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Scouts at the Alamo

Old Guy

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Out of Bondage

Three days after the enraged infantry lieutenant had them tossed in the stockade (a much damaged warehouse in Carentan) the captain in charge released Old Guy and Donnie. He had too many POWs and not enough guards.

“You two take a batch of prisoners down to the beach. Then you can return to your unit.”

“What about the officer who had us confined?” asked Old Guy. “I don't want to run into him and have the bas -- uh -- have him think we escaped or something.”

“Don't worry about him. He didn't charge you with anything. Just told me to hold you for a couple days and then let you go. You really pissed him off.”

“Not me.” Old Guy grinned. “Donnie and a couple others went into shock and had to be carried a mile or so out of the bush. One of the victims was the lieutenant's own platoon sergeant.”

“Jeez,” said the captain. “What was it? Shell shock? Combat fatigue?”

“Boob shock,” explained Old Guy. Donnie had the grace to look embarrassed. Old Guy mimed a fantastic set of knockers. “Marie was her name. She's in the Resistance.”

“Dang, I'd like to meet the lady.” The captain laughed. “My brother-in-law has the same affliction. Can't take the guy to a strip club -- unless you want to carry him home and explain why he's out cold to my sister. She ain't very understanding.”

The two dispatch riders retrieved their firearms and went out. Inside a barb wire enclosure MPs were shoving a gaggle of prisoners into a semblance of order.

“What is this here 'affliction' the captain talked about? I got some kinda disease?”

“Not a disease. If you caught the clap, that would qualify as a disease, but you don't stay conscious long enough for that nonsense. Yours is more of a mental affliction.”

“Mental? That means something wrong with my brain, right?”

“That's right. Fixating on boobs is not normal behavior. But it's not a serious disorder. It's not like you're a mass murderer or anything. It's more of a labor problem.”

“Labor? What the hell do you mean?”

“You see a nice set and your mind goes on strike. Plus, those around you have to do your work and take care of you -- like packing your fat ass a mile through the woods.”

Donnie giggled. “I'm sorry about that.” He didn't look the least contrite. “But I'm glad I have an -- uh -- an affliction.”

“Good God! You're glad?”

“Yeah. Proves I got a brain. Nobody can call me brainless. I mean, they might, but I can tell 'em about my mental affliction. You can't have one of those unless you got a brain.”

Old Guy sighed. “You're beginning to make sense. And that makes me worry about my own mind. Let's go collect this batch of supermen and herd them down to the beach.”

“They don't look so super to me.”

“Neither do you. Hell. Neither do I.”

An MP opened the gate and signaled the German prisoners to move out. “Here ya go. Fifty Krauts headed for America or Canada. Lucky bastards.” The man watched as the group marched by. “Hell, I'd go home in a minute, if I had the chance. I'd even go to Canada. It's gotta be better than this hole.”

“Don't be too sure,” warned Old Guy. “Lots of lonely women in Canada, but it gets cold as hell in winter. Sometimes even in summer.”

“Sounds good to me,” said the MP. “A warm woman and a snug cabin. I wouldn't complain.”

“Shit, Joe. Yes you would,” said his fellow MP. “You'd find something to bitch about.”

“Yeah, yer prob'ly right. Come on. Let's get another batch ready to go. If the captain can find a few more idiots to guard them, we might get rid of all the bastards today.”

The second MP grinned at Old Guy and Donnie. “Won't do any good. We got more comin' in.”

“Goddamn Army,” snarled Joe. “I should be guarding the gate back at Fort Benning and shacking up with one of those Southern belles.”

“Keep yer eyes open. Sooner or later someone's gonna capture some of them German WACs.”

“Shit. Won't do us no good. Some damn colonel will grab 'em.”

Old Guy and Donnie moved off behind the POWs. The nattering of the two MPs faded out behind. The prisoners moved along in glum silence all the way to the beach where they were loaded aboard a small landing craft.

A tired looking sergeant explained. “They'll be transferred to one a them cross-Channel ferries and hauled over to England. Then they put 'em on a ship an' send 'em to America.” He spat into the sand. “I hope one a their own subs sinks 'em.”

As they walked away, Donnie glanced back. “That feller talked awful bad about them Germans. I mean, those guys are prisoners now. What's his beef?”

Old Guy stopped and pointed. The sergeant had a working party of prisoners loading another landing craft with ungainly shapes in blood-stained mattress covers. Row upon row of bodies lay on the sand. Men moved among them, examining tags, writing on clipboards.

Donnie didn't say anything else until they reached the top of the hill above the beach. He stopped and surveyed the massive jam of men and equipment below. “Can we go back to carrying messages? I don't wanna shoot nobody else, unless I have to. I don't wanna guard no more prisoners, either.”

“Neither do I. Come on.” Old Guy examined a sheet of plywood covered with crude signs. “I think the battalion CP is up this way.” Five minutes later they caught a ride on a weapons carrier.

“Damn,” moaned Major Dude. “I thought you clowns were gone for good. My luck ain't in.”

Old Guy shrugged and shook his head. “We figured you'd be glad to see us, Major. Or have we been replaced? I can always go back to Supply and Donnie is experienced at digging latrines.”

“Hey!” cried Donnie. “I don't wanna dig no more holes.”

“Well, you're in luck,” said Dude. “You haven't been replaced. In fact, I'm short of messengers. For instance, Corps command is crying for guys like you to carry dispatches. Sending everything by radio is a pain in the ass. The commo network is maxed out.”

“You got more motorcycles for us, sir?” asked Old Guy. “If not, we could always go down and get our old ones back. I know where they are -- or where they were a few days ago.”

“Right. I should send you down there so you can get lost for another week or two. No way. I got a radio jeep you can have. You should be happy about that. More room for booze and souvenirs.”

“Well,” said Old Guy, “the French do press a lot of wine on us, sir. But any Nazi weapons, like Lugers and MG-42s are always turned in -- as regulations require.”

“I'm sure they are.” Dude leaned back and put his feet on the table he was using as a desk. “Speaking of souvenirs, I'd like to acquire one of those Lugers. What's the going rate?”

“I've heard rumors of Lugers going for $500 each -- in England.”

“That's in England,” said the Major. “You can only get maybe $200 here.” He smiled. “If I had a Luger I might feel up to signing leave papers for a couple messengers to take a few days leave -- in England. The First Sergeant wants a PPK. If he had one, I think he'd be happy to have a clerk type up such papers.”

Old Guy grinned. “Consider it done, sir. Where are you sending us?”

Dude thumped his feet to the floor and sorted through the mess on his desk. “Here it is.” He handed Old Guy a large envelope. “Don't lose this. It's your orders. The papers for the jeep are in there as well as blank trip tickets with my signature.”

“That ought to keep us out of trouble, sir.”

“Why do I feel like I'm handing you a license to steal?”

“Well . . .” Old Guy hesitated. “You are, sir. But I -- Donnie and I promise not to abuse your trust.”

“Right.” Dude waved them away. “Don't get caught with anything you can't explain.”

Outside they found the First Sergeant leaning against a radio equipped jeep. He smiled. “I'd like a PPK, preferably one issued to the SS.”

“Whatever could he be talking about, Donnie?”

“I dunno, man. Ever since the Major handed you them orders I been lost.”

Old Guy walked around the little vehicle. “One jeep with radio and mounted .30 caliber machine gun. Did you pack us a lunch, First Sergeant?”

“I'm sure you're capable of handling your own rationing.” The First Sergeant handed over a small bound notebook and patted the radio. “Don't lose the code book. You'll need a new one in six days. Try to check in on the battalion net at least once a day.”

“Depending on where Corps sends us, that may not be possible,” said Old Guy.

“You can always get a short message relayed by Corps.” The First Sergeant turned to go. “Don't get yourself killed. I really want that PPK.”

Old Guy laughed. “See you in the funny papers, First Sergeant.”

Donnie climbed in behind the wheel. “I'd rather have my Harley. Where we goin' first?”

“Supply, then Corps headquarters.” Old Guy swung the machine gun down and checked the feed mechanism. Then he inspected the two carbines. One was clipped to the dash, one occupied a sheath beside his right knee. “Let's get out of here -- before the Major has an attack of common sense and tosses us back in the stockade.”

“Why?” Donnie started the jeep and put it in gear. “We ain't done nothin'.”

“We ain't done nothing -- yet. I suspect we won't get very far without breaking a few rules.”

“Well that ain't nothing new. I ain't seen a regulation yet you haven't figgered a way around.”

“Thank you, Donnie, for recognizing my inborn talents. You don't have to kneel. A simple kissing of my hand will suffice. Now head for the Supply tent. We need some stuff.”

“I ain't kneelin'. Just sittin' right here. And I ain't kissin' your hand. I ain't no sissy.”

“Not until you see boobs,” said Old Guy. “Or a woman carrying melons.”

“Dammit! Can't you forget that? It only happened once. I can usually tell melons from boobs.”


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Souvenir Hunt

Old Guy spent an hour with his old pal, Supply Sergeant Casimir “Red” Cooper. Red looked like a Turk, spoke with a slight Aussie accent, and claimed to be from a place called Tasmania. Torpedoed in the Atlantic in 1942, he was the only survivor off a Panamanian freighter. Picked up by an American destroyer, he soon found himself in England with no papers. Being a subject of the Crown or at least claiming to be such, Red faced being dragged into the British Army and sent to North Africa, where he was told he might be able to join an Aussie unit.

Seeing how the land lay, he suddenly remembered that his mother was American. The American Army was only too happy to swear him in while an investigation into his claims was made. Within a few months he wound up in North Africa as a squad leader in an American infantry unit. The nearest Australian forces were a thousand miles away, in Libya. Wounded and captured in Kasserine, he was turned loose during the subsequent German withdrawal and picked up by an American armored unit.

While recovering from his wounds in England, Red began working in the hospital supply room, mostly because he gained access to a large supply of medicinal whiskey. He became the main supplier of whiskey to the enlisted men of a nearby Army Air Field. When certified ready for duty and transferred to an infantry regiment, he managed to get assigned to Supply. His naturally larcenous tendencies were enhanced as he learned his trade from a long-service master sergeant. The secret of success in Supply, he discovered, was to make sure his unit had a full complement of vehicles, equipment, and supplies, even if that meant stealing such articles in the dead of night.

Regimental officers were strangely blind to vehicles in excess of the TO&E requirements. When thefts of such items as booze, food, clothing, and hospital cots were reported, even the Colonel was prepared to swear that none of the stuff could be found in the regiment, despite the fact that he was sleeping on one of the aforementioned cots. It was easier on his back than a GI cot.

Also easy on the Colonel's back were the services of a young English girl Red hired as a maid. By the time June, 1944, rolled around, Red was a staff sergeant and a master at conjuring supplies and goodies for the regiment. Of the officers, only a captain named Spectre ever questioned the sources of items procured by the Supply sergeant. He made trouble and threatened in investigation, but was shot in the butt shortly after the Invasion began. Red's little empire returned to normal.

“So what you got for me this time?” he asked when Old Guy ambled in.

“I'm buying some trade goods. All the stuff I picked up since D-day is sitting on a Harley in some woods near Periers. I might be able to recover it later. Meanwhile, Donnie and I have a jeep and we're back in business as messengers. If we hook a trailer to it, we can pack a bunch of goodies.”

Red turned to a PFC clerk. “Murray, dammit lad. Get the sergeant and his bloody driver some coffee.”

“Got any cream?” asked Donnie. “I like cream in mine. Black coffee gives me a sick tummy.”

“Give the man some cream,” ordered Red. He smiled at Donnie. “You're in luck. We acquired a couple cows. Had a bloody awful time finding a bloke who could milk them. Finally found a B-25 tail gunner. Bailed out of a crippled bomber and landed right outside my bleedin' tent. Nice guy. Afraid to fly. Hates guns. Likes cows. Round peg in a round hole, mate. Works every time.”

When Old Guy and Donnie pulled out they were towing a ¼-ton trailer loaded with the usual rations and ammo, plus a variety of trade goods -- primarily booze. Red knew he was taking a risk in sending merchandise into the battle area, but Old Guy had a talent for survival. Infantrymen with shot-torn German flags, Lugers, and other souvenirs rear echelon types lusted after found it difficult to get such items to their customers. Old Guy had often functioned as the essential go-between for Red back in England. With any luck he'd be back in a couple weeks with a load of profitable gear. If the Krauts got him -- well, tough luck, mate. Red had other field reps.

At Corps, they picked up bags and boxes of crap Higher-Higher considered necessary for subordinate units. In fact, combat units used most of the paperwork as butt-wipe and to start fires.

For the next week, Old Guy and Donnie shuttled back and forth between Corps HQ and various units in the field. They seldom had radio contact with their own CP until the battalion moved south to St. Lo. Red received a load consisting of half a dozen MP-40 submachine guns, two MG-42s, several Nazi flags, and a duffle bag stuffed with caps and uniform jackets. Caps with SS insignia were especially hot items. Old Guy presented Major Dude and the First Sergeant with pistols complete with holsters. He stored a round dozen Lugers at Supply, to be collected later.

On August 6th the intrepid duo delivered mail and messages to one of their own regiments, encamped on a hill northwest of Juvigny.

“Who's got Bravo company?” asked Old Guy.

The Ops sergeant looked up from a letter. “That Marine. Gunny. You know him?”

“Yeah. Where are they?” Old Guy had a bottle of whiskey he intended to deliver to Gunny -- if he wasn't dead and if he could be found. So far they hadn't seen anything of Bravo company.

“Um . . .” The sergeant walked to an acetate covered map. “Here. About two miles east of us -- on a hill above Bellefontaine. They're set up in an old Roman ruin. I was over there this morning. There's a farm road -- more like a trail -- that will lead you right to it. You won't have any problem getting there in a jeep. Can't miss it.”

Old Guy winced as the sergeant spoke those last three words. He had a long history of not finding places he'd been assured couldn't be missed. Still, there was plenty of daylight left and Bravo might have some goods they'd like to sell. “Okay. We'll run up there. Probably spend the night.”

“If I can get 'em on the radio, which I probably can't, I'll tell 'em to expect you.”

“You got any rations or ammo we can take to them? Since we're headed that way.”

“Hell if I know. Ask those thieves over at Supply.”

The arch-criminals in Supply occupied a couple tents not far down the hill. A master sergeant stood at the entrance to an ancient barn watching three men unloading a truck.

“You know this guy?” asked Donnie.

“I don't think so,” replied Old Guy. “But I know the type.”

Donnie managed a weak laugh. He was dead tired and had been constantly on edge for over a week. Once they'd been caught in an artillery barrage and a couple other times somebody had shot at them -- and missed. He was about ready to go back to digging latrines. His sense of humor hadn't deserted him completely. “What type is that? Ex-con?”

“Bite your tongue.” Old Guy grinned. “There are no convictions on my record.”

The Supply sergeant allowed as how Bravo company could probably use whatever supplies Old Guy carried to them, but he had a full re-supply scheduled for tomorrow, so why bother?

Old Guy walked back to the jeep and grabbed a musette bag full of wine bottles. He placed the bag atop a pile of rifle ammunition. “Maybe you can find a home for this stuff. Some of it ain't bad.”

“I got some guys who don't care how bad it is,” said the sergeant. “No whiskey?”

“All out. I had to give my last bottle to the Ops sergeant.” He had at least ten bottles of whiskey buried under a couple cases of C-rations, but the booze was to be traded for high-class souvenirs, not for a few cases of rations and ammo.

The supply sergeant knew a lie when he heard one, but he really did have a couple officers who liked their booze enough not to quibble over unimportant things like quality and price. “Take what you can carry. They'll want belted ammunition. Those crazy bastards go through it like nobody's business.”

A few minutes later Donnie put the jeep in gear and headed for the bottom of the hill and the farm track leading to Bravo's position. Naturally, they found not one, but three different trails leading generally east. One appeared to lead toward a town Old Guy assumed was Juvigny.

“Which way?” asked Donnie.

“Take the middle one. If it ain't right, we'll know soon enough.”

It wasn't the right trail, which they discovered by way of encountering an outpost of another regiment.

A corporal shrugged when asked about Bravo. “Never heard of 'em. There's somebody in an old ruin about a quarter mile below us, but you can't head down that way from here. The goddamn Germans mined the slope an' nobody's had time to clear it.”

It was almost dark by the time they got back to the right trail and completed a bumpy journey to Bravo's position. The buck sergeant charged with rear security kept a Thompson trained on them until he got the correct response to his challenge. “What the hell are you doing? The fucken Krauts are set up just down the goddamn hill.” Then he saw the boxes of ammunition and rations. “Pass, friend. The L-T is inside.” He directed them toward a space between heaps of rubble. Inside Old Guy could see the remains of a tiled atrium complete with what might have been a fountain.

“History, Donnie. Some Roman built this place. It was probably pretty nice.”

“Romans, eh? What the hell were they doing here? Looking for women?”

“Maybe. They had a habit of collecting local females wherever they went.”

“Well, they were a bunch of dumb bunnies then. Only ugly women live in the country. All the good looking ones are in town. They shoulda stayed in Rome.”

Old Guy stepped out of the jeep. “Sometimes you amaze me, Donnie. Your grasp of historical truth is beyond argument.”

“Well -- thanks. I think.”

“For chrissake, look what the cat dragged in.” Gunny walked out of the ruin and stopped. He ignored Old Guy's greeting. “Go back where you came from, you clowns. This ain't a damned vacation spot. We're fresh out of everything but Krauts.”

“Listen to that,” lamented Old Guy. “We drive all over France with a load of ammo and food for his unit and all he can do is bitch.”

Gunny stepped closer. “That's for us?”

“The rations and ammunition,” explained Old Guy. “Not our trade goods.” He pulled out a gas mask bag and handed it over. “This is for you. I found it at St. Lo in some German colonel's quarters.”

“Good God!” Gunny opened the bag, then closed it. “This is good stuff.”

“Well,” said Old Guy. “Us rear area bastards sometimes take time out to think of the fighting forces.”

“Yeah. Right. Sergeant Wheeler! Get a detail and unload whatever this old fart tells you is ours. Have the platoons send someone in to collect the stuff.” Gunny spotted a mail bag. “That ours, too?”

“Yeah.” Old Guy handed the bag to Wheeler. “You really short of rations and ammo?”

“Shit, yes. And the Germans have been moving a lot of armor around -- down in Bellefontaine. Regiment thinks they're preparing to bug out. I ain't so sure.”

Old Guy opened his map. “Hell, that's just a half mile away.”

“Closer than that. There are houses within two hundred yards of this old place.” Gunny pointed toward the ridge above. “3rd of the 117th is up there in a position the Krauts were set up in a few days ago. They got mortars. And the slope between us is mined. I think the Germans are likely to move west, below us. Tanks, especially. They'll want to charge hard and fast.”

“Yeah, but they'll hit you with infantry. Can you hold here? Who are you facing?”

Gunny shrugged. “With mortar support and that ammo you brought -- maybe. Below us is the 2nd Panzer Division. 1St SS Panzer is off to the right. We could see either -- or both. If you want to get out of here, now is the time. By morning it will be too late.”

“Are you crazy? It's getting dark and God Himself doesn't know where all the mines are laid. Besides, guards get trigger happy at night. No thanks. We'll stay with you. I have faith in the Corps.”

“So do I.” Gunny looked around and lowered his voice. “We're down to half strength and everyone is run off their feet and short of sleep. But the ones I have left are all good. Good as any Marine. If this place can be held, they'll do it.”

“Jeez, Gunny. You can tell me things like that, but don't ever mention it back at Quantico. They'll drum you out of the Corps.”

“I'm not likely to see Quantico soon. If ever.”

“You're not a good insurance risk, that's for sure.” Old Guy sighed. “Captain Spectre wanted to put me in Leavenworth. A nice dry cell sounds pretty good right now.”

“Shit. Two weeks after you got there you'd be running everything in the place.”

“Maybe. But I'd rather not find out.”

“Come on. Let's break out some Cs and have a taste of this bottle.”

Old Guy spotted Donnie and made a come-on gesture. “Give that thirty to Wheeler and bring a case of C-rations. We're going to drink up Gunny's booze.”

Gunny snorted. “I said a taste, you old bastard.”


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It's not the funny cigarettes or the little red and black pills that make Donnie what he is. He's from another planet and it ain't Krypton.

Actually, like Fick, Donnie spends a lot of time wandering the foul-smelling back alleys of his own mind looking for someone he knows. Fick's search is hopeless, but Donnie does wander into one of many cigarette and booze smelling joints contained in his imagination and -- Lo! -- there he is, ogling the pole dancers. And there he sits, swilling cheap beer and stuffing dollar bills between enormous boobs.

He's happy. Don't disturb his fantasy. Buried inside that slavering psyche is the steel-trap mind of a born Evil Overlord.

Okay. Tour's over. Let's move on out of here. Quietly. I'll have the maintenance staff deliver another wheelbarrow load of dollar bills.

May he never run out.


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Night Moves

Old Guy jerked awake and reached for his pistol. A muddy boot pinned it.

“I thought that would be your first reaction.” Gunny leaned down. “Get up. Krauts are on the move.”

Company CP was a hole dug just inside the southeast corner of the ruin. No light escaped the conical canvas rain fly covering the hole. When Old Guy slipped through the canvas Gunny and a burly man wearing First Sergeant stripes were examining a map. A hissing gas lantern provided the only light.

Gunny turned the map so Old Guy could see it. “Infantry and tanks rolled out of Bellefontaine a few minutes ago. They're headed west on a couple farm roads.”

“Just like you figured,” said Old Guy. “Does Regiment know?”

The First Sergeant looked at a soldier crouched beside a radio set on a stand. “Any luck, Brewster?”

“I got through long enough to report heavy stuff movin' toward their position, but never got no response and all I got now is this crap.” He turned a volume knob. The speaker emitted a stream of crackling and whistling noises. “That's on every frequency. The bastards are jamming us.”

“Paisley just came in from an outpost we got set up about fifty yards down slope.” Gunny paused. “You two know each other?”

First Sergeant Paisley extended a hand. “I think so. But the last time I saw Old Guy was in '41. Down in New Guinea, if I remember right.” He did not mention that the man he recalled from Port Moresby was wearing captain's bars and he was being unloaded from a PBY. He was also leaking a fair quantity of blood at the time.

“I thought that ugly face looked familiar,” replied Old Guy. He knew immediately that Paisley hadn't mentioned all he remembered of the incident. “I don't think we were introduced at the time. I know I'd remember a tough looking sergeant named Paisley.”

“I was a corporal at the time.” The First Sergeant shook his head. “We were flown out to Australia in the same beat-up C-47. I didn't see you after that.”

Old Guy shrugged and glanced at the map. “I suppose there's no wire laid back to Regiment? What about up the hill to the 117th?”

“We got wire to the 117th,” said Brewster. “Call sign, Cadillac. They was relaying stuff for us, but their operator told me that line is out.”

Wheeler slid through the canvas opening accompanied by another staff sergeant, a buck sergeant with hand-drawn stripes decorating his field jacket, and a corporal. “Gather round,” said Gunny. “Here's what Paisley and I worked out.”

The corporal touched Old Guy's arm. “I got yer buddy diggin' in with my platoon.”

“He ain't my buddy,” said Old Guy with a chuckle. “More like a cross to bear. But he's good at digging holes.”

“You met Wheeler outside,” said Gunny. “He has Fourth Platoon. Staff Sergeant Wilson has First and Sergeant Pasco has Second. You guys probably all know Old Guy. He's been kicking recruits around since Valley Forge.”

Old Guy nodded a greeting. “Where do you want Donnie and I?”

“You'll be in the middle of the east side of this old ruin,” said Gunny. “With SERGEANT Ortega's platoon. I told him to sew or paint on some stripes yesterday but the disobedient sonofabitch ain't done it yet.” The men all laughed. Evidently the issue of Ortega's stripes was an old joke.

“No sense markin' up a good field jacket with stripes I won't have for long.” Ortega grinned. “I been a sergeant twice already.”

“So lay off the booze when we're in the rear,” chided Paisley.

Ortega shrugged. “Good idea, First Sergeant. I just gotta figger a way to do it.”

Gunny resumed his briefing. “Okay. Third platoon has the east side. First and Second will be on the north. That's where we'll get hit first, if they come at us at all. Position one thirty in the middle and one to the left. Paisley will be at the northeast corner with the fifty. Fourth platoon will be split between the west and north sides.” He looked at Wheeler. “Put your thirty on the west side. Some Krauts might work around that way.”

The staff sergeant nodded. “Where will you be, sir?”

“With the Second. Brewster will hold down the CP along with my clerk. Where the hell is Jenkins?”

“I got him hauling ammo,” said Paisley.

“Good. Maybe he'll run off some of his baby fat.” Again the men chuckled. Old Guy smiled inwardly. The clerk's youth and physical stature must be another bit of company humor.

“Get to your platoons,” said Gunny. “I'll be around.” As the others filed out, he beckoned Old Guy. “Come with me. We'll check on Donnie, then visit the northern outpost. I'm gonna pull those guys back in, but I want to take a look at what the Germans are up to first.” He nodded to Paisley. “Bring in the other outposts. We know where the goddamn Krauts are and it will be daylight in an hour.”

“On my way, sir.” Paisley led the way out. Brewster leaned over the radio, rotating the tuning dial. After a couple minutes he cursed in frustration, picked up his entrenching tool and started digging the CP hole deeper.

Two riflemen occupied the outpost, a shallow depression in the rocky soil. A tilted rock slab provided cover on the downhill side.

“Cain't see shit in this mist,L-T,” whispered one of the men. He pointed toward the sound of truck engines. “This crap come up in the last hour or so. Cain't see the stars now. Fucken Air Corps ain't gonna be flyin' this mornin'”

Gunny gazed upward. “Christ. That's all we need.”

Old Guy crawled up beside the rock slab and focused his binoculars on the German column, visible only as shadows in the mist. “Trucks. I counted five. Troops. I don't hear any tracked vehicles.”

“We seen at least thirty when the bastards first started moving,” said the second rifleman. “Tanks, half-tracks loaded with soldiers, and some fuel trucks. After that is was mostly a mix of smaller rigs and trucks. Lotsa men on foot. Moving quick.”

“They would be,” said Gunny. “Probably want to be in assault positions before dawn. No way they could have figured on this fog.”

“They must be behind schedule,” said Old Guy. “But with fog coming up, it may not matter.” He swung his glasses to the right. “What's this? Troops in marching order. Closer than the others.”

The four men observed the new enemy column for several minutes. “I think they're moving parallel to the main column,” said Gunny. “Not headed for us.”

“I wonder,” mused Old Guy. He examined the terrain in front of the closer German column. “Has anyone checked the fields below for mines?” The area he referred to contained several irregularly shaped fields interspersed with scattered trees and brush.

Even as he spoke a Kubelwagen bounced past the marching men and sped westward along a rough farm track. As it entered one of the fields the vehicle suddenly vanished in a bright orange flash. The shattered chassis tumbled across the field shedding parts and bodies. The sound of the explosion was still echoing across the slope when the rolling wreckage touched off another mine.

“Jesus!” hissed Gunny. “I guess they know the area is mined now!”

The troops below halted and moved into a defensive posture. Several men ran forward to the edge of the field and halted. Two spent a moment examining the smoking wreckage with field glasses, then trotted back to the main body. Soon the troops started moving again.

Old Guy saw the formation turn half-left and begin angling across the slope. “Shit. They're coming up this way.”

“Back to the company,” ordered Gunny. “Keep low. Maybe they won't come up this far.”

Crouching, the men worked their way up to the ruined villa. Paisley watched as they slipped over the crumbling exterior wall. “What's up?”

“The fucken Krauts are headed this way,” said Gunny. “We all set?”

“Pretty much, sir. Donnie's got their gun set up. Brewster is still digging.”

“Okay. Tell Brewster to knock it off and get on the wire to Cadillac. I want them ready to fire those north side concentrations I called in last night. I'll be here with Second Platoon until those bastards either go by or -- whatever.”

“Right.” Paisley cranked his field phone and passed the word to the CP. Old Guy squatted beside Gunny and peered into the mist. The Germans couldn't be seen. “Where did you get the fifty?”

“Off half-track an eighty-eight blew all to hell. The gun was intact. We found the tripod mount about fifty feet away hanging in a tree. They must have been carrying it in the back. Since then we've scavenged blown up tanks and tracks for ammo. Got a couple extra barrels, too.”

“I mighta known you'd figure out a way to get some extra firepower. You don't have a tank hidden somewhere, do you?”

“No. We got a mortar, but no ammo. Shot it all up a couple days ago.”

“Can't have everything, I guess.” Old Guy stood up. “You know where I'll be.”

“Tell Donnie if he passes out I'll shoot him.”

“He won't. It's boobs he has a problem with.”

“Boobs. I wouldn't mind snuggling up to a pretty little French gal right now.”

Old Guy laughed. “I know Marines do a lot of crazy stuff, but this ain't the time for that.”

“I reckon not. Keep your head down. God knows what I'd do for decent booze if you got killed.”

“You're a Marine. Good booze is anything better than paint thinner to you guys. You won't have any trouble finding something to drink.”

“Go on, before I shoot you myself.” Gunny turned and examined the slope below. “I can hear the bastards but they ain't in sight yet.” He glanced up. “It's getting lighter.”

“I cain't see 'em neither,” said the man to his left. “But I kin hear 'em comin' through the brush. Dumb shits. Make'n more noise than a passel of damn revenoors huntin' fer mah Daddy's still.” He spat to one side. “An' we wuz waitin' fer 'em jest like this.”

“Did you shoot any of them?” asked Gunny.

“Nah. They wandered inta the swamp an' got lost. Sheriff had ta go git 'em out. I heerd a couple of 'em get et by gators. Don't know fer sure.”

Gunny saw two German infantrymen step into view and stop. They stared up at the ruin for a few seconds, then started forward again. More soldiers walked out of the mist.

“They done missed the swamp, L-T.”

Paisley still had the field phone in his hand. “Tell Cadillac to fire concentration Bravo in one minute,” whispered Gunny. He glanced around. “Everybody hold your fire. Pass the word.”

A German stumbled and fell in a heap. His rifle clattered over the rocky ground. A burst of laughter was quickly stifled by a guttural command.

“Second Platoon,” called Gunny, keeping his voice low. “Fire when I do.” He pointed at Paisley, now squatting behind the heavy machine gun. “Shoot low.” The First Sergeant nodded.

“Y'all gonna shake hands with 'em afore you shoots?” murmured the man who didn't like revenuers.

“They can shake hands with the devil,” replied Gunny. He rested his Thompson on the villa wall and squeezed the trigger.


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“Cease fire!” cried Gunny. The shooting slowly died away as word passed along the wall. “First Sergeant, turn you gun over to Jenkins.” He drew Paisley to one side. “Check with Ortega and Wheeler. I don't want anyone shooting unless they have a clear target.”

“Right. Do you want to make any changes?”

“Soon. First let's see what the Krauts do.” Paisley headed for Third Platoon and Gunny beckoned Sergeant Pasco closer. “Sharpshooters only. We've got to conserve ammo. Tell Wilson.”

“Yes, sir.”

Gunny picked up the field phone. “Brewster, tell Cadillac to fire concentration Bravo Two, but just three or four rounds a minute. I want to keep their heads down.”

“Will do, sir. Cadillac told me half their mortars are moving east. They're being hit from that other town down there -- Barthelemy -- St. Barthelemy.”

“Okay. Anything else?”

“No, sir, except I don't think Cadillac is in contact with anybody but us. Their wire guy was complaining about not being able to contact Thunder.”

“That's not good.” Thunder was the 117th artillery unit. “We might need some arty ourselves.”

“Is Jenkins with you, sir? I was hoping he handle some of the commo work.”

“He's on the fifty. You're dug in deep enough.” Gunny laughed and hung up.

Paisley was back. “They have the word, L-T. No casualties in Third or Fourth.”

“Nothing in First and Second but a few cuts and bruises from rock chips.”

The First Sergeant glanced over the wall. Four bodies were visible. One seemed to be moving. “We hurt 'em. You think they'll hit us again? It's coming on daylight.”

Gunny checked the time, then stared into the drifting mist. It was definitely lighter now, but the fog was thick enough to mute the morning sunshine. “I wouldn't. I'd leave a couple squads to keep us bottled up and move on. They have bigger fish to fry.” He sighed. “But the unit we just hit is going to be out for blood. Depends on their commander. If he keeps his head, they'll move on toward whatever objective they have assigned.”

The German commander was beyond keeping his head because one of Paisley's fifty caliber rounds had blown most of it off his shoulders and splattered it into a scrub pine tree. Leutnant Fischer, squatting a few meters from his dead Hauptmann had no idea how to proceed.

“Where's Oberleutnant Frost?” The Oberleutnant next in seniority after the Hauptmann had been riding in the Kubelwagen still burning in the field below. Frost, third in seniority, was now in command.

Oberfeldwebel Huber, a scarred veteran of North Africa and the East Front loomed out of the mist. He knelt beside the Leutnant. “No one has seen Oberleutnant Frost since we started up this verdammt hill. What are your orders, sir?”

“But Frost . . .” Fischer stifled his protest and stood up. He wiped his hands on his tunic. “I don't have -- our orders -- no one told me -- I mean . . .” His voice trailed off. He'd been more than a little hungover during the mission briefing. If he could only remember . . . “The radio. Contact Regiment for orders.”

A soldier carrying a backpack radio squatted nearby. He shook his head. “Kaput, Leutnant. Our own jamming, I think.”

“We lost seventeen men to those schweinhund Americans!” snarled a Feldwebel. “At least nine are dead! We must make them pay for that!”

“Ja.” Fischer could feel himself losing control. “I -- ah -- suppose we must -- we can't leave a pocket of enemy troops behind. Can we?” He'd only been with the company for a month and they'd spent most of that time dodging enemy aircraft as their division moved forward, piecemeal.

Obergefreiter Milch handed Fischer a battered dispatch case. “Hauptmann Danzik's, sir.”

“Ah -- ja.” The Leutnant accepted the case and started to open it. A barely muffled sigh stopped him. Oberfeldwebel Huber got to his feet, obviously waiting for orders. Now was not the time to be pissing around with the dead commander's case.

Huber prompted him. “Shall I organize the men for an assault, sir?”

“Ja. Ja, an assault.” The memory of heavy machine gun bullets smashing into rocks, splitting trees, and shredding Hauptmann Danzik's skull rose up in Fischer's mind. “But not a frontal attack -- ah -- not like before.”

“Shall we circle to the left and send one squad up the middle to maintain fire pressure, sir?”

Fischer's mind cleared. “A circle to the left, Oberfeldwebel. Make it so.” He glanced at his watch. “We move out in five minutes.”

“Five minutes! Jawohl!” Several felds faded into the mist, shouting hoarse commands.

The Leutnant handed the case back to Milch. “Hang on to this. Stay with me. I may need you to run messages. And Oberleutnant Frost may show up. He's senior.”

“Jawohl, Herr Leutnant.” Privately Milch figured they'd seen the last of that boasting ass, Frost. The man was probably hanging around the senior officers at Regiment.

Oberleutnant Frost, in fact, was crouched in a root cellar two kilometers east of his company. He wasn't further away because he hadn't recovered enough strength to run any more. Late the next afternoon he'd be shot along with four other deserters. Their bodies were dumped in a crater made by an Allied bomb and left for the worms.

“We didn't see any Krauts on this side,” said Old Guy. He and Donnie stood in a deep hole. A narrow break in the villa wall served as a portal for their machine gun.

Gunny knelt beside their position. “You sure this hole is deep enough? Much further and you'd have to learn Chinese.”

Old Guy chuckled. “Donnie's an artist with a shovel.”

“Keep your eyes open. I think the Germans are going to try something different.”

Old Guy agreed. “That fifty is what they're afraid of. They should be hitting us with mortars or artillery. Maybe their army is as screwed up as ours.”

“No army could be that screwed up,” said Donnie.

“Well, the ball is in their court,” said Gunny. “I can't pull back and an attack would be blind.”

“And dumb,” added Old Guy. “You're pretty well dug in here. They'll play hell digging us out.”

Gunny laughed. “Is that a military maxim or are you just whistling in the dark?”

“Who knows? Did you just stop by to make sure we were awake?”

“No. I want to put the fifty in here and move you two over by the CP. You can take cover there. You'll be my reserve. I'm putting all of Fourth Platoon on the south wall and moving First over to the west. Ortega will keep his thirty on the southeast corner. Paisley has a BAR team ready to go in where the fifty was, but he won't move 'em up until an attack develops.”

Old Guy nodded. “Yeah. The Krauts are liable to hit that position with a mortar or something when they start the music.”

Jenkins stalked into view carrying the fifty caliber gun. “Ain't you got them deadbeats moved out yet, L-T? This damned gun is heavy.”

“Donnie didn't get it at first,” said Gunny. “I had to draw pictures.”

“Jeez,” said Jenkins, “I never seen nobody dig a hole that deep, except for Brewster.”

Old Guy climbed out of the oversize foxhole. Donnie handed up the light machine gun and several boxes of ammo. While Old Guy lugged the gun over to the CP, Donnie gathered their weapons and grenades. “Can I dig the CP a little deeper?”

“I'm sure Brewster has it so deep you'll break your neck getting in,” replied Gunny.

Jenkins dropped into the hole and began setting up the fifty's tripod. “I think him and Brewster got moles in their backgrounds.”

Two mortar rounds impacted well to the north of the villa. A third, fainter thump, alerted Bravo Company. “Panzerfaust!” shouted Gunny as he dropped to his belly.

Wham! Dust and smoke filled the air. Rocks bounced across the ruined courtyard. “Medic!”

Gunny swore and began crawling toward the northeast corner. Ortega grabbed his boot. “Wait a minute, L-T! They may do that --” He words were cut off by a second thump and blast. “-- again.”

Jenkins grabbed his assistant. “Get down here. Help me get this damn gun set up.”

Rifle bullets ripped into the north wall. A machine gun stuttered, adding to the cacophony. Ortega slid into position a few feet from Jenkins' gun. “That's just noise. Them bastards are making an end run.”

“I'm going to the CP,” replied Gunny. “Keep your head down.”

“No time for that shit,” said Ortega. “Here the bastards come.”

The thirty on the southeast corner chattered. Rifles cracked. Gunny slid into the CP. “Brewster! Get on the horn to Cadillac. Have 'em fire concentration Charlie.”

“I got 'em on the line, L-T. Charlie it is.”

Seconds later the chatter of the thirty caliber machine gun was joined by the staccato rap of a BAR. A heartbeat after that the fifty began thumping. The Germans responded with at least two machine guns. Rifle and automatic weapon fire blended into an uneven roar. Gunny heard several calls for a medic.

“Goddamn it, Brewster! Where are those mortars?”

No sooner were the words out of his mouth than a sheaf of mortar bombs landed in the area east of the ruined villa. Screams cut through the ragged blasts. Firing dropped off. Gunny grinned ferociously at Old Guy. “That oughta fuck up their day. Brewster, tell Cadillac to keep it up.” The commo man had a field phone clamped to his ear.

“Ortega is calling for a correction, sir.”

“Patch him through to Cadillac. I'm going out.”

“I'll come along,” said Old Guy.

The two men slipped out of the CP dugout and worked their way along the villa wall to Orteg's position. The sergeant sat with his back to a heap of rubble, talking on the field phone. Paisley ran crouching across a corner of the courtyard and crashed down behind a broken pillar.

“Clark's dead,” he reported. “I put Bianchi in to help Cruz with the BAR. Pasco and a couple of his men are wounded. Not bad.”

Ortega put the field phone down. “I got one dead. Bergman. Couple wounded.”

“Damn.” Gunny shook off a sudden darkness in his soul. He had a company to run. “Christ knows we'll miss 'em. I think we got the sonsabitches stopped -- for now.”

“They'll try again,” predicted Paisley. “The bastards are out for blood now. I don't know why they haven't hit us with mortars.”

“Shit,” hissed Ortega. “Don't even say that word. Our overhead cover ain't for squat.”

Firing slowed to an occasional rifle shot. “Okay,” said Gunny. “Let's see what needs doing. Paisley, see what the platoons need for ammo. Old Guy and I will look for a spot for that thirty of his.”

Old Guy held up a hand. “How's this for an idea? Put the thirty in where your BAR is and give me the BAR team plus a couple men. I'll dig in with them in the courtyard -- probably near that wrecked fountain or whatever it was. We can be your reaction force.”

Gunny hesitated only a moment. “Good idea. The CP ain't a good spot for a reserve.”

“I'll get Donnie and look for a good spot,” said Old Guy.

“Right. I'll check on the wounded and make a circuit of the perimeter.”

“Keep your head down and don't try any Marine heroics. The Army would shit tacks if they had to decorate a Marine for actions occurring when he was commanding an Army company.”

Gunny shook his head. “Your mind is bizarre, you know that?”

Bizarre? Where in hell did you learn that word? Marines don't say 'bizarre'.”

This Marine does. Go get Donnie and set him to digging.”

Aye, aye, skipper. I hear and obey.”

Scheisse,” muttered Leutnant Fischer. He lay flat on his belly behind a large boulder. The body of Oberfeldwebel Huber sprawled on top of the blood-slicked rock. Other men lay nearby. At least one wept, either from the pain of wounds or in plain fear. Another mortar round exploded. Fischer hugged the ground, trying to work his way into the dirt. Huber's body slid to the ground, dead flesh flayed by another blast of shrapnel.

Himmel,” moaned Fischer. “Where is our Gott Verdammt artillery?” As the American mortar fire slacked off, the answer oozed into his nearly paralyzed brain. It was his job to call for support. His fear was of no consequence to the imperatives of war. “Scheisse. Move your ass before an American blows it off.”

He rolled to a sitting position and put his back to the rock, still muttering. Extracting a map from his tunic pocket, he looked around for the radioman. “Niemeyer! Get up here!”

The radioman began crawling toward the Leutnant. Another man left the cover of a stone shed and began working his way across the torn ground. He made it to the boulder just as Niemeyer arrived. The three men huddled in the lee of the blood-smeared stone.

Try the verdammt radio,” ordered Fischer.

The other man drew a deep breath and began a report. “Six dead that I know of, Leutnant. Wounded, I don't know how many. One of the medics is dead. What are your orders?”

Scheisse, Klein, while I was pissing my pants you must have been walking around like a banker on a verdammt holiday.”

Not walking, sir. Crawling. Running. I pissed my pants when that fucking heavy machine gun opened up. The mortars aren't so bad if you stay low.”

I was staying verdammt low.” Fischer turned back to the radioman. “Any luck?”

Nein. The jamming -- it's impossible.”

All right.” The Leutnant studied his map. Mortar rounds exploded at random intervals. Rifle fire bridged the lulls. Between explosions Fischer noticed men moving, regrouping. He felt a surge of confidence. With men such as these, he could do anything. He wrote a set of coordinates in his notebook, tore the page out, and handed it to Niemeyer. “Take this back to the assembly area. Find someone who can get us fire support. Mortars, artillery, tanks. Whatever.”

Jawohl, Herr Leutnant.” Neimeyer started to crawl away. Fischer stopped him. “Leave the verdammt radio. You'll go faster without it. Take care.”

Klein handed the Leutnant a canteen. “What now, sir?”

The canteen contained cognac. Fischer nearly choked on his first swallow. “Sheisse, Klein. That's the worst cognac I've ever tasted.” He took another drink. “But it grows on you.”

It's cheap, sir.”

Probably poisonous, too.” Fischer tucked his map away. “Let's get the wounded out and get set up for another attack. If those fucking fools at Regiment can get us some support we'll drive those American bastards all the way back to the Channel.”

Jawohl!” Klein grinned at his commander. “Niemeyer will find help. Not every Army officer is a complete dummkopf.” With that he levered himself up and ran crouching toward a group of soldiers. Fischer hesitated for a long moment, then followed, also in a semi-erect posture. Icicles crawled his spine. He expected a bullet any second. Pissing his pants wasn't an option.

His bladder was empty.


How did this damn story become this involved? I now have lists of German ranks, words, and weapons in front of me, along with a hand-drawn map of that dumb Roman villa and a list of characters as long as my arm. Sheesh. One or two more chapters, I think.

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Donnie's a deep thinker, guys.

No. It's true. Honest.

The problem is that his deep thoughts are so far back they can't get out. Too many boobs. His mind is full of melon-like shapes. Regular thoughts don't stand a chance. That's why his best pickup line goes something like this:

Blonde with empty blue eyes and a nice rack: "Hi. My name is -- uh -- (looks down at the nametag perched upside down on one boob) -- Trixie."

Donnie: "Um -- I -- name -- (swallows convulsively) -- name me -- (begins to drool) -- Doooooooonnnnnnn--sssssssshhhhhhrrrrrr --" (THUD!)

Blonde, looking down at his trembling body: "Hee-hee. You're funny Mr. Sssssshhhhhhrrrrr. Want to come up to my room?"


Blonde: "I have a new nightie. It's black with cutouts in the front."


Old Guy wanders over from the bar and kicks Donnie a couple times. "It's no use, lady. He's out for a couple hours."

Blonde: "Oh, darn. Is he sick?"

Old Guy: "Sicker than you can imagine." (Notes the blonde hair and empty blue eyes) "He's really, really, really sick."

Blonde: "Ick." She wanders off in the direction of -- somewhere -- blinking those blue eyes and thinking about nothing.


This message a public service of the Old Guy radio network. Our motto: "Informing those who could care less."

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The Lull

Gunny visited Second Platoon and appointed Corporal Cooper to replace the wounded Pasco as platoon sergeant. All the random impulses he'd been feeling sort of came together as he left the platoon. He went looking for Paisley.

He was at one of the jeeps, breaking down ammo cases.

“First Sergeant, come to the CP. We have to . . .” Gunny glanced around. “Shit. I don't know what we ought to do, but this ain't it. Come on.”

The simple realization that he needed to do something different with the company spurred his thought processes into high gear. By the time he and Paisley reached the CP, he knew what to do.

“What have we got for explosives?”

Paisley was momentarily taken aback by the question, but he hadn't become a first sergeant on the strength of his good looks. “Fifteen or twenty demolition blocks. It's split up between the three jeeps.”

“Outstanding!” Gunny unfolded his map. “Here's what we're going to do.”

The farmhouse walls were still standing, though the interior had been gutted by fire and the roof consisted of nothing but bare, blackened rafters. Still, it offered concealment from the Americans up above in the old ruin. Leutnant Fischer stood with his back to the wall. Three Feldwebels studied the map he held and made marks on their own.

“Niemeyer found a mortar squad sitting on their asses in a patch of trees between Bellefontaine and St. Barthelemy. They're moving to a position below us. In about an hour we can expect covering fire for another attack.” He checked his watch. It was nearing noon. “Have the men eat and clean weapons.”

Two of the felds saluted and moved off. Klein remained behind. “Do you have a plan of attack, sir?”

Fischer hadn't had time to think about the actual assault. Part of him wondered if he should make another attack at all. He'd found time to review the orders contained in Hauptmann Danzik's dispatch case. The company had an assigned objective several kilometers to the west. The were supposed to have been there hours ago. With any luck, he could march the company down to the main assault route and try to carry out their assigned task. A squad could be left behind to amuse the Americans.

On the other hand, he was tying down at least one American infantry company. That had to count for something. Also, he wasn't sure how Klein and the others would react to being pulled off these slopes and marched away from the bastards who had hurt them so badly. So far, the company was accepting his orders and carrying them out with no apparent second thoughts. If he decided to pull out, they'd follow him down the hill. German soldiers know how to obey orders. But would he ever regain their trust? Fischer felt he had no choice.

He stared at his map. How to make the attack? Too many men had died already. He had to root the Americans out of a strong position without losing more men -- if possible. Adequate fire support would help. Not only did the Americans have little overhead cover, but the German mortars should be able to stop or slow down the enemy mortars.

Klein waited patiently. His blood had cooled somewhat. He wanted to hurt the Americans, but the prospect of assaulting the ancient ruin again gave him pause. Sixteen men dead. Maybe more. He hadn't been able to account for every man. There were nearly thirty wounded. The company had been understrength at the start. A few more fights like they'd been through that morning would see the end of the unit.

“All right,” said Leutnant Fischer. He opened his notebook and began to sketch the American position and the terrain around it. “Here's what we'll do.”


And don't you wish you knew what was going to happen? Me too. :)

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The Last Stand

“Where do you want us?” asked Old Guy. He shuffled to one side as Brewster carried a load of gear out to a jeep.

Gunny sat in the dirt holding a field phone in his lap. He was drawing a diagram in his notebook. “Here.” He tore the page out and handed it to Old Guy. “Get started. Paisley knows what to do. Ask him for any help you need. I've got to plot some fire concentrations for Cadillac.”

“Gotcha.” Old Guy signaled Donnie. The two of them headed for the ruined fountain. Paisley was directing a good deal of activity centered on that pile of rubble.

They saw a medic assisting a wounded man into the back of a jeep. Old Guy hurried over to help. One man lay on a stretcher mounted behind the right seat. Another slumped in the passenger seat. Sergeant Pasco sat behind the wheel. A field dressing was strapped to the back of his left shoulder.

“Pasco are you sure you're up to this?” asked the medic.

“Shit, yeah.” The sergeant started the jeep and put it in gear. “It's only a couple miles to the casualty station.” He winced as he flexed his left arm. “I'll deliver these guys and see about getting myself patched up.”

Paisley came over. “If they actually let you come back, which I doubt, bring ammo and rations. We can use all the belted fifty you can find.”

“Ammo and rations,” repeated Pasco. “Maybe I can talk a couple nurses into coming back with me.”

“Right,” said Paisley. “I'd rather you brought the mess truck back.”

Pasco winked at Old Guy. “The First Sergeant has a thing for one of the mess cooks.” He was rolling out of the courtyard before Paisley could do more than sputter.

Gunny worked steadily for several minutes. Finally, he cranked the phone. “Bravo Six here. Ready to copy, Cadillac?”

“Go ahead, Bravo.” The 117th wire man copied the grid coordinates and read them back to Gunny.

“That's correct, Cadillac. If the wire gets cut I'll try the radio. Failing that, have your guys fire when we shoot a red flare.”

“Can do, Bravo. I got a report here from our G company. They run a patrol down toward the road east of you and seen the Krauts setting up mortars just outside Bellefontaine.”

“Are your guys gonna take 'em out? I don't need that kind of trouble.”

“Too many fire missions, Bravo. Ammo is running short. The mortar chief says he'll try to take 'em out when he can. But they're diggin' in, like they always do. We still can't talk to Thunder. Got nothin' else to offer you at the moment.”

“Roger that. Tell your mortar guy to keep those German guns off our necks. And don't go anywhere, Cadillac. We'll be in touch.”

“We ain't goin' nowhere, Bravo. And the fog is thinning. Have you noticed?”

“Negative. Haven't had time. Bravo, out.”

Gunny stepped out into the courtyard carrying the field phone. The sky was visible through drifting patches of low fog. He saw Old Guy and directed his attention to the patches of blue. “You suppose the goddamn Air Corps can find the time to fly today?”

“Depends. Some of them boys blew up a whorehouse a couple days ago. It was still in German hands at the time and they thought the big red X on their maps meant to wipe it off the face of the Earth. It took 'em most of the day and about a thousand bombs, but they did it. Wiped it out. Nothing left but a headless mannequin hanging in a tree. Infantry guy I talked to said the mannequin still had a scrap of black nightgown clinging to it.

“Them flyboys was plumb excited when they reported back. Figured on two or three medals each. Imagine how pissed their commander was when he found out they'd flattened a whorehouse he'd been intending to visit once the infantry took it from the Krauts.” Old Guy shook his head mournfully. “The Air Corps won't be flying until they finish with the courts martial and firing squads.”

Half a dozen Bravo soldiers burst into laughter. Gunny glowered at the lot. “Get back to work. The goddamn Krauts will be here any minute.” Still chuckling, the men went back to their tasks.

He frowned at Old Guy. “You're a goddamn menace. Do lay awake nights making shit up?”

The old bastard managed to look offended. “Make stuff up? That was the honest truth.”

“My ass,” replied Gunny. “Has Paisley got you what you need?”

“Yes. We were just on our way when you came out and asked about the Air Corps. I plumb got distracted. That red face and clenched jaw ain't natural, Gunny. You should see a doctor. Let's go, Donnie, before he busts a gut.”

Paisley waited a couple minutes before approaching the L-T. He handed Gunny a rough drawing. “Here's the layout. The men are working on it now.”

“Good. With any luck we'll be ready when the Krauts decide to attack.”

The SS Major standing beside an immaculate Kubelwagen surveyed Fischer and Klein with critical eyes. “You're a mess, Leutnant.” He paused, as if steeling himself to deal with such rabble. “Your unit is not where it should be.”

“Jawohl, Herr Major. We ran into an ambush. Hauptmann Danzik was killed. The Americans -- we have been fighting them since last night.”

“You should have bypassed them, Leutnant.” The Major glanced at a map lying on the back of the little combat car. “I take it you are the officer in command?”

“Jawohl, Herr Major. The ranking Oberleutnant was killed by a mine. I haven't seen the next ranking Oberleutnant. Frost. Oberleutnant Frost. He may be dead.”

The Major shook his head and studied his map while the two men waited. The Feldwebel touched Fischer's arm. “The sky, Leutnant. It is clearing.”

“Scheisse,” murmured Fischer. Allied planes would be out in force before long. He was suddenly furious with the major. Stifling his anger with great difficulty, he stepped forward. “Herr Major, I have an attack planned. We have arranged for support from a mortar unit. They should be in position by now.” He opened his own map and displayed it. “We can knock the Americans out of the ruin and continue west, toward our assigned objective.”

The Major stuffed his map back into a flat case and tossed it into the Kubelwagen. He had also noticed the clearing skies. There was no time to deal with shuffling Fischer's company back to the main line of attack. “Go ahead as you have planned. In two hours I expect to hear that you have annihilated the American platoon and are on your way west.”

“It's not a platoon, Herr Major. A company . . .” Sudden doubt assailed Fischer. A platoon with one heavy machine gun? It was possible. But no. He recalled receiving fire from several light machine guns. The Major produced a condescending smile. Fischer decided not to pursue the matter. Stepping back, he saluted. “As you say, Herr Major. Two hours.”

“SS schwein,” muttered Klein as the Kubelwagen motored away. The Leutnant turned away, hiding his smile. Probably he should upbraid the feld for his comment, but he didn't really have time. And the SS bastard was definitely a schwein.

Back at the ruined farm house he found a disheveled artillery Leutnant waiting. The man looked as if he hadn't slept in a month and his trousers were caked with mud to the knees. He nodded a greeting. “Leutnant Fischer?”

“Ja. You are from the mortar unit?”

“Ja. I need a copy of your fire plan. My commander says we can be ready to support an attack within the hour.”

Fischer looked at his watch. “I was told that over an hour ago.”

The Leutnant shrugged. “These things always take longer than expected. The men have to dig in. The verdammt Americans will begin counter-battery fire as soon as we open up.” He nodded toward a field phone hanging from a nail. “Someone will call when we are ready.”

“Ja.” Fischer found nothing else to say. He opened his map case and handed over a list of coordinates and a sketch of his plan of attack. “We will be begin moving up in a few minutes. There's no wire laid beyond here. How will I signal you to begin the barrage?”

“By radio. You should have our contact channel. We are Blue Mouse.” The Leutnant folded Fischer's list and tucked it away. “If the radio is still being jammed, shoot a green flare.”

“Klein,” called Fischer. “We have flares?”

“Jawohl, Herr Leutnant.” Klein kept a straight face. The company carried half a dozen flare guns, complete with ammunition in various colors. He shouldered his MP-40. “I'll go make a final check of the platoons.”

Judging from Klein's response, Fischer correctly deduced that he should have known about the flares. He smiled inwardly and forgot about it. Time enough to worry about crap like that later. If he lived.

The artillery Leutnant took off at a trot. Fischer wondered for a moment about that. His company had a single Kubelwagen assigned. Said vehicle lay not far away, blown to pieces by a mine. The SS Major had a vehicle of his own. He knew the mortarmen had at least one truck. He'd also seen them unloading ammunition from a horse-drawn wagon. In fact, the Wehrmacht seemed to have a whole hell of a lot of horses.

Fellow officers he'd overheard discussing Allied units, American formations in particular, were amazed at the extent to which they were mechanized. Jeeps were especially common. Back in Bellefontaine Fischer had seen two of them being used by a Panzer unit. The consensus was that they weren't as good as a Kubelwagen, but the Allies seemed to have an endless supply of the little vehicles.

Sensing the defeatism of his thoughts, Fischer found a place to sit down and began cleaning his PPK. He wondered if it would make more sense to carry a rifle or automatic weapon. Hauptmann Danzik had equipped himself with a Beretta Model 38/44 with a folding stock. It hadn't helped him when the American fifty caliber bullet removed most of his head. Still, it made sense for an infantry officer to carry an effective firearm. He wondered what had happened to the Hauptmann's Beretta.

Klein returned as the Leutnant finished reassembling his pistol. “We're ready to move, sir.”

Fischer stood up and stretched. “Two questions, Klein. What happened to the Hauptmann's Beretta?”

“I haven't seen it, sir. Was he carrying it when he was hit?”

“I'm not sure.” Fischer shrugged. “No matter. I was just thinking of equipping myself with a rifle or sub-machine gun. It looks to me like a pistol isn't much use in a fight.”

“The Hauptmann felt that way, sir. I'll see if it can be found. Later.”

“Right. We have bigger problems.” The Leutnant considered his other question and decided to ask it. “When did we lose our heavy weapons squad?” He bent to pick up his harness, embarrassed at not knowing such basic information. “We had one when I reported in. I think.”

Klein's response was diplomatic. “We had no way to transport heavy machine guns, sir. The men were absorbed into the other three platoons.”

“Ja. I remember how relieved Feldwebel Steuben was when we were given two additional men. The reason wasn't clear to me, along with a good many other things I should have been familiar with.”

The feld chuckled. He removed his field cap and massaged his scalp. “Four months ago I was a lowly Obergefreiter in a heavy flak battalion. Only Huber and Dieter, along with a handful of the solders are experienced infantrymen.” He grinned at the Leutnant. “We are all learning as we go.”

“Indeed.” Fischer shrugged his equipment harness into position. For the assault he would carry only his canteen, pistol, map case, binoculars and a ration pack. The company field kitchen -- in a horse-drawn cart! -- had caught up with them just before noon and served up bread and a stew concocted of ration meat and vegetables combined with locally procured potatoes.

Klein led the way to the right, where his platoon and Feldwebel Steuben's platoon awaited. Fischer reviewed his plan of assault.

Feldwebel Dieter would take his platoon to the left, swinging wide through a patch of trees. His target was the south side of the ruin. Another American unit occupied a position about 800 meters south of there. Dieter was to find cover and avoid contact until the five minute mortar barrage started. Then he was to move up. The Americans would have their heads down allowing him to get close unobserved.

Klein and Steuben would do essentially the same thing on the north side. The American heavy machine gun had been emplaced in the east wall during the last attack. He hoped it hadn't been moved. Regardless, the barrage should keep the Americans down while his men moved in. Speed should work in their favor. Shocked and deafened by the mortars, their enemy ought to be stunned. Much would depend on how experienced the foe was. So far, they seemed to know what they were doing.

Gunny knelt beside Sergeant Ortega. The two men were studying a rough sketch of the ancient villa.

“You know what to do,” said Gunny. “I'll be with First Platoon. Old Guy and Donnie are with Fourth Platoon. I don't think we'll see much action on that side, but . . .”

“Yeah. The Krauts are liable to do what we don't expect. Still, they'd be slowed down by the mines.”

“My thinking, exactly.” Gunny swept the slopes above and below the villa with his binoculars. “The Germans are hard-nosed sonsabitches.” He lowered the glasses. “If it were me -- I'd get the hell out. You know this sidehill isn't their main objective.”

“Well, they could get there by rolling over us.” Ortega checked his watch. “How soon do you . . .” Both men stared at a green flare hanging in the air northeast of the ruin.

“I think that means the ball has begun,” said Gunny. The heard the thump of distant mortars. He got to his feet. “You know what to do.”

“Yeah. Go on. I know where you'll be.”

A mortar bomb exploded just outside the villa's north wall. The next struck a pillar, knocking it down. Then the explosions became an almost continuous roar. Dimly, Gunny perceived the thumping of Cadillac's mortars. By the time he arrived at First Platoon's position, he could see puffs of smoke erupting near the German gun position.

Wilson greeted him with a wide grin. “Looks like they're doing just what you expected.”

“Yeah. Don't plan for that to last very long. I'm not very good at reading minds.”

As the minutes dragged on, the German barrage faltered and diminished. Five minutes after starting, the explosions ceased altogether. Ortega tensed. His men gathered weapons and equipment. They could hear the American mortars and the impact of those rounds down near the road. Smoke and dust billowed out of the ruined villa.

“Okay. Go!” Spreading out as they ran, Third Platoon rushed along the track leading to the courtyard entrance. It took a long, long minute for them to reach their destination. Two men lugged a thirty caliber machine gun into a prepared position behind the north wall. A pair of riflemen went to cover on the south side. Two more set up a BAR on the east. Jenkins and Ortega dug into the rubble and began lighting fuses.

The machine gun team opened up, spraying the north slope somewhat to the left of where the Germans had come up the first time. The riflemen to the east and north began firing a moment later. Ortega held a fuse for Jenkins to light. “They're coming in from two directions. I didn't think they'd chance getting between us and the 117th.”

Blam! A sharp blast announced the end of a German soldier. Smoke rolled up from the open ground southeast of the villa. Jenkins grinned at Ortega. “They found the fucken minefield.”

The attackers on the north side went to ground and began working their way forward in short rushes. Two machine guns began a steady rap-rap of supporting fire. Several more of Ortega's riflemen moved up to the north wall and began returning fire.

Jenkins lit the last fuse and watched it burn for a few seconds. “Okay, man. Let's haul ass.”

“Easy. We gotta do this right.” Ortega blew a whistle once, twice.

Gunny heard the whistle as he squatted beside Paisley. The First Sergeant sat behind the firing handles of their fifty caliber machine gun. “Do it,” ordered Gunny. They could both see Germans on the slope almost directly east of the company's new position. Bravo was set up behind a low stone wall with First Platoon on the far left, Second in the middle, and Fourth to the right. Ortega's men would gather to the rear as a reserve -- if they made it back.

Paisley began raking the area. In the first few seconds he knocked at least five men down. Easing up, he began tearing at the Germans with short bursts.

At Wilson's signal, First Platoon riflemen joined in, squeezing off aimed rounds. In the villa, Ortega's men began pulling out, riflemen first. Jenkins and two others took cover at the entrance and began firing downslope. Seconds later, the machine gun team headed up the trail toward the stone wall. Last came the BAR gunner and his assistant. Ortega let out a relieved sigh as he counted heads. So far he hadn't lost a man. So far. He sprinted past Jenkins. “Let's go, let's go, let's go!”

The bullet that hit him in the side was fired blind by a German rifleman. No one on that bloody slope was aiming at anything. The air was full of bullets, rock shards, dirt, and wood chips.

Jenkins and another man grabbed Ortega even as he sagged to the ground. Running with the sergeant supported between them, they arrived no more than thirty seconds after the BAR team. “Medic!”

At the edge of a clump of trees just southeast of the villa, Feldwebel Deiter lay sprawled beside a gaping hole in the ground. His legs lay a few meters away. A medic worked feverishly to staunch the flow of blood. A nervous Obergefreiter tried to make sense of the feld's whispered instructions. Men fired on the enemy position from cover among the trees.

“Ja,” agreed the Obergefreiter, finally understanding Deiter's instructions. “We pull back. Move north to support the others.” He rose to begin reorganizing the platoon. “Mines” he said to himself. “Our own fucking mines.”

A Gefreiter close to the villa wall noticed that the volume of American fire had fallen off. He crawled forward, directing his squad to follow. Soon he was convinced the bastards had moved out or at least drawn back. He slipped over the wall -- and fell into a deep hole.

Another man stepped through an opening a few feet to the right and crouched down, weapon ready. He heard the Gefreiter cursing. “Are you hurt? What happened?”

“Some fucking arschlock dug a hole deep enough for an elephant. I think my arm is broken. Sheisse!”

Other soldiers entered the villa, followed by the Obergefreiter now commanding their platoon. “What are you doing? Look for booby traps! Morons. The Americans have probably mined the place.”

“Nein,” replied a man. He held up a C-ration box. “But they did leave some of these.”

“Spread out!” ordered the Obergefreiter. “Search the verdammt place. Be careful.” He grabbed a soldier. “Find the Leutnant. Tell him the Americans have abandoned the place.” Judging by the volume of fire to the west, he figured the Leutnant already knew what the Americans had done.

Another man returned from scouting part of the ruin. “Nothing here. A few ration boxes and empty ammunition cans. Our mortars blew the crap out of a bunch of broken stones. There's a low stone wall about 100 meters to the west. The bastards must be dug in there.”

“Your name must be Clausewitz,” snarled the Obergefreiter. “Hear that shooting? Some of them are firing from behind your fucking wall. Where are the others?” Without waiting for a response, he sent another man to bring the rest of the platoon inside. “At least we have decent cover here. Find a place for the machine guns at the west end of this mess.”

A squad from Steuben's platoon came over the north wall. Within moments a slow, but steady stream of men entered the ancient ruin and took up positions at the west end.

Leutnant Fischer flinched as heavy machine gun rounds ripped at a nearby tree. Klein lay a meter away, sheltering behind a boulder. Another man crawled close and lay gasping. “Sheisse! I thought I was dead.” Recovering somewhat, he reported that the remnants of Deiter's platoon were in the villa. “The feld is dead, I think. A mine blew his legs off.”

Feldwebel Steuben crawled in beside Klein. “Some of my men are in the villa. The Americans have all pulled out.”

“I think we've all figured that out,” said Fischer. He drew a deep breath. “Klein and I will fall back and circle to the right.” He remembered the minefield and the shattered Kubelwagen. “We'll have to go clear to the main assault route and try to get in behind the Americans.”

Steuben nodded. “I can put the rest of my platoon into the villa and take charge of Dieter's men.”

“Keep up a volume of fire,” ordered Fischer. “Try to get the mortars to help.”

“If any of them can still shoot,” said Steuben.

“We can't stay here,” said Fischer. “How many have we lost?”

Steuben crawled away. Klein shook his head. “At least five. I don't know about wounded.”

“Start the men moving back. We have to get out of this deathtrap.”

“Jawohl, Herr Leutnant.”

Both men froze as a twin-engine plane roared overhead, diving in the direction of the road. Machine guns beat out a frantic tattoo. The engine sounds changed and a double blast vibrated the ground. Smoke boiled up in the distance.

“Scheisse,” muttered Klein. “Their fucking air force is back in business.”

A closer explosion silenced the feld. One section of the ancient villa disappeared in a cloud of dust and smoke. Chunks of rock moaned overhead. Smaller pieces pattered down from above. Two more blasts ripped at the ruin. Another followed a few seconds later.

“Mein Gott!” cried Fischer. “My men!”

The fifth charge went off about a minute later.

Paisley glanced at Gunny and shrugged. “The sixth one might yet go off. Or not. When you have to use fuses a lot of things can go wrong.”

“Hell, I'm not complaining, First Sergeant.” Gunny looked up as a fighter bomber dove on a target a mile or so to the east. He could hear others working to the west and south. “We better get our panels out.” The bright orange identification panels would, in theory, keep friendly aircraft from bombing or strafing their positions. “Contact Cadillac,” he told Brewster. “Find out if they're back in touch with the outside world. We need to let the flyboys know we're here.”

“Old Guy would have a story to go with that,” said Wilson.

“Fortunately, he's at the other end of the line.” Gunny laughed. “I wonder how deep Donnie has managed to dig?”

Brewster looked up at his commander. His head was barely visible. “He even digs deeper'n me. I don't know how he does it. Cadillac says they still can't talk to anyone, L-T. They'll let us know when commo improves.”

“Company comin'” warned Wilson. He jerked a thumb toward three men working their way down the wall. “Brass hats. Now that the shootin' is over.”

The brass hat proved to be the battalion commander accompanied by a shavetail lieutenant and a captain. Gunny led them into the trees where a fold in the ground offered good cover from stray bullets. “I brought your relief,” explained the battalion commander, a tired-looking light colonel. “Captain Gray, Lieutenant Gunny. I've explained to Gray that you've been on loan to us from the Marine Corps, Gunny.”

“Yes, sir. Pleased to meet you, Captain.” Gunny felt a sinking sensation in his gut. He was about to lose the company. Mentally, he kicked himself. He wasn't even supposed to be here. Commanding a company in combat was a plum known to few. Still, he didn't want to go.

“Do you want me to stay around for a day or so, sir? To bring the captain up to speed.”

“Good idea. For starters you can tell me what you've been doing. Communications has been so fucked up I don't even know where you were until about an hour ago. I ran into one of your sergeants at the aid station.”

“Well, sir, we've been right where we were ordered, what? Two days ago?”

“Lots of units got pushed back. I'm glad that didn't happen to you. Who's up above you?”

“The 3rd of the 117th. They also stayed put. The main German effort seems to have been just north of us. We had a series of fights with a company-strength unit. What's left of them appears to be pulling back.” Gunny went on to sketch out the events of the battle. It was a shock to realize the whole affair had occurred in a matter of fourteen or fifteen hours.

“God damn, Gunny!” The colonel walked to where he could see the ancient ruin -- or what was left of it. “I want to see this Roman villa.”

“It's not in very good shape, sir,” warned Gunny. “And the Krauts may still be around.” He signaled to Corporal Cooper. “Detail a squad to accompany the colonel. He wants to see the villa.”

“Yes, sir. Give me a minute.” Cooper rushed off.

The colonel smiled and called the shavetail over. “Lieutenant Fick, meet Lieutenant Gunny. Fick has been assigned to Bravo as a platoon leader. You don't have any platoon officers at the moment, right?”

“Yes, sir. None.” Privately Gunny considered his platoons adequately led by sergeants, but that wasn't the usual arrangement in the Army -- or in the Corps, for that matter. “Captain Gray, we have a very good First Sergeant and a couple outstanding platoon sergeants.” He paused. “Colonel, I've made a few field promotions that don't have any paperwork completed yet.”

“Hell, Gunny, give me the names and I'll take care of the promotions.” Captain Gray tightened his lips, but said nothing. The last word on promotions should be his. He relaxed after a moments reflection. From what the colonel had told him and based on what he'd seen here, the Marine lieutenant had been doing an outstanding job. His choices would be good. And if the men didn't work out, well, Gray could demote them.

“Fick just graduated from West Point,” said the colonel. “They're kicking them out after three years. The whole Army is short of platoon leaders.”

“Fick,” mused Gunny. “A buddy of mine -- who happens to be with us.” He explained how Old Guy and Donnie had shown up just before the shit hit the fan. “Anyway, he captured a German colonel a few weeks ago. Name of Fick. The guy was in charge of some kind of entertainment unit. Kind of like the USO only regular military.”

The lieutenant sniffed. “My family was originally from Germany. Generations ago. Not much chance of me being related to your friend's captive.”

“I'm sure that's true,” said Gunny. Cooper showed up with a squad and the colonel went off on his tour of the ruin. “Let's meet the First Sergeant and my -- your -- platoon sergeants.” He led Gray and Fick to Paisley's position.

“First Sergeant, the Army has been good enough to send you a new commander. Captain Gray, First Sergeant Paisley.” Paisley reached up from his position behind the fifty and the two men shook hands. Gray hunkered down behind the wall. Gunny did the same. Fick stood gawking at the bodies lying across the clearing.

“Better get down, Lieutenant,” said Paisley. “The Krauts were moving back, but they sometimes leave a couple sharpshooters behind.” The lieutenant knelt where he was standing.

Sergeant Ortega approached in a kind of bent over trot. He sat down next to Gunny with his back to the stacked slabs of rock making up the wall. