gesturing towards the small dog door only a few feet away. His eyes burned with urgency. The door was so close, but it stood right in the sentry's line of sight. They stayed put, hoping the German would turn back and go out again. But the Kraut kept approaching, issuing challenges in his language. He was sure to see them crouching there at any second. Doc hugged the stall partition, trying to stay out of sight, as the guard appeared at the opening.

The German turned his back to them and talked to the agitated animal. He lowered his rifle and ran a hand across the mare's rump. He spoke to it with a gentle voice, evidently trying to calm it. Doc watched as the guard entered the opposite stall further and caressed its neck. The German's tone and handling of the animal seemed to soothe it. It calmed down a bit as German smiled and patted its coat reassuringly.

While the German's back was still turned, François crawled to the dog door and slipped out. Doc tried to back further into hiding space, then froze as the sentry turned around and faced his way.

The guard's eyes widened with surprise. "Was machst du hier?" he barked, aiming his Schmeisser at the medic. Before he could utter another word, the mare beside him jumped, stomping her hooves nervously. Her flank hit the German, sending him crashing against the boards.

Without stopping to think, Doc leapt out of his hiding space and jumped the guard. Desperation gave him strength; he fought to wrench the weapon from the German's hands. The sentry held onto it. The man's fingers had slipped out of the trigger space. In his panic, he tried to shoot, but couldn't put his finger back onto the trigger. For several seconds, the Schmeisser's barrel wavered wildly between them.

The jumpy mare kept thrashing against the two adversaries. Doc got the upper hand and pushed the sentry away. The man landed underneath the animal and cried out, raising his arms to protect his face from being crushed.

Doc made a move towards the dog door. He crawled fast, almost reaching it. Escape was a foot away. A muffled scream coming from the horse's stall startled him. He stopped and looked back. The animal was badly frightened. Her panic had grown; she kicked and stomped with her back hooves, right beside the German guard. The next blow might injure of kill the man. The medic's instinct took over in him. In a rush to help, he crawled back to the stall and grabbed the German's feet. He grunted with effort as he pulled, ignoring the mare thrashing against him.

As he slid the half-conscious sentry out of the stall, the horse beside him reared its hind legs with a panicked cry. A sharp blow suddenly landed on Doc's leg, sending a lightning bolt of pain through his body. He collapsed and rolled out of the way, knowing that the horse had kicked him. The same thing had happened to him on his family's farm once, long ago. In a frozen few seconds of shock, he saw the German's weapon still lying beneath the animal. Its hooves were knocking it around. The sentry, still lying on hands and knees beside him, was gasping for breath.

It was time to get out now. Doc dove for the square opening in the wall and crawled through it. He gasped at the cold air that hit his face, but he didn't stop to listen to the commotion he figured was about to start inside the barn. Without looking at the house, he headed towards a far hedge that stood to his left, rolled down behind its protective barrier, and ran into the darkness as fast as the pain in his leg would allow.

He followed the hedge, looking everywhere to try and spot the boy, until an unexpected downward slope made him stumble. He rolled down the hill on a bed of wet ivy, gasping at the pain in his bruised leg, and made it back on his feet at the bottom. He kept on running, worried about being chased by Krauts, until he reached the cover of a tall, swaying line of trees. Still, he heard no Germans coming after him as he entered it. He followed a path that led away from the German S.S. post and came out of the forest after several minutes. The other side showed a ploughed field with the path continuing on towards a black ridge of hills in the distance that looked exactly like the ones around the Americans' lines.

He followed it for a long time, ignoring the burning in his throat and the pangs in his leg. He couldn't afford to stop and rest. He might not get up again, if he did. He stumbled and ran until his leg gave out at a small road he didn't recognize. He threw himself in a ditch beside it to catch his breath. He stared up at the grey starless sky, panting, telling himself he'd only stay there a few seconds. Well, a minute, maybe; Kirby's life was riding on him. Doc shuddered at the thought of the BAR man giving those Krauts the business while he was out free on a nature hike. Anxious to head out again, he staggered to his feet and then stopped cold, frozen by the sound of a rifle cocking just behind him.

"Hallo! Who goes there? Speak up!"

Doc turned, and stared into the rifle of a young soldier wearing lots of blackface and a British combat helmet. He quickly put his hands up and identified himself.

***

Kirby sat with his right arm chained to a post. His ears still echoed with the noise of Stengel's pistol, and he still could feel the jarring pain in his foot when it had fired. He remembered being dragged towards another, smaller room somewhere off to the side of where he'd been tortured and shot. Every inch of the way had been excruciating. With half-open eyes, he had glanced down and made out a thin trail of blood behind him. That had happened a long time ago maybe; he wasn't sure any more. The initial numbness of shock had worn off since then. Now, he sat with his right arm in a heavy chain, his whole body screaming for morphine. He didn't kid himself. Nobody was going to give him any.

He wondered how long ago Doc had told him about the attempt at escape. He knew he would have to keep those crazy bastards busy long enough to give Doc a chance; to tell those S.S. something, just to buy time.

He was startled back to his senses by the sound of footsteps at the door. He shook off his tiredness when he saw Stengel standing in the threshold with his hands crossed behind his back. The sight of him chilled Kirby's blood to ice. The German officer had changed his uniform since the last time Kirby saw him. His black tunic looked impeccably pressed now, and the S.S. captain. was freshly shaved and stank of the perfume he always wore.

