THE HUNTED



One-oh-fives screamed in from the sky, smacking into the ground ahead. The concussions as they hit shook the car that Saunders drove, almost forcing it off the road. Between two explosions, he heard a gasp from the back seat. The BAR man cried out when his head banged against the side panel. The pain evident in Kirby's tone made Saunders wince, but he tightened his grip on the wheel, struggling to keep the tires pointed ahead. Priority one was getting away from the shelling, not fixing up bullet wounds.

Burning smoke and dust stung Saunders's eyes. He almost drove into a deep crater in the road, just managing to avoid it at the last second. He weaved around it and then gunned the car forward again, cursing; these rounds were coming in way short of the target. He'd told King Two east. Enemy artillery spotted two thousand yards east of the winery, damn it! But he'd had to get off the air before he could confirm the coordinates, and now some of the shells were coming right on top of them.

Sector George had turned into artillery hell, and it was all he could do to get himself and Kirby out of it.

The farmhouse that had served as their bivouac area was just visible on the horizon, backed by the massive Tintouin mountain range that sawed across the blueness of the sky. First and Second squad had captured that farm the day before and then played open-on guts to see who would get which of its dilapidated rooms for the night. From afar, Saunders could just see the shape of the shingled roof. The place seemed to be out of the artillery range. At least, he hoped, because Hanley and Jampel were scheduled to arrive there for a Battalion leaders' briefing at oh-four hundred.

A shell slammed into the field beside the road, blasting a deep hole. Chunks of flying rock pelted the windshield like bullets, shattering the glass into a web of cracks. Saunders slowed down, turning his face away from the deadly hail. They stung his neck and face anyway, but he shook them off, glancing into the back seat to see whether the stuff had hit Kirby. For a second, the massive winery behind them caught his attention; despite plumes of smoke rising from its core, the vine-covered walls in the distance still stood intact in the midst of the shelling, as if the old place were defying the war itself.

For a second, Saunders considered heading back there for shelter, since it was the closest building for miles. But the Americans were bombing it relentlessly; it would be like going into a wood stove to get away from the fire.

"Sarge? Go on..."

"Take it easy, Kirby. I'll get you back," Saunders said, stepping on the gas pedal again.

Kirby brought his fist up against his shoulder, trying to soothe the spasms driving through it. Each new jolt of the car made him feel as if the bullet were hitting him again and again. A glance down at his jacket confirmed his worst fear; blood covered much of the front now. Some of it was getting onto the seat underneath him. "Gettin' clobbered, Sarge...."

Saunders put his right hand Kirby's arm, just a quick touch to reassure him, but felt the muscles rock hard and straining to contain shudders.

"Back... to the guys..." Kirby muttered, his voice hoarse. Or anywhere out of artillery range. A fit of coughing overtook him, and he bent over, chin to chest, coiling his body into a tight ball.

"It's all right, take it easy.... We'll get to the medics."

Saunders pushed his helmet back, sighing. That wound was bleeding again. At the winery, the Kraut had held Kirby up by the neck, saying he'd die without medical attention. About the only true thing out of that liar's mouth other than boasting about his dead aim. Saunders remembered catching sight of Kirby's jacket as he crouched behind a crate, how bad Kirby looked even then. Now, he worried the BAR man wouldn't make it, with all those one-oh-fives crashing around them. But he didn't want to stop until he reached the farmhouse.

Saunders brought his attention back to the road ahead. Through the cracked windshield, he spotted another crater in the road, just ahead. Smoke billowed from its centre. In fact, the whole damned area had turned into a soup of thick, blinding smoke that hung in the air at eye level and stuck inside their throats, choking them both.

A banshee whistling sound high overhead caught his attention. He could barely make it out through the ringing in his ears. He looked up, searching out its origin. This was different from the noise of American one-oh-fives. Then, the booming noise of a German 88 crashing to earth resounded in the field somewhere to the right, followed moments later by a massive concussion wave. It swept over the area in a rush of heat, shaking the air like a dirty blanket, making the car tremble in its passage.

"That's Kraut artillery! Stay down!" Saunders shouted, clutching his helmet.

The Kraut in the winery had said that his men would soon control that area again. They'd certainly be moving in underneath the barrage. Saunders looked around, almost expecting to see Kraut armor materializing through the haze. They'd probably be throwing in their heaviest stuff in a counteroffensive at the American lines. He and Kirby were smack in the middle of it, right in everybody's way.

Determined to keep off the road, Saunders gunned the motor and jerked the steering wheel hard, swerving into the adjacent field. But as deep bumps and holes in the ground jarred the vehicle, he heard Kirby gasping.

"Gun... here, Sarge?" he asked, each word drawn with rapid, halting breaths.

"Take it easy, Kirby. I already checked."

With a hasty glance around the front seats as he was starting up the motor and shaking the car out onto the road. But Saunders didn't add that he hadn't seen one in the car.

***

"The lookout station is under attack, Lieutenant! Any changes in the orders?" the German sergeant shouted, putting down his field glasses.

"Direct the Battery's fire onto Sector G and F," the gunnery lieutenant boomed, his massive hand covering the phone's mouthpiece. He looked up as a shell flew across the clear, deep-blue afternoon sky above them, and then shook his head with frustration. Regiment was firing on the coordinates that Captain Heissman had provided before cutting off communication. At the time, the captain had sounded normal, so he probably hadn't run into problems. But such an experienced commander had no business being on the forward edge of an observation mission, at least, in his opinion. Heissman must have gone there in search of glorious accolades, or for the thrill of risk, or maybe to go hunting for bottles of brandy to add to his trophy chest. Whichever, the captain and his aide should have been back from the winery by now, directing the artillery fire and the forward push.

The lieutenant ducked as one more American shell crashed outside the walls, seething at the faraway enemy. The invaders seemed to be only shadows out there. It was all that his guns seemed to be hitting. Captain Heissman's coordinates didn't seem accurate to him. The American besiegers were most probably on the move, making themselves and their equipment hard targets to pinpoint, at least for the moment. Wehrmacht defences were being severely tested by their long-range field cannons. Well, so be it! They would all shortly feel the might of German will to control this vital area again.

He put the phone down, staring out towards the mountains again. What the hell was keeping the captain out at the observation station, anyway?

The lieutenant slammed down the receiver, worry creasing his features. The time for wallowing in indecision was over. If Captain Heissman wasn't going to come to him, then patrols would go forth to the captain.

"Sergeant!" he barked, his voice booming. "Get the squads ready. Tell them all to stand by!" With a stiff gesture, he clutched his gun holster, straightening it against his side. "They're to go out in fifteen minutes. All right. Snap to it!"

***

Saunders had to fight hard against the steering wheel, pushing the staff car as hard as he dared. But this was no road, only a field of waist-high vines. Progress through them was way slower than he wanted. It seemed he'd take forever to reach the farmhouse. He'd only driven a few hundred meters inside the field, but the ride seemed to drive Kirby to new heights of agony. Pushing back his helmet for the umpteenth time, Saunders stared ahead, worried about how Kirby was holding up; he was going to lose way too much blood getting knocked around this badly. Still, he pushed on.

The smoke all around was thickening, making visibility almost zero. Saunders squinted through it, trying to spot a familiar feature in the terrain. He wasn't sure where he was going through the rows of vines. He went on, keeping forward. Then, after a bone-shaking roll across a rocky ditch, he drove up the familiar incline, the elevated range at the end of the vineyard property. He jammed on the brakes at the top to stare down at the barbed wire fence spread out along the bottom on the other side. As another explosion rumbled in the distance, Saunders scoured both directions, hoping to spot the break in the wire that they'd come through that morning. But the rolls of double-pointed barbs stretched out towards the left and right as far as he could see, uninterrupted.

Kirby raised his head and stared out between the front seats. "That... thing... again..." Unable to go on, he sucked in a breath, along with the rest of his words. He fell back onto the seat again, holding his shoulder.

"I can't cut a passage through it! We'll have to go through that damned wire the same place we did this morning. It's the closest spot," Saunders said, turning the car around.

Wincing at Kirby's moans, he drove along the crest, his gaze following the fence, hoping desperately to spot a break in it. But a shrieking noise coming from above startled him after a few moments. He stared up at the sky, just knowing it was the sound of death dropping right on top of them. He swerved left, trying to get down the hill as fast as he could.

The bomb came hurtling towards them, giving Saunders almost no time to drive out of its way. In a thunderous explosion, the rocket slammed into the earth just yards behind the car, lifting the rear fender up into the air. For a few seconds, the car balanced on its front end like a top. Disoriented, Saunders clutched the unresponsive steering wheel, feeling sick as the car hung in suspension. He watched with disbelief as everything in his vision spun at an unfamiliar angle.

Then, the car pitched downwards, straight towards the ditch. Saunders saw the rocks and earth at its bottom come rushing up towards him, too fast. The vehicle crashed back to the ground with breathtaking force. The front cracked inward as if it would split apart, and in a deafening clang of metal, it flipped sideways and thudded onto its side.

At once, Saunders found himself ejected from his seat and rolling helplessly through the underbrush. Lightning pain jolted through him as he slammed against a rock. He sat up again, still dizzy, as he looked for the vehicle. Finally, he spotted its dark form through the smoke. He blinked to get a clearer view. It lay on its side several yards away, fuel dripping down through the muddy undercarriage, its tires spinning uselessly in emptiness.

Saunders shook himself, gripped by a rush of fear, and listened for any sounds coming from the car. Only the distant roar of the cannons and the groaning of the car's chassis as it settled came to his ears. Nothing indicated that Kirby was still alive in there. His heart frozen, Saunders scrambled up to go check into the bowels of the wreck. He hardly realized he was panting, the pain from the accident forgotten.

He spotted Kirby lying in a foetal position amongst a mess of broken cases. In spite of having seen the mangled and the dead since Tunisia, Saunders drew a sharp breath. In a single bound he settled himself at Kirby's side, staring down at the BAR man's chest to see if he still breathed.

Although tinged with worry, a feeling of relief washed over him. Blood covered part of his jacket front, he was out cold, but his chest rose and fell evenly. Kirby must have had some lucky star looking out for him this day. An ominous clunking sound from deep inside the fuel-stinking car startled Saunders. He stared at the vehicle, wincing as he realized it had come down only inches away from Kirby.

Saunders reached down to undo the buttons on Kirby's shirt and draw back the front to expose the wound. Unconsciously, the BAR man fought him off, but Saunders held him down as he got his first look at the damage done by the bullet. On just a superficial examination, there was no way of telling how badly it had torn him up inside, or how close to the lung it had gone. The entry hole looked badly swollen, the flesh around it had turned a deep, purple colour.  Saunders couldn't see any exit hole, and he saw that several of Kirby's ribs were bruised or broken.

With a loud gasp, Kirby opened his eyes, blinking up into Saunders's face. Awareness was coming back to him; Saunders could see he was working hard to shake off the daze.

"Sarge? Get help..."

"First, I've got to stop the bleeding." Saunders ripped open a sulfa pack with his teeth, spreading the white contents onto the wound. It would work, but not for long.

"Th...anks.... Ugh..." Kirby muttered.

"We're not out of it yet. Listen! That's German infantry out there. The crash made a lot of noise, could bring some of 'em checking down here."

"No. I mean...." With a stiff nod, Kirby indicated a pair of dark green bottles lying askew beside the wheel. "You got every... thin' covered, ...Sarge."

Saunders snorted. "Easy, Kirby. Remember that's their leader's car. We're gonna have to get away from it!"

But as he said it, Saunders felt a paralysing jolt down his spine, reminding him of the tumble he took down the winery's ladder, and of how hard he'd landed when the car crashed. Every nerve in his body screamed with pain. Still, he contemplated the eventuality of picking Kirby up and carrying him all the way to their lines. But that damned wire fence still blocked the way home; it would force him to take the long way in.

After a quick gaze at the horizon to determine the best direction to take, he grasped the top of Kirby's jacket, pulling up as gently as he could. The shock drew a loud gasp from Kirby, but he clasped Saunders's sleeve, trying to gain purchase and stand up.

The noise of approaching footsteps coming from his left made Saunders let go and drop down onto his belly, staring out beyond the overturned car; something or someone was approaching fast.

"Sarge..." Kirby whispered hoarsely. He was instantly alert, wishing he had a rifle, something to make a barrier of protection for them.

But Saunders shook his head, bringing up his index finger vertically across his lips. Putting a protective arm over Kirby, he watched as three German soldiers came into view beyond a line of distant bushes. Striding with haste, the men crossed the field, waving Schmeissers as they scoured all around them.

Kirby craned his neck slightly, listening to the footsteps, trying to make out how far the Krauts were. But agonising jolt went through him, cutting his breath short. He curled up again, face to the ground, willing himself to stop coughing.

Saunders stayed in front Kirby as the German soldiers came closer. One of them froze, looking as if he'd spotted something. For a heart-stopping moment, Saunders thought the patrol would veer towards them. Then, the Krauts turned their backs and went the other way. Saunders raised a clenched hand, pointing at them. With his thumb extended, he quickly rotated his hand so that thumb pointed downward. Enemy spotted in that direction.

Kirby understood very well how close they'd come to being flushed out. Panting, he gestured towards ditch. The command car rested on its side in the middle it, right out in the open, like a lousy Kraut magnet. "Get away... Sarge," he uttered.

Saunders shook his head. The ditch was too shallow for effective concealment. They'd have better cover in the vines. Glancing back where the Krauts had been, he placed his hands underneath Kirby's arms and pulled gently. Kirby moaned audibly at the movement. In spite of it, Saunders worked, pulling Kirby towards the crops as silently as he could. But at the edge of the foliage, an audible cry from his wounded companion convinced Saunders to stop and settle him down. Panting, he pressed down on the stained bandage, worried about Kirby's racing pulse and gleaming face, as he listened for any approaching Krauts.

The artillery noises had abated; he'd heard the last one rumble in the distance several minutes before. Now, another, closer sound put his all of his senses on alert. He raised his head, watching the area where the sound had come from. He was right; a car was coming towards them.

Saunders turned around to look at the field behind them, measuring the distance he'd have to cover to reach a safe area. All he could see were thick rows of vines spreading out everywhere. At least, the things would give good cover to get away from the wreck. He might make it over the hilly rise. But beyond that, he knew the barbed-wire fence stretched out from left to right, making all hope of escape impossible.

Grabbing Kirby's arm, he set off at a slow crawl trough the foliage, stopping every few seconds to let Kirby catch his breath. But he winced at the sight of the dark trail that Kirby was leaving on the ground. There was just no way that Kirby would make it out of the field bleeding like he was.

He heard the car's motor shut off.

Kirby pushed him off weakly. A fit of coughing racked him, making him draw his knees up into his chest to try and contain it. Shuddering, he pointed towards the hilly rise. "Go on... Sarge!"

Saunders shook his head. Throwing himself down on his belly, he ordered Kirby to stay still. He cocked his head, listening. In the distance, car doors slammed shut. German voices called out, their sound coming from the other side of the command car. Saunders felt a slight tug on his sleeve, and turned to see Kirby's inquisitive stare. Quietly, he raised two fingers in response to the silent question.  

Nodding, Kirby put his hand out in a wobbly thumbs-up sign, and then brought his fist against his chest again.

As Saunders watched, a soldier in a field grey uniform came round the passenger-side of the car, a knife clearly protruding from a leg pocket above his right boot. The German scrutinized the distant foliage for a moment, clucking as his eyes went over it. Then, he slung his Mauser higher on his shoulder and leaned over the car, evidently to get a closer look inside.

"Hauptman? Sind sie da?" He ran a hand along the seats and on the frame, and then brought his fingers up to his face, frowning at the sight of fresh blood on them. With a look of disgust, he wiped his hand on his trousers and cast a suspicious glance around him. Then, he went around the corner of the vehicle again, disappearing from Saunders's view.

"Herr Heissman?" the soldier called out

Saunders met Kirby's gaze, an unspoken message passing between them. The Krauts had come nosing around the crash site, unbelievably fast and in a perfectly sound truck, to search for their Kraut leader. A spark of hope struck inside Sarge's chest, chasing out the pain and tiredness from moments before.

Gesturing for Kirby to stay put, he belly-crawled towards his right, disappearing underneath the foliage within seconds. But the vines gave him only partial cover; he counted on the Krauts keeping their attention on the wreck long enough for him to reach a dry log several yards away. His luck held; the German kept on circling the car, concentrating on the ground around it. Every few seconds, Saunders could hear him shout and bang against the chassis. He stepped up his pace, worried that the Krauts put two and two together any moment and move their search outward.

He got a few meters closer to the log. Then, he froze, feeling uncomfortably exposed, as the German came into view again. As the Kraut strode towards him, Saunders scurried back into the thick foliage, hoping his uniform blended into its relative darkness, and grabbed a small, pointed stick beside him.

The German sidestepped a broken case and held his weapon, keeping his eyes riveted on the ground like a bloodhound. A deep frown came across his face as he spotted the bloodstained rut that Kirby had made during the crawl away from the wreck. "Was? Blut, hier?" he muttered to himself, taking a step closer.

The German had reached him; Saunders saw him kneel down next to the stains. Without waiting to hear more, he sprang up with the speed of a cougar launching itself full force at its prey.

The German gasped with surprise at the sight of an American soldier coming out of the bushes, and he raised his hands in an instinctive gesture of repulsion. Saunders locked his stick across the German's windpipe with all the strength he could muster, but the Kraut spun sharply, trying to twist out of his grip. Jarred by the sharp spinning motion, the Kraut's helmet fell off and rolled away. Saunders gasped when the rifle butt slammed into his chest, hard. His vision blurred, the wind momentarily knocked out of him. The stick fell out of his hands, but a desperate surge of adrenaline jolted him, and he forced a deep breath back into his lungs. The Kraut was about to swing his rifle up or shout for help. He locked his hands around the German's neck and managed to push him down.

Still panting, Saunders squeezed as hard as he could, trying to drive the life out of this Kraut. An icy chill gripped his soul as he held on, knowing that he had the better hand in the struggle. Saunders looked away from the German's face as the man weakened; always, he turned away from the sight of the life being cut out by his own hands. Still, the bulging, desperate eyes filled Saunders's vision.

In one, last desperate effort, the Kraut jammed his knee up into the side of Saunders's chest. He managed to twist away from Saunders's grip, but he moved slowly, without spark. He no sooner had his freedom than he sat back, panting, and aimed his rifle at Saunders. His daze was dissipating, but he cursed against the safety latch in his efforts to release it. In his rage, he blinked down at the rifle wavering in his hands. He didn't look up in time to see Saunders lunging at him.

In a swift movement, Saunders grasped the Mauser and wrenched it out of the German's hands. It came away with ease, and as if the weapon were switching allegiance, its sling flew off the German's shoulder and landed across Saunders's forearm. Giving the Kraut no time to react, Saunders swung the Mauser in a wide arc. He heard a sickening crunch as the stock connected against the side of the German's head. Instantly, the man's expression went blank. He fell backwards and remained still, his eyes open, blood trickling down the side of his face.

Panting, Saunders slid the safety latch and placed his finger in the trigger, watching the car for the other Kraut. The weapon felt unfamiliar, lighter than the Tommy gun. A low shuffling noise rang out behind him, coming from behind the car. He scrabbled over to it, flattening himself against the back fender with his finger in the trigger, and listened for any more sounds. The second Kraut had gone silent. But Saunders could see Kirby, lying under a bush, raise his head up and stare at the back end of the vehicle.

His mouth dry, Saunders glanced at the spot that Kirby had stared at; he saw nothing out there. Then, he heard scurrying footsteps behind the car. They gave away the second Kraut's position. Hefting the Mauser, he dropped down onto his belly and rolled towards the brake lights.

He froze there for a beat, listening with his finger in the trigger. Then, in a swift movement, he stood, raised the Mauser, and fired a burst at the second German.

Disbelief washed over him as he saw the man whirl around, trying to shrink away from him, pain and horror reflected on his face. The German raised his arms in a hopeless attempt to protect himself. Too late, Saunders released the trigger, distinctly noting a bright red cross brassard on the field grey jacket sleeves. As the man pitched backwards, losing his helmet, Saunders saw a black canvas bag, imprinted with a first aid symbol on the front, fly out of his hands.

Lowering the Mauser, Saunders approached the dying Kraut. A helmet lay on the ground beside him; it showed a second red cross brassard folded under the camouflage netting to show his trade more. The German aid man seemed about thirty, with gold-rimmed glasses in front of eyes as blue as his own.

A monstrous weight gripped Saunders's chest; a feeling of disbelief, of having lived an irreversible moment. He knelt at the medic's side, feeling like he'd landed in that hell fashioned expressly for him. He'd been in that place before, often. At once, Saunders pushed it aside and shut his soul's door on it, because there was no other way.

The medic opened his mouth in a voiceless effort to speak. The man had been hurt recently; dark, swollen bruises darkened the area around his chin and jaw, and a reddened bandage covered his neck above the collar. Saunders pulled open the bloody medic's jacket, exposing the mangled flesh beneath. A line of bullet holes ran diagonally across the ribs, spurting blood at every beat of the wounded man's chest.

Panting his last breaths, the aid man looked up into Saunders face. He twitched as he reached for his bag, locked in an uncontrollable fit of spasms.

Saunders grabbed the bag, spilling out roll of dressings, and he found a small box containing a single Syrette of morphine. The German locked a trembling hand around his wrist, a look of supplication in his eyes. Saunders found the fingers ice cold, sticky with blood, but he squeezed the medic's hand lightly. Then, without a word, the German exhaled a slow, final breath. His eyes fluttered, staring into emptiness, and then rolled back in their sockets as his head dropped to the side.

Stuffing the medical supplies back into the bag, Saunders spotted a dark green object lying underneath the crumpled car fender. From the markings on the ground beside the thing, it suddenly dawned on him that, at one point, the medic had been working at getting it out.

The Camo.

Saunders almost lost it, then, needing a second to catch his breath.

***

With a gesture, Ehrlich indicated the gate, guarded on both sides by armed sentries. The soldier closest to him rushed to open the latch, coughing at the fumes coming from the Opel three-ton transport that idled on the other side.

Impatiently, Ehrlich called out for the man to hurry it up. As the lieutenant came around to the driver's side, the sunburned driver stuck his head out to talk to him.

***

"Come on! You don't mind a little sweat, do you?" Saunders asked, forcing lightness in his tone. He hitched Kirby up, trying to steady him. But Kirby's legs buckled, unable to hold his weight. Ignoring a sudden flash of pain in his spine, Saunders stooped to pick him up in his arms.

"Yeah.... When I'm... thirsty," Kirby croaked, his voice barely above a whisper. He was so cold that he couldn't stop shivering, but his throat burned like fire, feeling as raw as sandpaper. And on top of it, it disoriented him that Sarge didn't look like the Sarge any more, with the grey jacket and Kraut medic's helmet he had on. Kirby's heart had almost stopped dead when he'd looked up at what he mistook for a Kraut aid man standing over him. "Where're we... goin', Sarge?"

"There's ambulance. I'll drive you out."

Kirby caught his breath, his brain already forming an idea of what the Sarge's plan was right then. The Kraut gear on him told it all. But his lungs were shot out, and there was no strength in him to tell Sarge they were both likely to get skinned alive if the Krauts caught him wearing those things.

"That truck has everything you need. It'll get us back." Saunders forced a lightness that he didn't feel into his tone. He glanced at the half-concealed body of the German medic, stripped of his uniform and glasses, lying next to the other Kraut under a pile of leaves.

Kirby hurt too much to answer.

"Hang on, we're almost there."

They reached a badly dented truck parked a few yards away, a three-ton Opel Blitz with a medic's tie-down vehicle flag on the hood and large red crosses painted on the sides. Despite the dirt-caked sideboards and a mess of cracks in the windshield, it looked heaven-sent right then. He settled Kirby down beside it.

Shouldering the canvas bag, Saunders opened the rear hatch, seeing a dark grey interior. Grimy windows along the sides let in only dim light. A pair of canvas stretchers lined each side, with a metal box between them for a man to sit on. In the corner stood a shovel and pail. Grey-colored backpacks lay on the floor near the stretchers. Another large box had been tied down between the front seats.

Kirby gasped when Saunders picked him up and helped him up into the truck. He hated the stench of ammonia inside the thing, it made him want to retch. But he felt better when he settled down onto a stretcher. He just couldn't stay on his feet or fight off the burning chill that had overtaken him. He pulled on the blanket that was folded underneath him, wanting to drape it over himself, but gave up with exhaustion after a few tries.

Saunders quickly rummaged inside the metal boxes, feeling put off by the grey sleeves on his arms. Inside, he found only vials and bottles, towels and field dressings.

A deep rattle emanated from Kirby's throat. Each breath he made seemed hard to draw. "Sarge?"

"Easy, Kirby!" Saunders said, with a calm he didn't feel.

He pried Kirby's hand off his chest to put a new bandage over the old one, and he gently wiped away a drop of blood at the side of Kirby's mouth. Again, Saunders worried the bullet might have grazed the lung. Kirby nodded his thanks, his face gleaming with sweat, but curled up tight when he started shaking in a way that caused him obvious pain. Saunders draped the blanket over Kirby's shivering form. It seemed to help.

They were going to have to get to a doctor, and soon. But first he had to give Kirby some water. Running a hand across his chin, he looked around for some, finally spotting a gallon can with the word WASSER painted on it tucked behind the passenger seat.

A loud bang against the side of the truck startled him. His heart in his mouth, he looked at the window, seeing the face of a German soldier staring inside, a hand cupped over his eyes. The face disappeared. Instantly, Saunders shut rear hatch and made a move for the Mauser.

Before he could get it, the German reappeared at the window, banging his fist against the frame. Saunders froze, watching the Kraut wave furiously at him. His eye went to the Mauser settled beside the front seat, just out of reach. He'd have to take a chance on lunging for it. He saw Kirby keeping utterly still underneath the blanket, maybe trying to pass for a wounded passenger. Through the stream of jabbering outside, Saunders suddenly distinguished a word he understood. Rauchen. Smoke. The German in the window was gesturing with two fingers held out, as if he were holding an imaginary cigarette. His heart drumming double-time, Saunders slid the wire-rimmed glasses out of his breast pocket and put them on, gliding the sides pieces behind his ears.

He opened the window and looked out silently, watching as the German beside him shouted at a pair of Krauts waiting several yards away.

The soldiers seemed to argue for a moment. Then, the one near the ambulance waved the other two off and turned to him, patting his chest with a nodding half-smile. "Hast du was to rauchen, Kamarad?" he asked.

Saunders realized the front of the jacket he wore swam in blood. He swallowed dryly, hoping the Kraut wouldn't get suspicious about it and ask questions. Quickly, he reached inside the jacket for his pack of cigarettes. He handed it over, swallowing at the picture identifying them as Luckies.

The German shouldered his weapon to take it. "Hast du Feuer?" he asked.

Fire. Saunders blinked, breathing hard, as he struck a flame from his Zippo. Without saying a word, he extended his arm down to the German, letting the man place the tip of the cigarette into it.

The Kraut exhaled with a sigh. "Danke!"

Saunders nodded stiffly, saying nothing.

The German spoke up again, looking at him with puzzled expression, asking a question that Saunders didn't understand. He stayed still, casting a sideways glance at the Mauser, hoping he was making a face like a man in utter discomfort. In the darkened confines of the ambulance, he spotted Kirby's hand extending towards the rifle, almost reaching it.

The German soldier stared at the strangely silent medic, wondering if he were dealing with a fool. They were pressing everybody, even the young and the stupid, into the service nowadays. Well, stupid or not, at least this one had gotten his hands on dry American cigarettes. The voice of his sergeant called out from afar, briskly ordering him to move on. Before he did, he looked at the strange aid man one more time. Then, he turned around, pocketing the pack of Luckies. Let that odd medic go and find some more!

Saunders watched the Krauts move off, away from the upturned staff car, feeling as if his legs had been sawed. He grabbed the Mauser, settling it at his side. "Stay down, don't move, Kirby!" he muttered. "There's patrols all over."

A violent fit of coughing shook Kirby.

Saunders put his hands around the BAR man's face to steady him, wincing at the agony plainly written on it; Kirby was burning up and deep in shock, he knew. He gave Kirby more water, which the BAR man almost choked on as he gulped, and then let some of it trickle into a cloth to moisten Kirby's neck. He riffled through the metal box and took out a Syrette of morphine, raising Kirby's arm in preparation. But a momentary hesitation stopped him; he halted his gesture just before puncturing the skin.

When Kirby pushed him away with a violent head shake, Saunders acquiesced, putting the cap back over the needle. He'd do it later, when and if Kirby wasn't in a condition to object.

Taking a few moments to complete his disguise, Saunders stained a field dressing with a bit of blood and wrapped it around his neck, imitating the bandage that the German aid man had worn. Then, with the German red cross helmet beside him, he started the motor and rolled out, getting away from the crash site and from the two dead Krauts beside it.

The truck rattled and jumped over holes as it spread the foliage around it. The steering wheel fought against his grip, making it hard to hold on. As a violent explosion shook the earth towards their left, Kirby sucked in a breath with an audible curse. Seconds later, a loud rumble passed over them, confirming to Saunders that it was American artillery.

He drove on, glancing down at the Mauser installed between the seats.

After a moment, he spotted half a dozen German soldiers, marching directly towards the ambulance. When one of the Krauts waved at him, Saunders took a sharp turn to the right to avoid approaching their patrol, finding he was driving straight into the afternoon sun. Blinded by the rays, he drove on, hoping the Kraut gear he wore hadn't aroused their suspicion.

He heard Kirby moan in the back. "Easy, Kirby." But inside, he cursed at the realization that they were heading for the long stretch of barbed wire fence again.

Kirby fought for each breath, finding it ever harder through the shaking of the truck. His shoulder was killing him, he felt sick to his stomach, needing to retch and yet unable to. Sarge drove over a hole, the thousandth one, and he thought he'd go crazy with pain. He cursed at having to cross all of what was turning out to be the biggest damned vineyard in all of France, and he cursed the bombs that were trying to flatten it, and him, to a pulp.

He heard the truck's motor switch gears, shifting down from third to second. The sound left a whining echo in his ears. He strained to look up at the Sarge, wondering why they were slowing down all of a sudden. What was the hold-up? But he fell back onto the cot again, dizzy and panting.

"Krauts up ahead!" Saunders uttered under his breath, tension in his voice.

Kirby cursed; not just ahead, they seemed to be all over the place, like a million ants crawling up a tree.... He wanted to just break out of there, fast, get back any way they could. He opened his mouth, wanting to tell Sarge to just step on it, but a searing pain tore through his chest, worse than before. The words became stuck in his throat.

Saunders clutched the steering wheel, his knuckles white, staring out in the distance. Ahead, a half-dozen German soldiers trudged and paced along a checkpoint. Now, he saw he'd have to bluff his way through that damned roadblock in order to get to the other side of the fence. He hesitated, not sure whether he wanted to chance it or try some place else. Kirby might not make it, going back the long route.

"Sarge... Let's get... outta here..."

Saunders didn't answer right away. A nightmare vision was unfolding a quarter mile to the left. Quickly rubbing clean a portion of the window, he stared out, getting a better look at a pair of half-tracks near a stand of trees, towing cannons with muzzles pointed at the mountains. Even from the distance, dark helmeted figures stood out visibly from the wells, waving to crews of soldiers busily putting in branches and overhead netting to hide the guns.

That emplacement could have Hanley and the rest of Battalion right in its sights.

"They're setting up field artillery!" Saunders stared out in the other direction. "Getting ready to clobber us. I'll go back and try the other..."

Kirby felt sick, panting as he tried to raise his head and see what was going on outside. He noticed that Saunders stiffened his shoulders and sat up straight as a board, staring out the window. He could even smell the tension in the Sarge. That flashed a string of alarm lights in his mind. "What's the..." he whispered hoarsely.

Saunders shot a sideways glance at him, looking almost unrecognizable behind the Kraut glasses he wore. "Can it, Kirby! They're here." All at once, he saw the Sarge droop his shoulders, looking as if he were slipping on a new skin. Pushing the glasses up higher, Saunders nodded at someone just outside the truck.

Seconds later, Kirby heard the sound of a motor coming up behind them. Car doors clanged shut, footsteps and voices rang out just on the other side of the ambulance. The sunlight in the window beside him went dark for a second when a Kraut uniform passed by.

Saunders swallowed down the bile welling up in his mouth as the German soldier approached the driver's seat. He clutched the wheel, summoning every ounce of will he had to keep from lunging for the Mauser, as the German stepped up to the window. Instead, he slowly cranked the window down when the Kraut signalled him to do it.

The German peered into the cubicle with an expression that reflected his impatience. "Soldbuch, bitte."

A book. Forcing himself to nod calmly, Saunders reached inside the left hand breast pocket, finding it empty. A quick inspection of the right one revealed a thin passport-sized book, which he took out and handed to the German.

Taking it stiffly, the soldier hitched his weapon higher and opened the book.

Saunders stared blankly ahead while the soldier read, purposefully rubbing the bandage on his neck. As if he were suffering bitterly, he rolled his head backwards and sideways, pretending to grimace. The German asked him a question. Trying to look exasperated and hurting, Saunders shrugged and pointed at his neck. Isn't it obvious I can't talk?

"Are you transporting any wounded?" the German repeated, feeling a mounting impatience. Once again, he stared down at the badly focused picture in the pay book and then back up at the yellow-haired driver, trying to see a resemblance between the two. He stepped up onto the side ramp, peering into the darkness of the ambulance. It took a second for his vision to adjust enough to make out the form lying in the stretcher in back. "Wait here!" he snapped.

Saunders watched in silence as the soldier went towards the back of the truck. The ice-cold feeling of being caught in a trap gripped him when the rear hatch squeaked open and the German soldier jumped aboard. His put his hand on the Mauser as the soldier spoke in a questioning tone, pointing at Kirby.

The soldier looked at the form underneath the blanket, feeling very suspicious. He bent down to lift the sheet and see just who was lying there. A booming voice coming from behind the truck startled him. Whirling around, he saw the gunnery lieutenant standing at the ambulance hatch, and he raised his hand in salute. The officer wore his battle gear, he noticed, and was barking at the aid man to hold up.

"Lieutenant! There's a call!" called out one of the sentries, the soldier couldn't see which.

The lieutenant turned to face the man who'd spoken, raising his voice even louder to answer. "Tell them I'm taking this ambulance! Take the first squad, and I'll meet you at point 18 when I'm done!" The officer turned back to face the soldier standing in the cab. "You! Private! Get out!"

Saunders sat glued to his seat, watching a tall, barrel-chested officer speak to the man inside the ambulance with a tone of command. But the German beside the cot was putting up an argument, placing his hand on Kirby's shoulder to pull up the blanket. Fingering the cold metal of the Mauser, Saunders listened as the officer argued loudly and waved towards the rear of the ambulance.

Through it all, Kirby kept his eyes shut and held his breath as he listened to the Kraut beside him argue with the big one. When the soldier shook his shoulder roughly, he almost let out a groan, but he let his head loll backwards, as loose as he could. When the soldier let go, he moaned, curling up with his hands over the bandaged wound.

Saunders saw the tall, booming-voiced commander go around the side of the truck and pull open the passenger door. The Kraut sank into the seat with a nimbleness that denied his massive frame, barking out an order that he didn't understand.

The soldier in the back spoke up, talking fast and pointing at him. The Kraut officer nodded curtly, seeming to notice the bloodied bandage on his neck all of a sudden. His throat dry, Saunders wrapped his fingers around the Mauser, slowly lifting it before the Germans could realize what he was doing.

But the officer saw the gesture and brought a hand down over his. Saunders blinked silently, his knees weak, as the officer grabbed the weapon for him and then wedged it firmly against the passenger door.

Away from the gearbox, and from him.

The rear hatch clanged shut, plunging the interior into darkness again. After giving the lieutenant another salute, the German soldier turned his back and walked away from the ambulance, his weapon held high. In the passenger seat, the lieutenant unfolded a map, bringing it up to the window to get a clearer view of the layout. He jabbered something and pointed ahead, talking much too fast for Saunders to make out the meaning. The officer lowered the map with a look of impatience and waved in the direction of the winery.

"We'll get your wounded to hospital later," Ehrlich boomed. "First, we go to that wine place! Getting to the captain is more important! Go!"

Wine. The old winery. Saunders realized the Kraut was talking about the observation post in Sector George, making him drive out there. Feeling trapped, he pushed the eyeglasses up higher, giving Kirby a sideways glance as he did. The BAR man lay motionless on the cot, playing the casualty with unbelievable ease. Then, with a quick glance at the Mauser so damned far away, he turned the ambulance back towards the road.

Another explosion rumbled in the distance as he set off, American artillery hitting a mile or so to the north. The German pointed towards the mountains behind them and made an angry-sounding remark. Saunders nodded silently as the man talked, pretending to find whatever he said interesting.

As they drove up alongside a five-man patrol on the road, the German sat up, pointing at them.

Saunders stopped the truck and watched as the Kraut bent down to talk to the patrol leader, leaning right across the Mauser that was wedged in beside the window crank. Which, to Saunders, might as well have been on the moon. Sighing, he turned his gaze outwards again, concentrating on the outline of the winery buildings just visible in the distance. The thick, vine-covered walls still stood, with the massive mountain chain behind it.

The patrol leader yelled an order to the others and saluted the lieutenant. "Los!" shouted the officer, waving ahead.

A moan from the back made Saunders jump. He twisted his upper body, staring at the cot, and saw Kirby lying on his side, shuddering violently. He almost leapt out of his seat, reaching Kirby in a single, blood chilling bound, and knelt beside the BAR man. "Shshsh..." he murmured, trying to put a soothing tone in his voice.

Kirby's set face had gone ashen; he seemed extremely weak. His shoulders heaved, gripped by intense shakes. He had trouble opening his eyes. Still, Kirby looked up at him, pain eloquent in his expression. He was making no outward noise, but Saunders could hear a hoarse rattling sound deep within Kirby's chest. He winced involuntarily when he put his hands on Kirby's neck, finding the pulse rapid and the skin burning hot. Kirby needed sulfa and morphine to help keep him quiet for a while. But, other than the Syrette in his pocket, he didn't know where to find any of that inside the lousy ambulance.

The German's loud voice broke him out of his concerned thoughts. Saunders looked up at him, realizing that the officer was simply looking on quietly. His heart flipped at the thought of his luck so far, and he wondered what a Kraut medic would do right then, how he should play his role, so that he could keep his luck going. Then, it hit him that it would be the same way Doc always did; listen with a silk ear, talk with a warm tone, stay calm no matter what. Slowly, with an exaggerated, put-on calmness, he leaned over Kirby, cupped the BAR man's face for a second, and then put a finger across Kirby's lips. Guessing from the look on the Kraut officer, Saunders hoped he was buying the performance.

The German waved towards the winery, repeating "Na, Na!" Saunders thought the man was getting impatient to move on, but the Kraut sat back down in the shotgun seat, watching on as he dug a cigarette out of his pocket.

Saunders let out a breath as he put a canteen to Kirby's lips, letting the wounded man take a slow sip. Their eyes met; Saunders shook his head slightly, raising a closed fist in an imperceptible signal to Kirby to stay put. After giving him a pat on the shoulder, Saunders returned to the driver's seat.

As he sped up again, the Kraut barked out something in German. Saunders's knuckles went white, preparing to pounce out of his seat if he had to, but the officer sat back and smoked his cigarette in silence.  Silently, he watched the ruined buildings in the distance. The winery was growing larger with each passing minute.

The German started talking, fast, as they drew alongside the grey, vine-covered ramparts along the perimeter, pointing towards the entrance. Saunders slowed the truck down, thinking that was what the Kraut meant. As he clutched the steering wheel, Saunders cast a glance at the Mauser, so tantalizingly close, coiled to make a move for it the first chance he got. Hoping it would be soon.

From up close, Saunders recognized the place where he and Kirby had entered the winery that morning. Now, fallen beams and massive stones littered the front part of the grounds. The thick walls around the place showed some shell damage. The square tower, with its row of tall, arched openings, had suffered a direct hit; the roof and one of its walls had caved in, leaving a gaping opening along the southern façade.

Ehrlich seethed with impatience at the sight of the debris blocking the truck's way. The driver was heading straight for a field of chunks and stones strewn in front of the main block of buildings. "Careful, fool!" he yelled. "Go over there!" In the back of his mind, he resolved to take note of this driver's name and number once they got back, delighting in the prospect of seeing his face before disciplinary action.

But he turned his attention back the winery, taking in the vines criss-crossing over the walls and the arched openings that were too small to give the truck access. Then, the German gazed up at the half-destroyed tower rising above the roofs, sighing. But he saw no signs of Heissman's car anywhere, or of the captain himself. Only of the copious damage done to the place by the American artillery.

"Halt!" he shouted after several moments.

Saunders stopped the truck, understanding the order, and let the motor idle while the German took a quick look the surroundings. When the German's head was turned, he shot a quick glance at Kirby, seeing the BAR man lying silently under the blanket, his face set and pale.

It dawned on Saunders why the ambulance had been diverted back to that place, what had driven the Kraut to come down there. Staying put, he stared at the Mauser, figuring out the distance to the passenger door, weighing his chances if he tried to jump the Kraut. But the German grabbed the Mauser and turned to him, impatience in his eyes.

"Geh drauss!" he barked.

Saunders blinked, forcing down the adrenaline was welling up inside him.

"Komm mit! Jetzt!" Ehrlich waved the Mauser, ordering Saunders to open the door.

Get out. Saunders swallowed the sour spit in his mouth and put his hand on the door handle, remembering at the very last moment that he was a medic and should bring the black canvas bag that was behind his seat. As he bent over to reach for it, his eyes caught Kirby's, a silent reminder to keep calm passing between them.

Ehrlich jumped down from the truck as the medic rounded the front fender. "Wie geht's der Soldat dahin?" he asked, jutting his head in the direction of the cab. Grumbling under his breath at the aid man's imperceptible nod of response, the German brusquely brought up the rifle and ordered Saunders to go with him into the winery.

With the canvas bag on his shoulders and the medic's helmet on his head, Saunders entered the grounds ahead of the German. He surveyed the surroundings intently, looking for something to use as a weapon. Every glance brought back familiar sights; the abandoned, decrepit structures built around the cluttered courtyard, which had been a fierce battleground earlier that day. The building close to where Kirby was hit stood to the left. The place where the Kraut held him prisoner, with the square tower above it, stood to the right. Except for a freshly dug out crater in the pavement, little had changed in the yard; a clutter of crates, barrels, planks, tarps and concrete dividers littered the grounds everywhere.

As Saunders stepped over the railway, he deliberately stuck the toe of his boot into the rail. In an exaggerated show of clumsiness, he crumpled to his knees between the tracks, dropping the medical bag. Several boxes and rolls of field dressings spilled out onto the pavement around him. From the corner of his eye, Saunders watched the Kraut, waiting for the big man to come close and offer help. But the officer barked out something that Saunders understood to be a curse and planted himself several yards away, rifle in hand, to watch him closely. Sighing, Saunders stooped to pick up the bandages.

"Halt!" the Kraut ordered, anger in his tone.

Saunders froze, his heart in his throat.

"There's another one over there, are you blind?" Ehrlich bellowed, indicating a roll of gauze beside Saunders. "Pick it up!"

Saunders hurriedly threw the packages into the bag, mindful of the Kraut's stare. The officer was using the same tone Jampel often did in front of men who'd been caught going over the hill, only louder.

A shrill whistle rang out, echoing off the buildings. His hackles raised, Saunders saw the German jump at the sound, his jaw dropping. The Kraut froze, scrutinizing the buildings around them, and then pointed at the one where Kirby had left the radio.

"Komm mit! Jetzt!" he yelled after a moment, stiffly bringing up the Mauser. "Vorwärts!"

As he led the way towards the building, Saunders felt the Kraut's suspicious glare boring into his back, and an icy chill ran down his spine.

The half-gloom inside the building revealed broken beams and planks everywhere. Saunders stayed near the door, letting the other man pick his way through the rubble. Pretending to help search, he shoved a small plank aside, casting a quick look at the tower visible through the west-facing opening. The lieutenant called out Heissman's name, his attention focused on a mound of beams in the centre of the room. Momentarily, he turned his back to Saunders. With a slow, casual step, Saunders sauntered over to him and reached down to pick up a plank lying behind the Kraut's back. All he needed to do is swing it up.

The board splintered apart in his hands as he jerked it up, almost making Saunders lose his balance and fall.

The German whirled around, startled. "Närrische Mensch!" he exclaimed. "Pass auf!"

The lieutenant glared at the bespectacled oaf before him, wondering for the hundredth time what kind of soldier he'd had the misfortune to fall on. The ripped up jacket he wore bore so much blood he ought to be dead. And he seemed so damned inept at following orders. It occurred to Ehrlich that he didn't remember seeing that driver before. Was this some scavenging rat, robbing the dead on battlefields, or a foreign conscript shipped from the east, worthless at any serious task? "Stand up!" he roared. "What's your name? Where do you come from?"

Saunders knew he was in deep trouble. He stood, hefting the medical bag. He watched the Kraut take a step closer, eyes blazing. Silently, he wound the canvas shoulder strap around his hand, making a show of shrugging and rolling his neck to indicate he couldn't utter an answer. He steeled himself, getting ready to hurl the bag out towards that Kraut as soon as...

Another shrill whistle pierced the air, making the German turn his head to try and locate its source. "Dieser Richtung! Schnell!" he ordered, motioning for Saunders to head for the tower.

***

The canteen was empty; Kirby could hardly hold it with his shivering fingers. He didn't think he'd ever known a worse hell of pain. His throat was parched, his chest burned so badly. He knew that more water lay right in the back of the seat, and he twisted his upper body to try and reach it. He jumped as a piercing whistle rang out from inside the walls of the winery; somehow he knew that a man had made it, maybe to call or signal to another. He strained to hear the cry better. He didn't know what it meant, but it lit up a picture in his mind, of Sarge unarmed and helpless, caught in the middle of a pack of wolves that was closing in on him.

Kirby's head fell back onto the cot. He panted helplessly, thinking that every part of Sarge's plan had gone utterly wrong. A shudder of worry ran down his spine.

***

"Schnell!" the Kraut ordered. "Geh durch!"

Saunders obeyed, making his way through the arched doorway and across the mound of stacked crates. Inside the tower room, he saw damage from the recent blast, on top of the damage he'd seen there that morning; the metal table now lay on its side, its legs broken like matchsticks. Crates that had stood along the northern wall were now smashed to bits. The wine racks now lay shattered in the middle of the room.

A German boot, sticking out from underneath a pile of planks, suddenly moved. "Hier..." called out a man lying buried underneath the planks. Several of them rattled, almost making the disordered heap cave in on the buried man.

"Hauptman?" Ehrlich called out, trying to peer inside the jumble of boards. "Are you hurt?"

"I'm trapped! Get me out! And... yes."

Saunders ran his hand against his chin. His heart drummed as he eyed the Mauser, measuring his chances of grabbing it, now. But the Kraut stepped in front of him, keeping too far for Saunders to make a move. With an anxious expression, the German took one end of a plank perched atop the mess and motioned for Saunders to grab the other.

Saunders lifted, watching with baited breath as the pile of planks came down board by board, slowly exposing the German lying on his back underneath it. Already, he could see the Kraut's field grey tunic, torn and imbedded with splinters.

He knelt silently at their side as the Krauts spoke to one another, hoping the lieutenant would stay focused on his work and not start talking to him. He caught his breath, staying still, as the hunter's familiar face came out of the shadows.

He'd last caught sight of those eyes as the Kraut tumbled down the ladder, pushing a blood-curdling scream that had filled his ears. Now, Saunders stayed put, keeping a blank face.

He almost jumped back with a start as an icy hand came out from underneath a plank and squeezed his wrist.

"Danke!" Heissman said. Then, he coughed slightly. "Gib mir... Wasser!"

Water. Adjusting the eyeglasses on his face, Saunders unhooked the canteen at his belt and brought it to Heissman's lips, waiting for the man who had hunted him like an animal to gulp it down. Heissman's features were pale and drawn, he saw, and sweat covered the man's brow above some bloodied scratch marks. From the look of him, Saunders guessed Heissman to have badly dislocated his left elbow. His arm hung at an awkward angle, and the Kraut captain clutched it to his chest when he tried to sit up. But he was doing a good job masking any pain he might be in.

A rocket screeched overhead, followed by an explosion outside the walls of the winery. Ehrlich flung a plank out of the way. "Pockets of resistance, Captain!" he said. "Soon to be smashed as you ordered!"

"You never fail... me, Ehrlich!" The German's face broke into a thin, almost arrogant smile.

Gesturing towards the far wall, the lieutenant barked out an order that Saunders thought meant that he'd have to lead the wounded Kraut over to it. Hoping his disguise would hold up, he bent down to place his free hand underneath Heissman's arm, steadying the German as he tried to stand. His heart leapt when he saw he saw a stag-handled side knife dangling from a scabbard on Heissman's belt.

Heissman cursed audibly as he wobbled on his feet. His balance gave out after taking a step, and he grabbed Saunders's shoulder to steady himself.

Saunders stayed stiff as a board, holding up the Kraut, smelling something almost animalistic in him. He had to suppress a shiver of disgust and look away from Heissman's haughty face to avoid the German's gaze. After taking a step forward, Heissman twisted his body back, stiffly nodding towards a pile of planks and broken cases near the ladder. Saunders saw the lieutenant stare at it, and then at Heissman again. Both men talked fast about something back there. With the Mauser on his shoulder, the lieutenant left their side, leaving Saunders alone to hold up the other Kraut.

He blinked, looking away, as Heissman wheezed out an order in German. Keeping silent, he forced himself to breathe evenly as he settled the captain down against the wall. With a wince, the Kraut sank the floor and brought his left arm against his chest.

From the corner of his vision, Saunders spotted the pile of junk near the ladder. Standing beside the mess, the lieutenant was hurriedly pushing away a plank that jutted from from it.

"The maps are there, but damaged!" Ehrlich exclaimed.

"Take them," Heissman replied.

Saunders spotted the field radio lying at the lieutenant's feet. Papers and maps lay scattered on the stones beside it, crumpled and spattered with blood. In fact, several blood stains covered the floor in spots.  Saunders winced as he cast a glance at it, thinking of who had bled in that room and made those stains there.

"Sol-dat!"

Saunders jumped at the insistent tone of Heissman's voice.

"Help me take my jacket off. I need... a splint!"

Slowly, Saunders helped undo the weapons belt that he saw Heissman trying to work. Then, he slid the tunic down from the crooked arm, noting the Kraut holding his a breath. There was something almost bestial his expression, as if he were a predator capable of smelling the thoughts of those around him. Saunders picked up the medical bag when he noticed the captain's gaze wander to it. He opened the canvas front, dropping the bag down beside the field knife on Heissman's belt. Only an inch away from the weapon, close enough for Saunders to get his hands on it if he could be fast enough.

The lieutenant came up behind him, carrying the stained maps by one of its corners. The Kraut stooped down next to the discarded weapons belt, showing Heissman the drawings and layouts on the papers. But Heissman waved him off rigidly, a grimace coming over his face.

"Get me my rifle!"

"What? Now?" Ehrlich asked.

"It ... goes where I do." Heissman gestured towards the southern wall.

Ehrlich stood rigid. The captain was staying true to form, of course. He knew he'd better do it, and not forget to take the bag of ammunition out of the trunk Heissman traveled with. He saluted his superior officer. But he eyed the medic angrily as he folded the maps. The slow-witted idler just seemed to stare blankly down to avoid their gaze all the time. He certainly wasn't checking for wounds in the captain, like he ought to. "Hilf ihm! Jetzt!" he snapped, barely containing his impatience.

Help the son-of-a-bitch. Saunders's heart rushing, he played the medic as best he could, doing what was necessary to make the Krauts not consider him a goldbrick. Trying to buy himself more time to get back to Kirby. Taking out a roll of gauze from the medical bag, Saunders searched for something to use as a splint. A slender, sharp-ended stick lay close to the Kraut's belt, just beside the knife. He reached over to it while the captain's eyes were closed.

Ehrlich thought he saw a glint of light underneath the mound of broken crates. He reached into it, searching for the hunting rifle. He cursed as pointed splinters stung his hand. But after a few moments, a cold metal cylinder came under his fingers, just barely within reach. He pulled it out with triumph.

Saunders felt a prickling sensation at the back of his neck, a sudden instinct of danger behind him. Glancing back, he saw the Kraut lieutenant holding the hunting rifle up towards him, his finger on the trigger. His heart froze like ice in his chest, feeling as if he were drawn into a nightmare he couldn't stop from unfolding. His knees weak, Saunders stared into the polished steel barrel as it bore on him, knowing the Kraut could clearly see that his hand was on the belted knife.

After a tense few seconds, the bolt slid back with a loud click. The rifle came down towards the floor again. Saunders breathed out hard, watching the Kraut, and slowly took his hand off the knife. Just maybe, he thought, he'd spotted a smirk on the face of the lieutenant.

"Bind this. ...Securely!" Heissman ordered, indicating the sling over his arm. Still forcing his heartbeat down, Sarge turned his head back towards the German who described himself a proficient hunter. Heissman's voice had sounded weak, but the arrogant look remained etched on his face nevertheless. The Kraut was reaching for his jacket and weapons belt.

"Hilf mir... damit!"

Help. After tying the last knot in the sling, Saunders held out Heissman's tunic, watching the back of the officer's head as he slid the garment over the Kraut's shoulders. The lieutenant grumbled as he took up position behind them, carrying both weapons. The hunter chuckled at the other man's comment.

Saunders picked up the canvas bag, feeling more trapped than ever. He was the subject of their talk, he was sure. And the two Krauts looked damned suspicious about him. He swallowed the sour tasting spit in his mouth as he put an arm around Heissman's waist.

He helped the captain walk towards the arched door, feeling with mounting alarm that time was running out for himself and for Kirby.

Outside, the shadows cast by the debris had lengthened, stretching out towards the east. For a moment, Heissman took in the views, breathed in the scents, listened to the sounds. Satisfied, he slowly walked out of the tower room, leaning on the aid man for support, his steps laboured and halting. He stumbled, suddenly overcome by weakness, just as the men reached the middle of the yard. He grabbed a concrete divider to steady himself. For a moment, his eyes locked with those of the medic who had failed to catch him. Heissman bristled, certain he'd seen those blue eyes somewhere, that he'd smelled the man before. He dredged his mind for it, but he couldn't conjure up the memory. The medic was looking down at his own feet, seeming to just stand there and wait for him to get up again. The prickling feeling of familiarity vanished as a bolt of pain went through Heissman's arm.

Saunders cast a glance at a broken board beside him, its end torn into jagged points. He pictured himself making a dive for it, and then slamming it up into the lieutenant's chest. Maybe he'd get lucky enough to grab one of the rifles. He measured the time it would take him to make his move on it, comparing it with the time it would take the other man to turn the thing on him and pull the trigger.

He sighed. Keeping a blank look on his face, Saunders helped the Kraut hunter pull himself up.

The sound of an artillery shell cracked the air above them. Instants later, the walls of the tower rocked with tremendous force and then caved in on themselves, sending the men ducking to avoid stones and debris rushing at them. American stuff, Saunders realized, ducking with his hands over his head. Saunders shuddered involuntarily as he thought of Kirby out there, and he prayed that none of the flying debris had hit the ambulance.

As the explosion died down, echoing out into the surrounding fields, Ehrlich got to his feet, worry creasing his face when he saw the captain struggling for breath. "Wie geht's Herr Hauptman?" he asked.

Heissman sat up against the divider, his face flushed, and held his arm against his chest.

"Du!" the lieutenant exclaimed, indicating Saunders. "Hilf ihm!"

Sarge stood, coughing the dust out of his throat. Still, he balled his hands into fists, ready to fight the armed Kraut the moment he got the chance. Just hoping the German would get near enough to give him one.

"Geh mal zum Krankenwagen!" the lieutenant bellowed, still keeping several yards away from Saunders. With his finger in the trigger, the German gestured towards the front entrance. "Raus! Schnell!"

Go out. Saunders walked, feeling the uncomfortable presence of the Mauser aimed squarely at his back, helping the wounded vulture beside him plod towards the ambulance. Desperately, he searched for something, anything, that he could use as a weapon. It sank his heart to think that he was fast running out of laters.

***

Kirby craned his neck, brusquely pulled out of the freezing haze of pain he was in, and listened; he felt certain there had been voices outside. A moment later, he realized he hadn't dreamt it. They were real, and coming closer. It could be the Sarge coming back after the big explosion.

A wave of nausea hit him. As Kirby fell back onto the cot, he heard a man talking right outside the ambulance. The man spoke German in a tone that suggested he was out there with a buddy. It was the big, loud bastard who'd come inside the ambulance before. The Kraut hadn't talked like that with the Sarge, Kirby thought, feeling as if he'd been felled. Putting on that Kraut uniform had been a bad idea. He knew Sarge shouldn't have tried it!

Saunders opened the ambulance hatch, casting an eye inside the cab. All he saw was an inert form lying under the grey wool blanket. He heaved a deep sigh when he saw it rise and fall in a constant, gentle motion. He knew that sweat covered his face; it couldn't be helped if the Krauts noticed it too. He stayed still while the German hunter came up to the ambulance and sat down on the edge, clutching his arm. The Kraut seemed barely able to lift his chin after the long walk out of the winery, but Saunders noticed that the hunter's gaze still wandered methodically across the wine fields.

Ehrlich took out the bloodstained map and held it up in front of Heissman. "We have second squad positioned here, the third here," he said, pointing at several dot son the paper. "And Fourth squad down below the Rang Sainte Cécile."

With a sideways glance, Saunders saw that the map looked very similar to the ones Hanley carried, and seemed to outline roughly the same area. Black circles and crosses had been marked in a half-dozen spots. Even without understanding the code markings, Saunders recognized the build-up being made across the valley by the 361st. Many blue-inked markings dotted the paper in other spots. Saunders's heart raced, thinking those codes represented Kraut positions being set up to make a response.

"Seem... out of... range," Heissman commented. We should move Battery F a thousand yards forward. He held the thought, but a sudden malaise overtook him before he could utter it.

Saunders saw the Kraut's head droop and his eyes flutter. He held his breath, watching as Heissman almost fainted at the edge of the ambulance; it dawned on him once again that he had the Syrette of morphine in his pocket.

"Gib mir Wasser!" Heissman said, holding out his hand towards him.

Water. Again. Saunders held out the canteen, at the same time gesturing towards the empty stretcher in the cab. He jumped into the ambulance almost before the Krauts nodded their assent, helping to settle the wounded predator into the cot beside the BAR man. Sarge turned to Kirby for a moment, checking on him; Kirby's strength was almost gone, his face looked worn, his skin burning hot and clammy with sweat. The BAR man looked relieved to see him, but he cast a nervous glance at the next cot.

After bringing a finger up to his lips in a warning to stay quiet, Saunders held up Kirby's head to give him water.

Ehrlich put down the canvas bag of ammunition beside the hunting rifle, happy to note the captain's weary nod of approval. Heissman didn't offer such ovations but to the very best of his men, and Ehrlich liked being part of the very best. He watched the strange aid man presently kneeling at Heissman's side, wondering again about him. He medic acted like a lazy fool during the evacuation of the captain, but once inside the ambulance, he had shaped up fast, starting with draping their leader's tunic and weapons belt across the foot of the cot, looking as if he actually cared about the things. The lieutenant watched on as the aid man carefully wiped their leader's face with a rag and pulled a blanket over him. He guessed that the ambulance, with all its medical equipment, must be that man's true element, the place where he knew his stuff best. No, not a fool, Ehrlich decided after a moment's thought, but a coward, craven and weak, who had seemed ready to soil his pants back there, in the war zone.

A low-pitched moan escaped Heissman's lips. Ehrlich put a hand on the captain's forehead, stroking it. A kind of phantom pain went through him at the sight of Heissman's grimace, mirroring his own mental image of the captain's suffering. But his worry was appeased a bit when the aid man took out a Syrette of morphine and raised the captain's arm to administer it.

Heissman felt a needle enter his arm. "Ehrlich..." he whispered, a frown creasing his forehead. "What is...?" His voice slurred as he fought to clear the darkness that was starting to envelop him. He thrashed about for a second. Then, his control weakened and he slipped further into unconsciousness.

The lieutenant perked his ears. "Sir?"

Heissman's eyes glassed over. "This... is unacceptable... Why...?" His voice trailed off, barely more than a whisper. Then, he closed his eyes.

Another screeching sound rang out overhead. A thunderous blast rocked the walls beside the ambulance. As chunks of stones and metal battered the sides of the truck, the windows above the cot shattered inward with a loud fracas.

In a flash, Saunders threw himself over Kirby, protecting the BAR man with his body. The explosion seemed to go on interminably. Shards of glass flew everywhere inside the cab with a deafening crash. Saunders kept his hands on Kirby's neck, feeling the sharp stings right through the fabric of the jacket.

The echoes died down. Ehrlich stared out the window, smelling the foul stench of smoke. The Americans had resumed their barrage, and in force, he thought with mounting rage. They were launching a serious campaign of death and destruction out there, but which Captain Heissman always laughingly called games. Ehrlich was glad that the captain would now be able to get back to Headquarters and start moving the pieces of this particular game. But right now, precious time was wasting! He had to put an end to this damned romp!

"Come! We're leaving! Now!" the lieutenant roared, getting that aid man's attention off the other soldier and back to the task that imported to him.

His ears still ringing, Sarge pulled out a piece of glass imbedded in his sleeve. He squeezed Kirby's shoulder lightly, as the BAR man curled up with his head underneath the blanket. To throw off any suspicions, he turned to the Kraut hunter, leaning over him in a fake display of concern for the man. The bastard's eyes remained closed, Saunders noted, and his grimacing face bore a slight scratch from the glass. The lieutenant crouched nearby, Mauser in hand, watching everything with an increasingly angry look on his face. The Kraut wedged the hunting rifle in behind the driver's seat and shouted something at him, motioning towards the road.

Saunders quickly pulled the blanket around Heissman's shoulders. Then, he stepped over the hunting rifle and took the steering wheel again, casting a glance at Kirby while the Kraut sank into the passenger seat. Without a word, the German installed the Mauser against the window crank, just like before, and shouted an order that Saunders understood meant for him to move out.

As he drove, smoke rose out of the fields to the right of the road. Flashes from a series of explosions suddenly lit the afternoon horizon and then faded; one-oh-fives were battering Kraut positions to the west. In seconds, a deep, resonant boom swept over the ambulance, rocking it violently. Saunders slowed down, keeping a sharp eye out for a plausible way to stop the truck. Stop it before they got to the ever-approaching enemy lines. From the corner of his eye, he saw the hunting rifle, installed beside the front seat. He could reach behind him and grab it with his right hand maybe, and have enough time to bash it over the Kraut.

But the German kept staring ahead while talking to him, his elbow resting on the window and his hand on the Mauser. Saunders picked up speed again, every nerve in his body on the alert. He only needed one chance at the hunting rifle to get the job done.

After a while, the lieutenant issued a loud order, waving towards a twisted piece of shell casing in the road. Saunders stared out at the debris, quite understanding that he was being warned to go around it. He clutched the wheel and ignored the Kraut.

The truck bumped and shook violently as it went over the wreckage. Through the screeching of metal against metal, Saunders heard the rear tire explode with a loud bang. He slammed on the brakes and turned back to grab the hunting rifle. His hand froze in mid-air when he saw the weapon lying on the floor between the cots where it had fallen. He blinked at it through the wire-rimmed lenses, so near the dark, closely cropped head shuddering at the edge of the blanket. Kirby's low-pitched moan filled the ambulance.

The Kraut's startled look instantly gave way to a blazing glare of anger. He spit out a roar of invectives in German, which Saunders knew were aimed at his perceived incompetence. He shut the voice out, already turning his gaze towards the Mauser, still wedged in tight against the passenger door. But the German had his hand on it, his face growing more red-faced every second, he saw. "Dumkopf! Hast du ein Ersatzreifen dahin?" he shouted, pointing at the spare tire in the back.

Saunders sat still, breathing hard. Steeling himself to jump out of his seat.

"Was ist los mit dir? Raus!" Ehrlich pulled out the Mauser, bursting with the desire to shoot the dunce on the spot for his blind stupidity. What a time for a tire to blow! With the barrel of the weapon, he gestured for the aid man to get out of the truck, right away. The medic was going to make himself useful at something other than fussing over the wounded, for a change!

Keeping an eye on the Kraut, Saunders jumped off the truck as ordered. He strode towards the back, seeing the right rear tire shredded, and then went to find the spare inside the cab. He pulled it out, accidentally jarring the Camo helmet. It rolled out to the edge of Kirby's cot. Carefully turning his back so the Kraut wouldn't see, Saunders kicked it back underneath Kirby's feet. His heart drummed against his ribs as he watched the Kraut, alert to any change in the man's face or stance. But the German stayed behind the ambulance, staring at the flattened tire with a look of disgusted impatience.

After shutting the rear hatch, Saunders rolled the spare tire out towards flattened one. His instinct told him he had to hurry, that the Kraut was spoiling to let him have it once and for all. He listened to the Kraut's incomprehensible grumbling as he fetched the car jack, his hairs bristling in anticipation.

He came to kneel in front of the flattened tire and motioned for the Kraut to bring the spare closer. But the German simply kicked it against the side of the truck. And stayed a yard away with the Mauser in his hands, watching closely. Saunders worked on, twisting the lug nuts off the old tire. But they were hard to loosen. Pretending he couldn't do it, he made an offhand motion for the Kraut to come and help him with it.

Saunders almost disbelieved his luck when he saw the Kraut shoulder the Mauser and kneel down to next to him. The German grunted as he tried to pull on the lug wrench, finding it impossible to do with a single hand. He seemed to drop his guard momentarily, his attention drawn to the task, and he turned his back to place a second hand on the wrench.

Wasting no time, Saunders launched himself at the Kraut, intending to knock him down. The German whirled around, startled. With the quickness of a cat, he took a vigorous swing at him. Saunders avoided the blow, ramming his fist against the Kraut's iron-hard jaw in turn. The man simply turned his head, looking angrier than before. His face reflected surprise, utter disbelief, at a sudden change that he didn't comprehend.

Saunders knew he'd connected solidly, because his hands were burning. Yet it didn't seem to have fazed the Kraut at all. It was like battling against a powerful force; completely different from the hand-to-hand he learned to do in basic.

He gasped when the other man dealt him a pummelling blow to the side of the chin. The sour taste of blood filled his mouth. The wire-rimmed glasses fell to the ground, jarred off his face. He heard them crunch under his boots as he stumbled backwards. Rousing himself, Saunders swung out at the Kraut once more. And again, the pain in his knuckles told him he'd hit the man squarely.

Panting for breath, he saw the Kraut bring his rifle down and swing towards his chest. He lunged for it before the German could work his fingers into the trigger. His momentum brought him into violent collision with the Kraut, and both men crashed against the ambulance with tremendous force. A loud bang echoed against the side of the cab as the Mauser's barrel struck it.

With a quick gesture; the German wound his massive hand around Saunders's neck and squeezed. Hard. Everything went dark as Saunders thrashed against the suffocating grip. The Kraut was strong; the hand on Saunders's neck felt like a vise wringing the breath out of him. He fought to get it off. Saunders saw the rifle come down from the Kraut's shoulder, dangling between the two men for a few moments.

Saunders slammed his foot into the Kraut's shin, kicking it with all the force he had. The German uttered a piercing shriek and let go of his neck. With a fiery glare, he swung up the Mauser again. His fingers found the trigger instantly and pulled it.

A bullet whizzed by Saunders's shoulder, cutting a line in the sleeve above the medic's patch.

Still stunned, he lunged at the Kraut again, bringing his fist against the side of the man's face. The shoulder sling broke with a loud snap, and the weapon clattered at their feet as they struggled.

The Kraut fell backwards, crying out as he collided against the side of the ambulance. But he reached a hand out as he did, pulling Saunders down with him.

***

Heissman jumped at the sound of a bang, opening his eyes in confusion. He thought he heard tigers outside his hut, hitting the walls with their paws. But he could feel the effects of a soporific still clinging to his system; it was an unwelcome feeling, although one that he'd known before. He pulled himself out of its paralysing effects by the sheer strength of will.

He gazed around the unfamiliar surroundings, taking in the metallic-looking walls, the broken windows, the metal boxes next to the seats just behind him. He cast a cold glance at what he recognized to be a stretcher beside him, seeing a blanket with some kind of lump underneath it. This was an ambulance; the memory of being brought to it came rushing back, pushing the drowsiness further from his mind.

It was important to get back to regiment with the maps, begin to launch artillery fire on the American aggressors.... Then, a sharp pain chased the thoughts from his mind. They vanished in a sharp intake of breath. He gritted his teeth as a deep pain radiated from of his elbow, coursing along the entire length of his arm.

Again, a loud crash against the side of the ambulance startled him. Seconds later, a gunshot rent the air. That had been a Mauser, firing only a yard away from the window. Heissman listened with effort, feeling as if the echoes had reverberated right through him. He perked his ears, distinguishing another odd sound right on the heels of the first one.

Unmistakeably, a fist combat was raging just outside the ambulance.

After a wave of dizziness, Heissman managed to sit up. But his body was disconnected; his ears buzzed, his arm hurt, his legs wobbled from weakness when he tried to raise himself. He put a hand on the window to gain purchase, cursing at the contact of sharp glass edges. Still, he got to his feet, unsteadily wiping the sweat from his eyes, and stared outside the ambulance to see what was going on.

Two men rolled on the ground, locked in close combat just a yard from the fender. He recognized Ehrlich raising a fist to strike the aid man. But the medic deftly avoided the blow. The scene was stupid; it confused Heissman for a moment. What in blazes were they fighting over? He called out weakly for them to stop, realizing instantly that the fighters couldn't have heard. The two men rolled on the ground another time, bringing the aid man facing him as he swung out at Ehrlich. The helmet and glasses were off the medic now. Heissman fixed his eyes on that face, noting an expression intense with purpose, defiant and unyielding. Stubbornness. Somehow, the word popped into Heissman's mind, associating itself with the face of the medic. "Wearisome" followed suit instantly.

A noise from the cot behind him made Heissman whirl around. The lump moved slightly! A dawning realization came over him, and a small crack of a smile creased his lips. In a few steps, he edged over to the cot on the other side of the ambulance and lifted the blanket. Underneath, a man in a bloodied American uniform lay curled up with his hands around the hunting rifle. The wounded man looked up at him with a startled expression. He tried to raise the rifle at him but couldn't react fast enough; his movements were as sluggish as those of a dying animal. Heissman reached down and took his weapon out of the American's hands, as easily as if he'd taken candy from a baby.

He clucked as he released the safety. "Hello, Bill!"

***

Saunders reached out to grab the Mauser, but it lay just out of reach. But his hand found only empty air in front of the weapon. He saw the Kraut's fist come at him again; he ducked to avoid the blow, forced to turn away from the rifle. But his ribs and shoulder reeled from a knockout punch that left him breathless.

Gasping, he swung out at the Kraut and connected against the side of his head. By this time, his knuckles were so numb from the punches he'd given that he hardly felt the jolts that they caused. His chest almost burst to get each breath in.

Ehrlich plodded to his feet, tottering slightly as he searched for the Mauser. Then, he saw it just behind that cursed aid man. Aid man! His mind was jumbled, unable to discard the thought that this man was a medic, yet knowing he couldn't be. Ehrlich took a darting step forward, desperate to take that damned impostor down.

Scrabbling backwards, Saunders watched the huge, dark form rushing at him like a freight train, filling his vision. At once, he felt the stock of the Mauser behind his back. He locked his hands around it, but the German sprang off the ground towards him. Saunders raised his leg and managed to kick the huge German off towards the side.

Ehrlich sailed out, crashing to the ground with a loud thud. He rolled onto his side and lay still, his chest heaving.

Saunders sat up, grabbing the Mauser. The Kraut seemed hurt, panting as he raised a hand in a gesture of surrender. Or maybe asking for a time out, Saunders wasn't sure. He brought the stock under his arm, aiming the long-barrelled weapon at the Kraut. But handling the forty-four inches of rifle took a second longer than swinging out the Tommy gun. He reached for the bolt.

The German saw the rifle coming towards him. In a swift, agile movement, he uncoiled his massive body and launched himself at Saunders again.

Saunders looked up to see the German rush him once more. The man seemed galvanized again, howling as he hurtled across the distance between them. Saunders pulled the trigger, opening up in a single round aimed at the Kraut's chest. Knowing he could use only what was left in the cartridge, and no more. Still, the powerful recoil almost sent him sprawling backwards.

The German froze in mid-step and clutched his chest, his face twisting into a grimace. Issuing a loud bellow, he fell backwards and crashed to the ground, blood spurting through his fingers.

Instantly, Saunders crawled over to the heavy-set Kraut. The man was clutching his chest, as if trying to close the bloody hole that the bullet had made in it. He was dying; it would be over for him in a few seconds, no longer. Saunders winced at the sight, maybe because he felt tired to the bone from the fighting, and from the car wreck. Deep, burning pain was starting to course through every part of him again. He hefted the Mauser, preparing to head back to change the tire.

The dying Kraut moved slightly, turning his head towards the ambulance. He seemed as if he wanted to take a final look at his leader before he breathed his last. Saunders followed the man's gaze, his attention suddenly caught by a grey-clad figure crouching at the rear hatch, staring at him with an iciness that sent a shiver down his spine.

Heissman. With his good arm, the German brought up the barrel of his hunting rifle, boring on him with unbelievable speed. Heissman fired from chest level, as if he didn't need the gun sight to acquire his targets. Saunders dove to the ground just as a bullet ripped by him. He flattened himself in the furrow beside the road just as another bullet went by an inch from his head, slamming into the earth behind him.

"Sergeant!"

Saunders could barely hear over the ringing in his ears. The ditch was too shallow, giving him little cover to hunker down in. He clutched the Mauser and listened as the Kraut spoke out again.

"Do you hear me, Sergeant? Once again, it seems you have killed one of my men!"

Panting, Saunders stared out at the thick rows of vines beginning several yards behind him. For a second, he thought of making a run for them. Then, he ducked down again, changing his mind. Without cover, Heissman would have plenty of time to empty his rifle into him. Curling up into the tightest, smallest target he could, he checked the Mauser's chamber, counting the rounds he had left.

"You wish to kill me, but you do not shoot!" Heissman called out. "That is admirable! Of course, you don't! How can you, with your friend at my side? These walls, so thin! How could you risk cutting down your own man through them?"

Saunders stayed put, listening, wondering if the Kraut were taking some new tack. Heissman's tone sounded so damned controlled.

"Sergeant! Take a look at how your friend suffers!"

Saunders took a chance on turning his head up, already knowing what kind of vision he was going to see at the ambulance hatch. A sense of déja vu chilled his blood anyway. With his rifle slung across his back, the Kraut was holding Kirby up with a single hand draped across the chest up to the opposite shoulder. Kirby's arms hung limply at his sides, his head drooped forward to the point where it seemed his neck would snap, his legs bent like a puppet's, covered with dark streaks that Saunders knew were spatters of blood from the bullet wound.

"Sergeant! Why do you prolong this man's agony? He is almost at his end!" Kirby's legs buckled; he cried out as he collapsed. Heissman deliberately let him fall down a few inches, and then caught him roughly. He hitched Kirby back up with a violence designed to provoke a gasp out of the BAR man.

Saunders swallowed his rage, controlling it before it welled up into his throat and exploded there.

"If you surrender now," the German shouted, watching the furrow where he knew the American crouched, "he can receive the medical help he needs! He will have another chance! Do you hear me, Sergeant?"

Saunders sank back down, his hands shaking, and listened. Lies, truth; Heissman knew how to sling either of them out, the better to cut his soul to the quick.

Heissman's voice broke through again. "Need I remind you, Sergeant, that the winery's perimeter is completely surrounded by fence? On all sides you are blocked!"

By reflex, Saunders's gaze whirled out towards the hilly rise barely in the distance.

"You cannot escape!" Heissman continued. "Time is only favourable to me, not you! My men have already entered this area. Within an hour, you will be killed or captured!"

"You're wrong! You're the one who's alone! Your guns've been silenced! Can you hear? Our infantry's going to be moving in!"

Clutching the rifle, Saunders measured the distance to the foliage, preparing himself, rehearsing the steps before he actually made them. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Heissman crouching against the side of the ambulance hatch. Raising his weapon, the German aimed the hunting rifle several yards to the left of him.

He raised the Mauser and fired another round at the ambulance. The bullet banged into the truck's taillight, shattering it with a loud crash.

Heissman fired back instantly, adjusting his aim. Two bullets slammed into the barrel of the Mauser. The weapon shattered in his hands, clattering to the ground beside him. He ducked back to the ground, gasping at a vivid flash of pain in his right hand. Every part of it shook in an uncontrollable dance of raw, exposed nerves. Flattening himself, Saunders clutched it against his chest, squeezing hard to try and numb the fire pulsing through it. Using sheer will, he stopped himself crying out, so he wouldn't give away that he'd been hit.  He stayed still, his heart pounding, straining to hear the sound of Heissman's voice.

"Are you still there, Sergeant? Your friend is worried about you! Answer him!"

Saunders panted as he worked to force down his heartbeat. "I'm here!"

"There are medical needs here! I give you one last chance to save him!"

"Go to hell!" Saunders gasped at his hand twitched, sending a raw pulse up his arm.

"He has begged me to give him morphine to relieve his suffering!"

Saunders's heart lurched. He looked out towards the waist-high vines, still clutching his hand, and finally made up his mind that he had no chance in that inches-deep hole. He thought of the next bullet coming right through his brain, and he shuddered.

***

Heissman stared around the darkened cab, measuring the frames of the shattered windows. Like the ports of a hunting blind, they allowed a good view to shoot accurately. In the space between the front seats, the cracked windshield gave a clear view of the road ahead, he noted with satisfaction. He could even make out the serrated range of faraway mountains, creating a landscape majestic enough to put a frame around.

His leg stroked against the side of the stretcher where the ever-defiant American rifleman lay curled up on his side. Damned things, taking up too much room!

He unhooked the empty cot from its pins and hefted it above his head, drawing a startled look on the prisoner's face. As the American looked on, Heissman launched it out the window, smirking at the crashing noise it made. Then, almost thrilling at the startled look on the wounded man's face, he turned, grabbed Kirby's arm and shoved the BAR man down to the floor, over the metal box.

Crying out, Kirby slammed against the side of the ambulance with a thud, gasping for air.

Heissman cast a casual glance at his belted side knife lying a few feet from the American. The man was cringing in the corner like wounded animal; he posed no threat. Still, Heissman moved the knife away with his boot. Then, he calmly lifted the second stretcher and threw it out the window as well, spotting the camouflage helmet that had been underneath.

It would make a good trophy.

He froze at the sound of running footsteps outside. Quickly, he turned and thrust his rifle up, aiming at the sound.

***

Saunders perked his ears, wincing at the streak of pain in his hand as he heard some kind of agitation going on inside the ambulance. It startled him when a stretcher flew out the window and crashed to the ground, but he used those precious few seconds to scramble to his knees, steadying himself with good hand. His breath ragged, he sprinted out of the furrow and made a flat-out run for the vines.

As he dashed into the foliage, dropping down to his belly, a volley of bullets shredded the bushes beside him. He lay there, ducking to make the smallest target he could, his raw, burning hand pressed against his chest.

"Sergeant!" he heard Heissman shout. "Your friend tells me you have heroic compassion. He is confident you will not to leave him! As for me, I congratulate you on your spirit!"

A violent tremor shook Saunders, coursing up his arm. He looked at his hand for the first time since the bullet caught it. He saw not a bullet hole, but a thick wood splinter from the Mauser's stock going through the palm, causing uncontrollable spasms from the wrist to the tip of the fingers. He shuddered violently.

"Your friend, he wants you to answer him once again," Heissman shouted, his tone chillingly calm. "Unless you wish him to die hopeless over your fate!"

Saunders hunched back down again, panting, feeling the tip of the splinter sticking out of his skin.

Several bullets hurtled by him, cutting into the vines just above his head. Wincing, he crawled away through the bushes, keeping low, and hurried away from the spot he'd been in. At each step, the splinter stung him viciously, but he drove himself on.

"I know that you have lost the rifle, Sergeant! I shot it! Deliberately! Once again, you are unarmed!"

Saunders hunkered down behind a thick vine, panting, and grasped the tip of the splinter to try and pull it out. It was no use; tears stung his eyes as an agonizing spasm jerked through the every nerve in his hand.

"Sergeant! You no longer speak out! You are truly the most intelligent animal I have ever hunted!"

Saunders grimaced as the pain through his hand almost drove him senseless.

"So we resume our game! Do you not look forward it?"

***

Kirby moaned, certain that the front of his jacket was sticky with blood. Pressing his fist against the wound used to help a bit, but now it only made him feel sick. He abandoned the effort, letting his arm hang limply at his side. He was confused as to why he felt so weak. Then, he remembered a hundred years ago, being in the winery, the shock of pain in his chest, falling down so hard it knocked his breath away. He tried to shake himself awake again. He needed to help the Sarge. But it was getting harder for him all the time. Through blurred vision, Kirby watched the dark grey form of a man turn towards him. The man called him by his nickname. And he said he was George.

Kirby closed his eyes and was somehow back in the alley behind Jock's pool parlor. He forgot about trying to help the Sarge when George shook his arm another time. He thought George was telling him that mom and Ruthie figured he'd be there; that they were worried he was going to hell in a hand basket going to that pool place so much.

"Well, they'll change their tune when they see the wad of twenties in my pocket!" he thought, his mind still locked inside the distant memory.

He gasped. He was watching three bums come out of a doorway. George tried to calm them down. But the creeps jumped him with knives in their hands. For the first time, he felt an overwhelming fear when he heard his brother let out a scream. The bums all scampered out of the alley, leaving his older brother on the ground, covering his eyes with shaking hands and crying that he couldn't see anything.

"Bill! We have to talk!"

Kirby groaned, the vision blurring back into the inside of the truck again.

***

Saunders had to stop and get something to use for a bandage. Carefully, he settled himself behind some thick vines, glancing out towards the ambulance. Heissman's voice could be heard in the distance, telling him Kirby was suffering. Saunders shut his ears to it, staring down at his hand. A long piece of wooden shrapnel entered the flesh at a slight angle, going deep inside the palm. He pinched the tip slightly to pull it out, shuddering as a jolt shot up his arm.

Snap.

In a flash, Saunders flattened himself underneath the bush, concealing himself as he watched a dark form crawling behind the vines several yards away. It came into view for a second, and then disappeared again. He watched as the figure crawled along the ground, keeping low.

The figure darted out between two rows, silent as a fox, and instantly blended into the foliage again. Saunders shrank further back underneath his cover, involuntarily putting his hand down, and stared out at the spot where the man had gone. But all he saw was leaves swaying in the wind. He head spun. He turned to crawl along the next row, feeling wood grinding through the tendons in his hand.

He took a step, and then froze, hearing the cock of a rifle beside him. The barrel of a rifle poked out from beneath a bush, aimed at him. Swallowing hard, Saunders turned to face a gaunt G.I. with a netted helmet and rolled up sleeves.

"Hände Hoch!" the man whispered, his voice hoarse with tension. "Get 'em up, or I'll shoot. And I don't wanna shoot a medic."

Saunders clutched his hand against his chest. "I'm American."

"Up, pal! Hoch."

"I'm with the 361st. Sergeant," Saunders added. Drawing in a sharp breath, he extended his hands, showing the wound in the palm. "I need help."

The soldier raised his rifle, still looking suspicious. "Who's your CO?"

"Captain Jampel. He was stationed in Monsabert yesterday." Saunders brought his hands down slightly. "Two of us were patrolling Sector George."

"What are you doing in that gear?" The soldier lowered his rifle slightly.

"Trying to get back." Saunders noted how the soldier kept his eyes riveted to the wound in his hand. "The guy I was with caught one."

***

Heissman realized that the sounds of artillery had stopped, just like the sergeant had pointed out. No German patrols had come their way in the last while, either. It was as if he were locked in a cocoon of space and time. Coolly, he stared out at the rows of vines, watching for disturbances in them. He saw a flock of crows come sweeping down along the rise to the west, but nothing else. The sergeant was staying put for now, perhaps in order to draw him out in pursuit of him. That brought a thrilling notion to Heissman's mind; that he deeply enjoyed the need to raise his level of skill in order to be truly tested in his sport. And unlike the stupid boars and wild turkeys he had hunted recently, the sergeant out there held the promise of providing sport worthy of his prowess.

A low-pitched moan rang out from behind him. He turned to look at the smallish rifleman curled up in the corner. The man shuddered as he fought for breath, and he stared at the wall, softly calling out the name of his distant brother.

The German thought he heard a noise outside the ambulance and turned to stare out the window. But nothing moved.

Again, the wounded rifleman moaned, trying to shift himself. Heissman looked at the blood on his jacket, wondering if anything else of tactical value could be drawn from the prisoner. It would have to be done quickly, though; he didn't think the American had much time or usefulness left.

Slowly, he settled himself beside the prisoner and shook his shoulder. "Bill... Listen to me, Bill..." he said. "It's George."

"Wha...?"

"Your sergeant needs us." Heissman noted how the prisoner's head jerked up. "I have to go warn the others about the," he bit his lips, catching himself, "Krauts! Tell me, Bill. Where you came in through the fence, there was a ravine." He saw an unmistakeably positive reaction from Kirby. "Was it near a cherry grove?"

"No..."

"Tell me, Bill. Where are the others? How can I locate them?" he continued, his tone of voice even. "How does it look like, where they are?"

***

Saunders almost cried out when he held out his hand, feeling the rough wooden shrapnel inside his palm.

"There were two of us reconning, just like you," the soldier said, his keeping his voice low. "We ran into some Kraut patrols. Then, we got separated. I never saw my buddy after that." The young man stared at the slice of wood deep inside Saunders's hand, shrugging to indicate he could do nothing to remove it. Taking out his canteen, he dribbled a small amount of water over the wound.

"The Krauts have field cannons set up," Saunders said. He sucked in a breath, letting a spasm in his arm subside. "At point Bravo."

"Yeah, I saw 'em. Nasty stuff!" The soldier took out a bandage from his belt and ripped it open. Quickly, he wound the dressing around Saunders's palm. As he worked, he made a head motion towards his right. "We cut through the fence about a thousand yards that way. Come on, Buddy. I'll help ya get back."

Saunders shook his head. The jagged edges could be felt under the bandage. The thought of crawling on all fours, of settling that hand on the ground, sent an involuntary shudder through him. "You go. Warn 'em about... the cannons. But keep low. There's a truck behind us." He flexed his fingers. "With a sniper in it."

The soldier followed Saunders's gesture towards ambulance. "I'm with ya. Just keep 'im busy, and I'll circle around the other side. It'll only take...."

Saunders let out a deep sigh, shaking his head again. "First, go warn Battalion about the artillery."

"If you say so ..."

"Got any grenades?"

"You kiddin'? I'm wiped out! I got nothin'!" The soldier left his side, crawling a yard away, and then turned to Saunders once more. "You sure you wanna stay, Pal?" When he saw Saunders nodding, he turned away again, crawling through the foliage.

His thin, helmeted silhouette blended into the background, casting only a blurred shadow.

***

"Your sergeant! He is in great danger!" Heissman whispered, injecting a tone of urgency in his voice. "I'll find the others for you! Wake up, Bill. Tell me!" He shook Kirby violently.

The wounded rifleman raised his head with effort; his shoulders shaking. He seemed to be rousing himself to try and speak.

Heissman listened carefully; he could almost hear the words in the air blowing from the prisoner's mouth. Something seemed about to come forth. He jerked the American's arm roughly, insisting further. "Bill! When you crossed the ravine, what did you see?"

"See?" Kirby said hoarsely. "You can...?"

He blinked up at Heissman, a dawning awareness returning to him. His heart sank as he recognized the Kraut, and he thrashed against the German's grip for a moment. But a wave of dizziness overwhelmed him, and he sagged back down again, staring into empty space.

In a rush of anger, Heissman struck him, sending him crashing to the floor.

With his rifle ready, he went to the window, casting a glance at the entire countryside. The view of his gunnery lieutenant lying dead beside the ambulance, like so much rubbish, sparked a flash of rage in him, a feeling that he found unnerving. Then, movement outside caught his attention, instantly chasing it out. A slight but unmistakeable shaking of the stalks, just a few hundred yards to the right. Something was creeping along the ground there. Yes; he spotted a man's low, crouching form dart out between two bushes.

His heart pounding, Heissman brought up his rifle and fired a single projectile at the spot where the man had entered the leaves, watching with satisfaction as the form careened towards the side. Only partially visible, the man rolled sideways behind a clump of vines and lay still, casting only a pale green outline in the foliage. Heissman cocked his head, watching intently for any signs of movements from him. His finger remained steady in the trigger, but his blood boiled faster every second as he grew more certain of his success.

The figure moved no more.

Heaving a sigh of satisfaction, Heissman worked the bolt of the rifle to eject the empty shell casing, almost reeling from the thrill of having achieved a clean, one-shot kill. With the sergeant out there dead, the job was done. He turned to stare at the sorry little prisoner that he felt he no longer needed. Curled up in the corner, the rifleman named Kirby had his head down with his hands pressed against his chest.

***

Saunders jumped, staring though the vines at the dead soldier lying several yards away. In half a heartbeat, the kid's face had gone from watchful to blank. Now, he lay on his side with his blue eyes in the dirt and a large, bloody hole in his ribs.

An eerie silence hung in the air after the gunshot, making Saunders easily hear his own pulse as it rushed through his ears. He stared out towards the ambulance, where the hawk-eyed Kraut was holding Kirby, thinking of a way to sneak up on it. But every nerve in him shuddered with a sense of imminent danger. The Kraut had to be thinking that he won. Kirby wasn't needed alive to keep him around any more. Wincing, Saunders got up on his knees, ready to jump out, and cupped his hands around his mouth.

"Kraut!"

In a swift movement, he launched himself to the side, rolling carefully to avoid moving any of the plants in front of him. He came up a yard away, clutching his wounded hand. Breathlessly, he listened for any reaction from the German.

Only more silence greeted his call. Saunders winced as he started crawling towards his right, aiming to circle around to the other side of the ambulance.

***

Whirling about in surprise, Heissman brought up his rifle, his jaw set in a grimace at the sound of the sergeant's voice. Beside him, the unimportant prisoner bleated slightly; Heissman easily shifted the noise to the back of his mind, focusing instead on the view outside the window.

"Kraut!"

Instantly, Heissman trained his weapon, scouring for signs of the American sergeant. The shout had come from quite near the soldier he'd just killed. The partially concealed body lay several yards away from the ambulance. Heissman needed to go out there and identify it clearly.

A glance in the corner showed the prisoner lying unconscious, his chest rising softly. He gave Kirby a swift kick. The wounded man barely stirred.

Heissman slid on his weapons belt with practised ease, hardly feeling any pain from the dislocation any more. Anticipation of the impending pursuit filled him too much for that. He dashed out of the ambulance with the hunting rifle aimed forward, heading straight towards the body of the soldier he'd killed.

***

Saunders shrank into a tight ball behind a thick clump of leaves, keeping still. Through the foliage, he watched Heissman sling his rifle over his shoulder and kneel beside the dead American soldier. The Kraut shoved the body onto its side, looking into the lifeless eyes for a moment, and then whirled around, looking straight him.

Saunders froze, his eyes locked on the Kraut.

Heissman sniffed the air around him, knowing the sergeant was out there somewhere. But too many forms and outlines stood out within the maze of leaves and shrubbery. The American could be any one of them, crouching behind one of those numerous vines. With his good arm, he turned to grasp the dead soldier's rifle and flung it down against a rock, smashing it into several pieces.

"Sergeant!" he shouted, getting back onto his feet. "Again I salute you! I know that many of your men will be arriving on the heels of this one! You are truly practised in the art of war!" He took a step forward, his hand on the trigger. "With your persistence, you have distracted me from that art! But now I will practise another one! The perfect art of hunting!"

Saunders braced himself to dart out from behind the vines. The Kraut was coming closer. Gritting his teeth, he silently backed up into some shrubs, inching away from the German's voice.

Heissman froze, seeing a bush ahead of him move. With a swift movement, he fired a round into its branches, watching eagerly to see if the sergeant would fall out from behind it. But he shot a fraction of a second too slow, he realized it instantly. In a heartbeat, the dark, fast-moving figure vanished from sight. He aimed the rifle at the area where the sergeant was heading, wanting to cut him off. But then, he thought the American was enticing him to shoot again, perhaps to make him waste his ammunition. Instead, Heissman brought stock of the rifle back against his shoulder and watched for more signs of movement.

"I pledge!" he shouted. "I will kill cleanly and swiftly!" Seeing no more movements in the vines, Heissman darted out towards his left with his rifle ready. "I have utmost respect for the land and those who use it! Always, I identify my targets clearly before I shoot!"

Panting, Saunders kept his belly to the ground, chilled by the icy tone of the German's voice. He forced his heart to slow down, but it was hard. A raw, jolting pain consumed every part him each time he put his hand down.

He thought of doubling back and heading for the ambulance. There might be something in there he could use as a weapon. But he heard the Kraut's footsteps, going faster now, several yards behind him. He froze, concentrating on the direction the footsteps were heading. For a second, he thought he'd heard the Kraut make a turn and come straight towards him.

"My rifle!" Heissman continued calmly. "It has correct calibre and heaviest projectile!" He shouted as loudly he could, hoping to rattle the sergeant into making a mistake. But like a cornered panther, the American was silently burrowed into the ground. Heissman scoured the nearby rows, looking for ground markings or other clues of the sergeant's recent passage. He spotted leaves that had recently been snapped, slight markings beneath them that lead towards the right. He strode on, following them. This was tracking, his favourite kind of hunt.

A moment later, Heissman caught his breath, almost doing a double take, at the sight of blood droplets spattered beside an empty bandage wrapper. Well. That evidence changed things somewhat. No matter; different challenges would simply offer different rewards in the end. A hint of smile came across his face.

Hefting the rifle, he stared out in a complete circle, scouring the horizon from the ambulance at the far left, to the hilly rise on the other side and then back to the ambulance. His eyes creased to slits as he watched the vehicle in the distance. He'd left the wounded soldier there as bait. But he no longer thought the sergeant would be foolish enough to try and join him. "I see that you are wounded!" he shouted at the top of his voice.

He stopped, seeing distant shrub move. Instantly, he raised his rifle towards it, squinting through the scope.

Saunders crawled fast, but carefully. Each step sent a jolt up his arm, making him wince. His heart raced at the thought of disturbing the stalks in front of him and giving his position away. He could hear the bastard's footsteps towards the right, and a quick glance in that direction showed Heissman's head rising the above the vines in the distance.

"I repeat! You prove yourself an opponent of highest standard, Sergeant! I promise you, I will avoid unnecessary wounding!"

Saunders focused on the rising slope several yards towards the right. Panting, he turned and crawled towards it. Footsteps behind him made him freeze, his heart in his mouth. Staying in the shadow, he watched as Heissman came striding towards his spot, just three rows away.

Heissman swung his hunting rifle back and forth, his eyes darting in every direction. "I believe all animals should be treated with equal respect, prey and predator alike!" he shouted.  He drew alongside Saunders's position and stopped for a beat, his eyes riveted to the area ahead of him.

Saunders listened to the Kraut's breathing.

Then, Heissman moved on, putting distance between them. Saunders kept still, not daring to move; it was too damned easy to imagine an extra pair of eyes in the back of the Kraut's head.

Withdrawing, Saunders turned and headed toward the rise. He winced, blinded by the sun shining just behind it. Its rays came in directly across the trunk of a small tree growing on the crest. He could barely make out its form. Drawing a sharp breath at the pangs in his hand, he started crawling up the incline as carefully as he could. He only needed a few minutes to get up the slope, and then maybe double back to Kirby along the other side of it.

"You have not yet told me your name, Sergeant! And yet I feel I have shared much with you!"

Saunders reached the top,  listening to the Kraut. There was a clear view of the opposite slope ahead of him, with the barbed wire fence at the bottom and the next field beyond.

A noise coming from behind him made him whirl around. His heart leapt into his throat as the German's gaze changed direction, bearing straight on him, with the rifle aimed at his face. But the Kraut only winced as he looked into the sun, blinded by the rays just as he had been. He saw that the German was inspecting the vines growing along the slope, waving his rifle from left to right as if it were a divining rod for finding prey.

Saunders kept perfectly still beside the tree, but his heart raced. He could feel the sun's burning rays on the back of his head. He was right in line between it and the Kraut.

The German halted his steps, his attention caught by something on the ground beside him. He knelt to inspect whatever it was he'd seen.

Wasting no time, Saunders inched slowly backwards, keeping his eyes on the Kraut. But Heissman stayed on his knees, only raising his head once to look out towards the ambulance. Silently, Saunders started down the opposite side of the ridge.

A bullet banged off the trunk a few inches away. Splinters of bark and wood chips flew out, stinging Saunders's face. He rolled out of the line of fire, but a sharp pain stung his temple. He landed on his stomach with his face in the ground. At the bottom of the incline, he heard the German make a clucking sound. Footsteps started coming up the slope towards him. He heard the bolt of the rifle snap only a few yards. Saunders turned his head to make out the Kraut's form.

Silently, he dug his hands inside the soil, trying to scoop out a clump of it. He caught his breath as he felt the sharp splinter, but he stroked the rough, hard surface of a buried rock, and he slid his fingers around it.

"Well, we meet once again!" Heissman said as he climbed, skilfully containing his glee.

The place where the bullet had grazed him stung Saunders badly. He stayed on the ground, feeling the side of his face sticky and wet. Clutching the rock, he spied the German's boots as they came up beside him.

"I have hunted in your vast country many times," Heissman said. "I learned much while I was there. Well. You are the first animal I have hunted who deliberately used the sun to conceal himself. I almost didn't see you."

Saunders turned his face up to stare at Heissman's. A flash shot through his arm as he pulled himself up on all fours.

"Or perhaps should I use the word opportunistic," the German continued. "Either way, your have proven yourself to be a truly remarkable adversary. I've enjoyed myself greatly while chasing you, Sergeant."

Saunders suppressed a shiver as he clutched the rock.

Heissman took a step closer, still keeping a safe distance from Saunders. It did not escape him that the man in front of him looked tired and hurt, despite having displayed great willingness to rise above the physical challenges. His eye caught the blood on the side of the American's face. A mere scratch, but unfortunate for he had really been aiming to the side in a shot meant to warn rather than wound. Still, Heissman considered it a sportsman's hunt, quite worthy of his skill. In fact, he could feel his heart pounding as he raised the rifle. The sensation thrilled him. Briefly, he wondered if he would ever manage to achieve the same sense of satisfaction when he went back to the kind of prey that he'd hunted before. As he looked down at Saunders, something told him that it would never again be the same when he went back to hunting wild animal game.

He let out a long breath, preparing to shoot.

In a swift movement, Saunders sprang up, launching himself at the Kraut hunter. The barrel of the rifle was aimed at his chest; he elbowed it away as his momentum drove him forward. He connected against Heissman's temple, gasping as the rock slipped out of his hand.

Heissman pulled the trigger a fraction of a second too late, opening up in a deafening shot, cursing as the bullet went wide of its target.

Dearened, Saunders swung his fist up, throwing all of his weight against the other man's chin. The rifle flew out the German's hands, clattering to the ground. It lay just out of reach; Saunders could see its outline a yard away from them. He locked his hands around the German's throat and pushed him even further back. He shoved hard, desperately trying to drive the Kraut backwards.

A closed fist came up, slamming into the side of his head where the bullet had grazed him. Saunders's knees crumpled as all breath rushed out of his lungs. Dizzied, he clutched the side of his head and fell to his knees just beside the rifle.

He saw a glint of light shining in the German's hand.

Instantly, Saunders locked his right hand around the stock of the rifle. His hand shaking from a burst of pain, he brought the rifle up towards the German, just managing to find the trigger and squeeze it; he gasped as only clicks came from the weapon. Scrambling to his feet, he jabbed the rifle sharply at Heissman's ribs.

The German took another step back, still clutching the knife. "It is empty, Sergeant!"

A blaze of anger flashed in his eyes as he pushed off his right foot, swinging the blade out at Saunders. But it caught nothing; the German sliced through empty air inches away from Saunders's face. Heissman stepped back again, and then gasped as he hit against the tree. That was what the American had tried to do by pushing him backwards!

Too late, Heissman saw the hunting rifle swing up into the air above his head once again. He reacted by sharply moving forward, thrusting the knife straight at the American's body.

Saunders felt a tremor course through him as the rifle slammed against the tree trunk. He bit down a cry of pain, unable to keep his hold on the weapon. The saw the glint as the knife came at him, almost on his chest. He managed to parry the movement at the last second. Wincing, he grabbed the German's arm, holding on fast. But his wounded hand refused to work. His vision dimmed in a rush of blood to his temple when he tried to squeeze.

The knife wavered between them as each man clasped the handle in a struggle to wrench it away from the other. When Saunders felt the tip of the blade swing out toward Heissman, he almost lost his hold on it.

Heissman felt the knifepoint cut his forearm above the sleeve. He thrashed wildly at the sudden pang, trying to shove the American away.

Saunders's breath was ragged. Panting, he pivoted towards his right, twisting his body a quarter turn. In a kind of death dance, he pulled the German around with him, bringing the Kraut's face directly into the sun's rays. Heissman's eyes squinted shut instinctively to avoid the light. His head jerked to the side in a reflex motion. His grip on the knife loosened slightly.

Ignoring the jolts caused by the shrapnel in his hand, Saunders fastened onto the handle even more and pushed the knife into the German's chest.

For a few seconds, their eyes met. Then, Saunders turned his gaze slightly, looking off to the side as he kept up pressure on the knife. But sticky warmth of blood spurted across his hands. Heissman opened his mouth, croaking something unintelligible. A thin, red line of blood flowed from the side of his mouth, causing a shiny trickle down his chin.

The German seemed to draw some last, inner strength, and he flailed out at Saunders, his face set in a grimace. Then, he stood alone, suddenly freed from his opponent. For a few seconds, he swayed on his feet, unable to move, as he looked out towards the horizon.

Knocked backwards, Saunders thudded to the ground, his breath coming in short gasps as he looked down at the blood on his clenched fists. The blade had entered through Heissman's ribs just beside the sternum. It was a feeling, and a memory, that sent a quick shiver down Saunders's spine. He hardened his muscles, ready to jump up at the Kraut again.

But Heissman just stood next to him, clutching the bloody handle in his chest. He shuddered as he pulled it out, a look of disbelief on his face at the sight of blood pouring from the wound. His eyes rolled back in his head. Then, he stumbled, crashing to his knees, and pitched down the side of the slope. Heissman rolled down the incline, gaining momentum as he went inexorably towards the coils of barbed wire fencing that stretched out along the bottom.

With a blood-curdling cry, Heissman crashed into the coils of pointed spikes, entangling himself in them completely. The blade-shaped metal barbs held him in their grip, clinging to his clothes and skin, cutting into his flesh as he thrashed. Heissman jerked against the barbs once again, more feebly, the knife handle still visible in the middle of his chest.

Saunders grasped the hunting rifle beside him as he stared down at the Kraut. A dim thought crossed his mind, of going down there to help pull the German off the war wire. A glint of awareness still lingered in the Kraut's face, Saunders noted, but it was fast going out.

For a moment, he stared at the rifle's engraved panels, the gold-plated trigger, and the polished steel barrel. It was a beautifully crafted thing, one he had just lived an intense relationship with. He fingered the smooth walnut stock, wincing at a violent surge of disgust as he listened to the Kraut utter a low-pitched growl.

Out of a compelling urge, he raised Heissman's specially built rifle in the air and crashed it against the tree trunk, shattering it completely. Several pieces flew out in every direction. Saunders hardly felt any pain as he let the barrel slip from his hands. There was only a soft clatter as it landed next to his feet.

He glanced at the other man below. The Kraut was still entangled in the wire with the knife embedded in his chest. Heissman let a final breath, his head fell back into the barbs, and then he lay still.

***

"Sarge?"

"I'm here..." Saunders got heavily off his knees, putting down the lug wrench. He left the rear axle and strode over to Kirby, whose face lay near the ambulance hatch. Every joint in his body ached. He could barely speak from tiredness.

The BAR man recognized the Sarge. His face was full of scratches, a bandage covered his hand, but he still wore that dumb Kraut gear. That meant the nightmare he'd just been having was real after all. Briefly, he wondered if all he Krauts out there were about to come back. It seemed like they always did. "We gotta... get out... Sarge...."

"There's a place we can go through the fence, that's what I was told. We'll try it. We have to go warn Battalion about the Kraut cannons." Saunders held the canteen up to Kirby's lips and let him take a drink.

The memory of the damned guns came back to Kirby. Battalion was going to be clobbered if they weren't warned about them, that was for sure. He shuddered as he stared out at the vineyard. "What's holdin'... us, Sarge?" he asked, swallowing a mouthful.

"I'll get you out." Saunders took a heavy step towards the side of the ambulance again, seeing the lug wrench lying beside the dirty axle. He flexed his fingers, wincing. They could barely move any more.

"First, I have to change the tire."





Lyne Tremblay
Feb. 2003