At a gesture from the officer, his guards surrounded the BAR man.

Smirking, the captain removed the cigarette that dangled from the corner of his scarred mouth and stared at Kirby's face. It gleamed with sweat. A dark shadow had begun to grow in. He could see swelling where the crop had lashed it. "Private Kirby," he said. "You have spoken to your friend. We graciously allowed. Now, you will talk of your ...unit, or he suffers, what you say, the next. It will be very bad for him. He will die. Yes?"

"Aw... right. I'll talk. ...Jus' leave 'im... alone," he said. Kirby teeth clattered audibly from fear and cold. "Wait. I'm ...freezin'. Get me... something first."

He heard the tall sergeant leave his master's side and come back a few moments later. Some kind of cloth slid over his shoulders, giving him a bit of welcome warmth, and he grabbed the edge of it with his left hand to wrap around himself. It felt better with that thing draped around him. He tried to settle himself more comfortably.

"You say you will cooperate...." Stengel said, taking a step forward. "Some of our lookout posts have been detonated in last hours. You were on one such mission, yes?"

"Yeah. ...But I wasn't with 'em when it... happened. So, don't blame me."

"And you return to hero's welcome in your head encampment. It is Mérion. Correct?"

Kirby raised his hand to show the scar on it. "Naw. Doc was tellin' it straight. See? I was shot this mornin' We were just goin' to an aid station, is all."

"Tell us where your tank regiments are massed and their numbers."

"I don't know. I just... saw a couple of 'em roll by. There's no way to... tell what place they were headin' to...." Kirby paused, gulping. Something in the captain's face had gone crazy strange. The man's mouth twitched, just a little, and his eyes looked brightly glazed over. "I don't know when they're supposed to move out," he continued, not really sure if the Kraut was buying it.

The cloth on Kirby's shoulders moved slightly. For the first time, he recognized the black S.S. flag that had hung on the wall above. That was what the creeps had draped on him. The sight of it turned his stomach, and he threw that abhorrent thing away with a shudder.

"Lies!" Stengel hissed. "I see that you are not cooperating. You only play games to distract us."

"No! It's the truth!"

The German officer ordered Heinrich to unchain him. The tall soldier forced Kirby up onto his feet and locked his right forearm around his neck, choking him. In a desperate panic, Kirby fought to wrench the sergeant's arm away. Pain overwhelmed him, but no way was Kirby going to let those creeps shoot him just like that. He'd fight them no matter what shape he was in. He tried again to shake the tall German off him, but the sergeant held him fast.

Stengel came before him and crushed the remains of his cigarette into the BAR man's chest. Kirby cried out, thrashing wildly, and tried to kick the captain away.

At a signal from his leader, the sergeant shoved Kirby down onto the stones and kicked him in the ribs, hard. The blow knocked his breath out. Instead of clutching his chest, Kirby reached out to grab Stengel's leg and knock him down, but the captain evaded him. Again, the tall sergeant kicked him in the chest. Kirby curled up, feeling as if his ribs had been crushed. He gasped, trying desperately to get air back into his lungs.

"Your friend has escaped!" Stengel barked as he planted his feet in front of the prisoner. "Did you think I would believe your charade?" His voice turned shrill with angry disdain. "Amerikaners will lose this war because we are the greater force, and lowly soldiers such as you are sent to fight us!"

He paused, his attention drawn to the loud clatter of boot steps. He saw a Wehrmacht soldier wearing a long, dripping coat burst into the room, gesturing excitedly. The man's distraught expression told him that something was wrong. Momentarily, Stengel forgot about the prisoner.

"What's going on?" the captain asked the man. "Has the colonel arrived?"

"Captain! Come quickly! We must have use of your infirmary! The colonel's been hit and has lost much, much blood. Please come!"

"No. Bring the colonel here at once! And let no one see him. No one." He indicated the door beside the desk. "Understand?"

"It's a disaster," the soldier continued, his voice hoarse. "I was driving. Americans attacked us on the way over. Many of our finest were trapped in the escort truck. Sir! Regiment is ordering us to retreat to line 65, others even further back!" He turned heels and rushed out of the room as quickly as he'd come.

Stengel took in the driver's report, feeling dazed. So much was happening at once. It didn't look good. The Americans were poised to throw themselves into the hole created by their retreat. But where were they? With the colonel now incapacitated, the decision on where to launch the counterattack rested in Stengel's own hands. He picked up the phone receiver. "This is the Captain!" he barked. "Order regiment guns to fire on Sector 14. You hear? Sector 14!"

As he waited for his wounded superior to be brought in, Stengel spied Kirby's, sweat-covered, dirty, unshaved form out of the corner of his eye, and he turned to face the American. Still on the floor, Kirby clutched his chest and held the captain's icy stare with defiance. At once, the simmering hatred in Stengel boiled over into revulsion. The uncooperative American prisoner looked no better than a rodent to him, at that moment. The captain felt sickened by the very sight of him. He raised a cleanly manicured finger towards Kirby. "Take him out," he ordered in German, "...and kill him."

As the tall sergeant took out a Luger and picked Kirby up off his knees, Stengel rushed out to see the colonel.

***

Littlejohn helped two medics lift Billy from the stretcher. Relief flooded into his stiffened arms, but he took no notice of it. He was just happy that Billy had made it back to the aid station okay. Meeker hadn't been so lucky. Two medics from the 361st gently helped his wounded buddy into a grey stone house that served as an aid station. Saunders patted his arm. "Why don't you go with 'em huh, Littlejohn?" he offered.

"Awright. ...Thanks, Sarge!"

Hanley strode over to them. "Saunders. Come with me, I need your report. It's very important that you give us all the details. I just heard that G2 is pushing the attack up by two hours. It's scheduled for early tomorrow morning. ...And you did a good job knocking out the Kraut OP."

Saunders nodded, sighing. He had barely gotten in. His squad was bushed, and he had lost three men out there, including Kirby. He pushed his helmet back and put a Lucky Strike in between his lips, letting Caje light it for him. As he accompanied Hanley down the rubble-filled street towards the headquarters office, the lieutenant bent his head slightly towards him.

"Saunders, I want you to see who just got brought in. You'll be interested in meeting him. Bring Caje."

The Cajun hitched his rifle higher onto his shoulder; he heard the lieutenant's words, but he still kept a stoic face as he strode silently behind the two others.

***

The wounded colonel lay on his side, inert, on the floor of the next room. He tried weakly to raise his head and speak. He only managed a low-pitched moan, and then his head fell back onto the floor. The man's broad chest had been bared to expose his wounds. Stengel saw several bullet holes cutting across the colonel's back, each bleeding profusely. A dark pool of blood covered the carpet beneath his body.

Stengel felt for a pulse and got only a faint, rapid response. He took a bayonet from the guard next to him and jabbed the colonel's thigh with it slightly. No reaction came.

"An automatic weapon did this to him,? the driver said. ?He's lost so much blood! He needs B negative, and quickly, or he'll die! Captain, do you have someone with a compatible type among your men?"

A soldier beside Stengel spoke up. "Sir, there's only Hesseman. But he's in the field right now. Like most of the others, he's been sent out searching for the missing American. Captain, I could give some blood again like I did yesterday but...." He sniffled, rubbing his reddened nose.

"No!" Stengel replied. He remembered holding Kirby's dog tags only a short time before. He re-pictured the scene in his mind, reading the information about blood type that he had seen embossed on the plate, although he already knew what it indicated; O negative. "The little rat of a prisoner," he exclaimed. "Get him quick! And stop Heinrich from shooting him!"

***

Caje turned his gaze from the agitated boy to Hanley. "François," the Cajun translated. "That's his name. He says he's looking for his sister. The Krauts took her away. But he said something else, Sir. That's what I'm trying to get now."

Hanley and Saunders looked at the young boy with flaming eyes who now sat at the lieutenant's desk with a cup of steaming coffee in front of him. The kid seemed ready to bound out of the room any second. Hanley rubbed his chin. "Caje. Ask him about the other Americans he saw."

Caje knelt closer to the boy, making his voice as even as he could. "Calme-toi, petit. Prends ton temps pour tout raconter. On veut t'aider, mais on doit pouvoir comprendre."

The boy swung his fist in the air, miming someone who is striking another person. "Ils le questionnaient et le frappaient!" he told them. "C'était terrible! Les boches demandaient au sujet de Mérion. Ils ne parlaient que de ça! Toujours Mérion, Mérion, Mérion!"

"Et l'autre Américain? Il est sorti avec toi?"

"J'sais pas! Je suis sorti tout seul. Lui, il est resté."

"What'd he say?" Hanley asked.

"The Krauts're after Kirby to make him talk. Seems they've been concentrating their line of questioning on Mérion. They want to know about American activity there.

"He hasn't talked, or else we'd be under the 88's right now, instead of St-Exult. The place where they took Kirby has to be an S.S. command post." Hanley took a folded map from his jacket pocket and spread it open on the desk in front of the boy. "Caje. Ask François if he can locate it for us."

"Yes, sir."

As the boy frowned at the map, the phone rang.

The lieutenant picked it up after the first ring. "Hanley!" he said. He looked up at Caje and Saunders, his eyes widened, as a faint voice spoke on the other end of the line. "Yes," he answered. " I do have a squad member by that name. He's been missing." Hanley paused, bending his head slightly. "He says what? Where is he now?" The voice kept speaking, sounding very faint. A few seconds later, Hanley replaced the receiver and stared at Saunders. "That was a clerk with the British Fusiliers, in sector Charlie," he explained. "One of their patrols picked up Doc last night."

He strode over to the map and placed a finger on a thin line cutting diagonally through a crease in the centre. "He and Kirby were taken right here. This building is used as an orphanage. It must be where the boy told us he came from."

Saunders swung his Thompson over his shoulder angrily, his head shaking in a gesture of frustration. "That's just a quarter-mile from crossroad 46," he said. He stared at Caje. "We went right by him."

"Battalion is softening up those Kraut guns right now. We're being ordered in under the barrage. The lieutenant put on his helmet and grabbed his carbine from behind the desk. He removed the chamber to examine it, and then rammed it back into place. "Saunders, Sector Charlie might be dangerous. I'll need to send my best man over there."

"Yes, sir!"

***

The tall sergeant pushed Kirby down.

The BAR man fell in a heap, banging his knees on the ground. Every part of his body flared from the sergeant's rough handling all along the hallway to the end, and then unexpectedly coming back to that frightening room again. What was going on? Feeling sick to his stomach, he fixed his gaze on several pairs of black boots swarming around him. His mouth went dry as he heard a pistol cocking behind him and felt it driven right into the back of his neck.

Kirby heard the Krauts talk in animated tones, feeling certain that they were discussing what to do to him next. He felt sure the Krauts had decided to kill him, just like Meeker. But something seemed to have changed. They sounded like they were arguing, maybe about the value he had to them. He retched dryly. He thought of the Sarge and everybody else in the squad. The whole time he'd spent with them flashed in front of his eyes at that moment, which he felt certain would wind up being his last. He stared at the dark Kraut boots as the captain spoke, feeling the cold metal of the pistol's barrel pressing against his neck.

"The order's directive is clear, Heinrich" Stengel argued. "If this rat's blood can be used for the transfusion, he must be biologically without reproach."

"Sir. Does it matter who or what this man is? The whole sector may fall if the colonel dies."

"Better he dies than receives blood of impure origin. As a ranking member of the S.S., he is in total agreement. Our order has the responsibility to maintain the purity of the Aryan race. In the name of that race, I will allow no tainting of the colonel's blood. My order stands."

Stengel placed his hands on his hips and faced the prisoner. "Private Kirby. Your identification plate states that you have negative blood type O. Is this correct?"

Kirby kept quiet, his teeth gritted.

Stengel stood without moving, keeping his hands clasped behind his back. "You will stand for examination immediately," he ordered.

Dumbfounded, Kirby stared at the officer, still seeing a snake face on him. What examination was the man talking about? For what? The sergeant grasped his arm roughly. Kirby shook it off with an angered jerk. The man pressed the barrel of his Luger between his shoulder blades and barked out an order in German.

Kirby realized the bastards wanted him on his feet. Despite the weakness in his legs, he slowly made it up off his knees, his wounded foot sending waves of agony all through his body. Refusing the sergeant's help, he willed himself to stand up; it would be the last thing he'd ever do. His foot flashed intensely as he put his weight on it. He kept still anyway. Inside him, sirens wailed loud enough to tear out his eardrums; he masked his fear and pain as best he could. His legs buckled and almost gave out. He caught himself and straightened again, wanting to look that captain in the eye. "Hey, Fritz," he quipped, not feeling much like joking. "This'd be more fun with a nurse. Got any in your outfit?"

He stopped talking as the tall soldier unbuckled his trousers and exposed him to the captain's scrutiny. Stripped naked before him, Kirby stood without moving, frozen with terror, barely managing to control the trembling of his jaw while Stengel examined him. Kirby didn't know what the hell these Krauts' problem was, or what it was they were checking about him, but he didn't like the expression on the captain or the way the man nodded at the sergeant. Some new kind of torture was on the way for him, he just knew it. He listened to the Krauts' words without understanding them.

"There is no outward evidence of impurity," Stengel said. "He seems to be free of defects at first examination."

"Sir; is he acceptable?"

Stengel thought he might be. With a quick visual inspection, he sized Kirby up, determining that the shape of his skull, face and forehead seemed harmonious. He saw no trace of oriental or Slavic in the shape of the eyes and cheekbones, the lips and chin. The nose was straight, and so were the shoulders. He found the candidate to have a good size and weight; with the proper length of arms and thighs in proportion to the thorax. The prisoner was dark-haired but fair-skinned, and so could be classed as Aryan enough to give blood to the S.S. colonel.

But his health was another matter. The American had already begun to show signs of imminent infection. He looked gaunt and greatly fatigued. Dark circles lined his eyes. His face was a mass of bruises. His wrists had turned dark. Swollen, reddened lines crossed the prisoner's chest and bare back where he'd been whipped. Stengel looked at Kirby's damaged foot, trying to determine whether the bullet wound had closed fast enough to prevent massive bleeding. For a second, he wondered if, perhaps, it would have been better not to shoot that foot. No matter, he decided. He had originally planned to have the prisoner's feet whipped and scalded, anyway. The bullet was just an adaptation to a changed situation.

So, even though the prisoner had shed a small quantity of blood during questioning, it didn't matter in the least. The American had some left in him, and it was racially compatible. He would have one last use before Stengel finally rid himself of him.

"Very well. I will permit the transfusion. Bring him."

Kirby protested loudly as two Krauts grabbed him. The soldiers brought bayonets against his chest. He stood still, subdued by terror, as the sergeant stepped before him and wrapped a blindfold very tightly around his eyes, sending him into a world of darkness. Stripped naked, he felt the Krauts take him out and drag him through that black void, squeezing his arms so tight that Kirby felt they'd be cut off. They weren't gentle. Pain jabbed through his foot as it banged against the hard stones. For several terrifying minutes, they led him forcefully towards a place that he couldn't see. He was frozen to the core, yet his heart raced so fast that he took no notice of it. Every part of him screamed as he wondered what was to about to happen to him. He didn't think he'd be able to stand any more pain.

After a hear-stopping trip, he was bodily lifted up onto a table. He tried to wrench the blindfold off and see what they were doing. Someone yanked his hands outward and strapped them to the edges of the table. Within seconds, his legs were bound the same way. He lay spread-eagled, naked, bound tightly and blindfolded. He tried desperately not to tremble or scream, but his chest heaved as he listened to the noises all around him. A black curtain had come down onto his field of vision. His mouth was dry. He couldn't see anything, and it amplified the German voices speaking all round him. Their phrases resonated in his ears, sounding like they came from a deep tunnel.

The S.S. captain was right beside him, Kirby realized, talking very fast, and the sergeant was answering.

Something sharp, like a needle, pricked his arm. He jumped, crying out in surprise, and the needle came out momentarily. Instead of hitting him, the Krauts were going to give him some drug to make him talk! Panicked, he struggled to get out of the restraints, not caring about the pain his movements were causing, and then felt a strong hand press down on his neck, almost crushing it. He froze as a man's face came up next to his. The stench of Stengels perfume filled his nostrils, gagging him.

Before the man spoke, the needle pricked him again, in the crook of his elbow. This time, Kirby stayed still, too scared to move any more, as he felt the needle moving around deep inside his arm. After several jabs, it stayed put, and he felt some kind of pressure being applied on it. Tape, he realized, to keep the needle in place. Kirby waited, feeling shivers run through him, for the effects of the drug to take over. It wouldn't take long, he figured. He felt dizzy; he thought the room had begun to spin. Once again, he struggled to get out of the straps before it was too late. A voice startled him out of his stupor.

"Private Kirby. Remain calm or you will be restrained even further. Do you understand?"

He recognised the captain's voice. He tried to turn his head that way to tell the creep to go get smeared in his own dirt pile, but he was choked by the pressure of the hand on his windpipe. Then, the hand released its hold on him.

"Wha... ...you doing ...to me?" he gasped.

"You will remain silent and ask no more questions!" the captain snapped.

All at once, Kirby realized that the captain's voice had registered very clearly. The Krauts had stuck a needle in his arm, but he wasn't going into a drugged sleep. He could still hear what was going on around him, and he could still think clearly. As the Krauts talked and worked, it dawned on him just what they were doing. He wondered if they were going to take so much blood that it would wind up killing him. He didn't think the Krauts would be too worried about that, if whoever needed the transfusion was in a bad enough way. He wasn't being allowed to see who it was. He stayed put, quivering silently.

Before he could stop it, a lump formed his throat, and he stifled a sob.

***

Early dawn shone through falling rain. Saunders knelt beside a mud hole, staying behind the cover of a rocky fence. He raised his field glasses and examined the schoolhouse for several moments. The place was a stronghold; three stories of stones so thick, he'd need a tank to dent them. It was almost full daylight; he could discern solid metal bars covering the windows. A pair of machine guns poked out of them at ground level, one in each corner. The building stood on raised ground with nothing but open space around it except for a twenty-foot statue of a robed Christ on a stone pedestal near the front entrance. In the far distance, he heard a rumble of one-o-fives.

Silently, Caje came up beside the sergeant and lightly tapped his arm. "Sounds like Battalion's opened it up, Sarge"

"They've moved up about a half-mile."

On the left, he saw the flank man, a soldier named Kelso. Pinned down at the corner of the stable, the man raised a BAR and fired a burst at the house. A furious response raked the wall above his helmet. Saunders ducked as a line of bullets hit the fence in front of him, breaking off chunks of stone. Several seconds of silence followed. He turned and slid back down the shallow embankment towards the other Americans who crouched there. Caje followed him down instants later.

"It's a rough one," Sarge said. "We won't have the advantage of darkness. They can stare down our throats."

Littlejohn had just pushed a clip into his rifle with his left thumb. He turned to stare at Saunders as he slid back the bolt. "Sarge! We're not going to be rushing that place!"

"Littlejohn, you'll do what you have to! And that goes for all of you. Just do your jobs like you're ordered, and keep your mouths shut while you're doin' it!"

Several pairs of eyes stared up at him with petrified expectancy.

Saunders sagged down onto his haunches, softening his tone as he read the fear in their faces. "That open space is a trap for them, too," he explained. "I'm gonna try and spread a little confusion; go around the back and try to flush them out. You'll position yourselves here and wait for 'em." He pushed his helmet up and gazed at the roof visible above the ridge. "Littlejohn, you take Rios up there and dig in. When I give the signal, you lay cover fire for us. And Littlejohn, watch out for him, huh? Henderson, Pratt, you two get over as close as you can to those windows and get ready to launch your grenades in. Got it?"

"Got it, Sarge."

He watched the men climb up the ditch, heading to their appointed positions. Then, after one last ammo check, he signalled to Caje and the others to follow him.

Without a word, he led them along the bottom of the ditch. They circled around towards the corner of the stable. There, Saunders signalled to stop. Here again, he saw only open space leading up to the building. A blackened and dented staff car stood beside the entrance with the lifeless arm of a German soldier hanging out of the car's smashed back window.

Two Krauts unexpectedly emerged from the back entrance and started edging the wall towards their right, Schmeissers slung on their shoulders. Both Germans dropped down to their knees at the corner of the building and aimed their weapons at the front yard. Their backs were turned; they didn't see two Americans crawl silently along the side of the stable and come up right behind them. Saunders and Caje jumped the two Germans without making a sound. A few seconds later, both guards fell to the ground, their throats wrapped in wire, and lay unmoving.

Wiping the rain from his face, Saunders gestured for Caje to give him his bayonet. He crawled to the staff car with the Cajun on his tail, and he quickly plunged the blade into the front left tire, listening to the air rush out of it.

The back entrance stood only yards away from them. He saw Kelso give him a curt wave and then aim the BAR at the house. Saunders knew the man would do his job well when the time came. He signalled for Keats and Nicholson to move in next to the staff car and cover the house with their rifles. Satisfied that all the men stood ready at their posts, he took Caje with him to the back door, and they flattened themselves beside it.

Sarge checked his watch one last time. Daylight was already upon them; the eastern horizon showed light filtering breaks in the clouds. Saunders took a grenade from his jacket and pulled the pin.

Saunders ducked in the doorframe and hurled a grenade in the direction of a German soldier kneeling at a heavy desk in the corner. The man clutched his face as it exploded, screaming, and he fell behind the desk. As if on signal, gunfire erupted all around the building, deafeningly loud.

Together with the Cajun, Saunders ran through the door and went in.

***

Kirby's elevator was full of snakes, and it was crashing to earth so fast, he couldn't breathe. He wanted to stop its downward tumble but his arms were locked in glue, and he couldn't reach the control panel. He felt the slimy snakes writhing at his feet, jabbing their teeth in him; it stung badly. Outside the elevator, Hell itself had broken loose. The cloth over his eyes still blinded him, but Kirby knew the hissing snakes were all trying to slither out of that place any way they could.

The sound of an explosion jarred him awake. He cursed, still feeling the needle in his arm. In the grip of panic, he fought against the straps that bound his cut-up wrists, only hurting himself more.

Dimly, he heard the roar of distant BAR's. Right away, machine guns spewed out their answers. The din raged and stopped and then started up again, like a door opening and shutting on it. He thought the noise moved in closer, and in his confusion, he feared that it would all come right inside the room. He struggled to loosen his bonds, desperate to get down from the table and take cover. He fell back and panted, breathless. He was exhausted from the struggle; he didn't care. He kept on trying to get the straps off. He heard footsteps and shouts nearby. A man entered the room, wheezing and panting. Kirby froze, alerted, and listened as the man headed towards the left, smelling of gunpowder and blood. Something heavy crashed to the floor, and the man cursed in German.

The blindfold came off, and Kirby blinked into the face of the huge sergeant. The tall man loomed over him, reaching almost to the ceiling, it seemed. He bent over Kirby and grasped his neck, whispering something that sounded like an order. Kirby didn't understand what was he said. He felt one of the straps come off his wrist, and he jerked up the newly freed arm, grasping furiously at the goon's hand.

The German shouted a word that Kirby quite understood to be a profanity and brought the pistol into the side of his face, stunning him. He fought for breath as he fell back onto the table, dizzy and sick. The huge hand grasped his neck again. Limp from exhaustion, Kirby tried to gouge it once more.

Shouts and scuffling rang out in the hall, right beside them. The German sergeant released his hold, staring angrily at the door. Then, he grabbed his rifle and hurried out of the room.

Kirby's head spun as he sat up. He just knew that the sergeant would be right back. He wanted to hurry out of the room, but each movement he made cut his breath short. As he pulled the needle from his arm, he spotted the inert figure of a blood-covered Kraut lying on the floor beside the table. Whoever the man was, he hadn't made it. After a second to catch his breath, Kirby pulled the straps off his ankles and hobbled over to a small white cabinet. Drained of strength, he sank down beside it, panting, and anxiously watched the door.

***

Saunders and Caje looked into a very wide hall and saw several doors on both sides. It made a dangerous gauntlet to be run.

The left side of the house erupted with the deafening roar of machine guns. Seconds later, Saunders heard the answering volleys of BAR's and M1's coming from the ditch. The hallway doors shook as a grenade went off in a room just to their left. He saw a German soldier come out into the passage in front of them. The German stopped dead in his tracks, unsure of how to react to seeing Americans in his way. He swung up his weapon at Saunders and was instantly cut down by a burst from the Thompson.

Taking advantage of the din going on outside, the two Americans entered the hallway. They moved up, checking into rooms that turned out to be empty. But when they reached a tall oak door, they heard a commotion behind them.

Four Germans piled out of a connecting hallway they had passed.

Raising his Thompson, Saunders opened up on them. Two of the Krauts fell sideways, their rifles clattering against the walls. The others scuttled towards the back door and ran outside. Seconds later, Sarge heard the sound of M1's bursting to life, and he knew his men had stood ready to cut down the Krauts' escape.

A metallic-sounding voice echoed from one of the nearby rooms. Grasping the Thompson, Saunders kicked in a door. Smoke obstructed his view inside the room, but he discerned desks and chairs lining the wall beside him. Several tables with telephones and radios stood further off. The voice continued to speak from one of the speakers. "Melden sie sich, bitte! Was ist los?" No answer came from the deserted room. Saunders shot a burst through the phones and radio equipment, silencing the German's voice.

He had to steady himself, startled, as another explosion rocked the walls of the building just outside the window where they stood.

As the sound abated, boot steps clattered nearby, drawing their attention. With the Cajun behind him, Sarge moved further up the hall, glancing everywhere, and flattened himself beside the next doorframe. Panting, he turned and bolted through it, ready to fire. He froze inside the room, staring at a high ceiling and bare, grey walls. A huge cross and stone altar stood at the far end. Tall, arched windows let in dim light and the distant sounds of gunfire. This place looked like an empty chapel.

Caje stared at Sarge quizzically, jutting his finger at the door across the hall. Sarge nodded, motioning for him to go there. Without a word, Caje bolted off towards it. As Saunders turned to follow him, he spied a dark form out of the corner of his eye. He turned and saw a German soldier emerge from a door at the back of the empty chapel, aiming a revolver right at his face. Saunders swung up the Thompson.

The Kraut fired at Saunders, and his shot glanced off the side of Sarge's head. He stumbled and fell back onto the stones, stunned. Blood flowed down the side of his face; he could feel its sticky warmth coming down his cheekbone. Hurt and dizzy, he groped to find the Thompson's trigger. He cursed at how long it was taking. He saw the German draw nearer, poised to shoot.

***

Cajun crouched beside the door that Sarge had indicated and poked the M1's barrel through the doorframe. Inside the room, jackets hung from hooks and munitions cabinets lined the far wall. Sounds of boot steps clattered in the hallway behind him. Caje whirled around, seeing a huge, squarely built German soldier coming at him with a bayoneted rifle. The Kraut fired his weapon from a few yards away. Bullets banged off the doorframe beside Caje, sending chunks of stone onto his helmet. Caje ducked and fired back. Still, the Kraut came at him. Caje fired again, and he finally saw the German crumple to the floor, just in front of him.

Caje turned the German over to make sure that the man would move no more. The Krauts hand came out from nowhere and grabbed Caje's boot, sending the Cajun onto his backside. With a quick gesture, the German swung his rifle towards him. Gasping, Caje fired point-blank, cutting a line of holes through the German's jacket. In the ensuing silence, he heard a noise coming from next room. Hed just left Sarge in there; he clutched his rifle and stood, wondering what Saunders was doing.

***

Saunders winced, deafened, as the noise of Caje's M1 detonated beside him. He saw the German with the pistol stagger backwards, dropping his weapon. The man's legs folded underneath him like broken matches. He clutched his arm as he crashed to the floor near a heavy wooden desk. Cursing, the German reached out, trying to grab his fallen pistol.

Saunders stood with great effort, trying to shut out the ringing in his ears, and aimed the Thompson at the German, recognizing S.S. captain's insignias adorning his collar.

The man gave up trying to grab his pistol and sat still.

The noise of gunfire around the building abated. Saunders heard shuffling boot steps outside, lots of them. Voices shouted "Kamarad!" with urgency. He heard the muted clatter of rifles falling to the ground. Kelso's voice barked out "Get down! Get down!" Littlejohn's deep drawl followed moments later, issuing the same order.

Wiping blood from the side of his face, Saunders stepped in closer to the German officer, studying him. He saw cold, blue eyes, a scar disfiguring his mouth on one side and black S.S. jacket. Caje's bullet had torn out a piece of his sleeve below the shoulder. Saunders recognized authority in the man's expression, the stiff air of decision makers, and he wondered if this had been the man who had decided Meeker's fate at Crossroad 46. "Were you the one in charge here?" he asked the Kraut.

The man's chest heaved, but he remained silent, glaring at him with raw fury.

Littlejohn appeared at the door. "Sarge? You okay? Hey, we finally got help. Take a look out there when you can, Sarge. They sent us a tank. No wonder the Krauts all threw down their weapons."

"Take Rios and Henderson with you and search the place. And be careful, Littlejohn!" Sarge steadied the Thompson and straightened himself in front of the captain. "We're looking for prisoners," he added, over his shoulder. He gestured for Littlejohn and Caje to move it.

The German officer sat up. "Nein" he stated. "There are no prisoners. None." The man's high-pitched, nasal tone chilled Saunders blood cold, and he shuddered involuntarily. "This is not a place of war at all, only of life," the captain continued. "It is only a newly created Lebensborn, what you say, a nursery, for mothers of the Reich to come and live." The man settled himself against the desk, clutching his arm, and remained still.

A man whistled in the next room. Stengel saw the American sergeant turn his head that way. With a lightning-quick movement, he threw himself behind the desk.

Saunders reacted instantly, lunging forward to intercept the German. The reason for the S.S. officer's feint became obvious to him as he reached the side of the desk; a BAR lay propped against the wall several feet away from the Kraut, previously hidden from view. Sarge recognized it instantly; it was Kirby's. The German made a lunge for it. Saunders reached the man in a single bound and yanked him roughly away from the weapon. He pulled the German's collar up with an angry jerk and then released him. Finally subdued, the S.S. captain raised his hands near his shoulders, and he stared at his own jacket. He brushed it repeatedly where Saunders had touched it, his mouth twisted into a grimace of revulsion.

Kelso appeared at the far door, looking at Saunders with an expression of surprise. "Sarge! There's a couple of Krauts in this other room here, lookin' to be bad shape."

"You will only find an infirmary," the captain snapped. "That is all. Some of our officers were wounded."

Kelso grasped his weapon, shaking his head, and stared back inside the next room. "Yeah, well, one of those wounded just cursed in English!"

***

Saunders took the green tank crewman's overalls and patted Caje's shoulder. "Tell 'em thanks, Caje."

"Okay, Sarge."

Saunders watched the Cajun hitch his rifle onto his shoulder and silently leave the room. Striding over to Kirby, he knelt down in front of him and touched his shoulder, finding the skin glacially cold. He shook his head at the sight before him. Wounded didn't describe what Saunders discerned on the BAR man's naked body. Not even close.

Kirby opened his eyes and saw Sarge's familiar face over his. He blinked, seeing the Camo again. Sarge was handing him a green-colored bundle of clothes. Kirby thought, for an instant, that he had to roll up his pack and head out on patrol again, like he had that morning. Then, a flash of pain through his body made him remember where he was.

"Here, Caje brought this for ya."

"It ain't Kraut issue, is it?" Kirby asked.

The BAR man cursed in spite of himself at finding that he needed help to put his foot in them. Sarge said nothing as he helped him dress.

The memory of the whipping came back, filling Kirby with anger. The word "Mérion" resounded in his mind, again and again, spoken in the snake-like tone of the S.S. captain's voice. His shoulders stiffened, his mouth hardened into a disgusted pout. No; he decided that he wouldn't say it. He wouldn't. The words spilled out of him anyway. "I didn't talk Sarge."

"I know," Saunders replied. "It was rough. ...Kirby, the whole time they worked you over, you were a soldier. They're the ones who weren't. We were successful, Kirby; the attack went through. And Doc made it out okay. So, come on. Let's get out of here, huh?"

Kirby remained silent for a beat, staring angrily at the door. He got to his feet with Sarge's help, finding his wounded foot so numb that stepping on it felt easier than it had any time since the shooting. He walked out the door aided by Saunders, hobbling into the next room, and saw Caje handing him his BAR. Seeing the weapon reminded him of the last view he'd had of the thing; the small end pointed right at him, thunderous fire erupting from it in a deafening roar, the world around him breaking apart. He stopped dead in his tracks, staring from the rifle to the S.S. captain on the ground behind the desk, to the rifle again.

Shaking off Sarge's arm, he grabbed the BAR and aimed it at the German bastard, not even feeling the agonizing fire in his wounded foot as he stepped forward. Something in Kirby's chest hardened; he wanted to get all those lousy Krauts for what that son-of-a-bitch did, shoot them forever until there wasn't a single one left anywhere.

"Knock it off, Kirby!" Saunders ordered, his voice taking on an impatience that he didn't feel.

"Why?"

Sarge's tone softened. "Kirby, I know how it is. Every single night from now on, you'll close your eyes and see his face right there in front of you." He paused, watching his BAR man aim the weapon at the S.S. captain. "Go ahead if you want," Saunders continued. "I can turn my head away, and you can shoot him. He's got it coming, no question about it." Saunders stepped in closer to Kirby, deciding on the right moment to grab the BAR out of his hands. "But his face'll still be there. Why the hell would you want to finish the job this man started? Look at him. It'll just make us take back a dead pile of dirt in a fancy uniform."

Kirby stretched out his arms, shaking, and brought the BAR in closer on the German's face. He squeezed the trigger in his mind, tightly and repeatedly. He imagined the bastard's chest ripping open. Kirby's nerves burned with the urgency to feel the satisfaction of taking this lousy German out. His fingers trembled in the trigger. Go on, he thought, shoot the bastard right now and make the world better for it. Kirby panted, stepping forward again. The barrel of the BAR stood only yards away from Stengel's face.

"Kirby, I've never seen a black hole come out of the ground and take you. You've got to jump in it yourself. Don't make that jump."

Kirby knew Sarge was right. He turned the BAR away from the German, relaxing a bit. His breathing evened, and he felt a little better. The familiar weight and feel of his own weapon came back to him as he hefted it. It felt like his baby again, maybe a bit light from having an almost empty clip. He fingered the trigger housing, sensing it. Yes, only a few rounds left.

He aimed it at a black heap of cloth that lay on the ground next to Stengel. He opened up, feeling the recoil against his shoulders. He ignored the pain it caused, letting the feel of the weapon come back. Satisfaction washed over him as he saw the hated flag jump and tatter to pieces under the bullets' onslaught. Kirby fired, trying to shred the hated thing. And even after the sound of clicks issued from his weapon, replacing the thunderous roar of live rounds, he kept on pulling the trigger.

"Schwein!" Stengel reached out and grabbed the black, tattered flag, feeling his heart freeze up at the sight of the damage done to it. He clutched it against his chest, caressing it. He could feel the heat of the bullet holes that riddled it everywhere. How dare these hated enemies attack that which he held so dear?

Kirby staggered after several seconds, disoriented, and almost fell. "Sarge,? he said. ?We're gonna have to hurry up and win this war."

Saunders caught and steadied him again. "Come on, Kirby. Let's go."
 
 
 

Copyright, Lyne Tremblay
October 2001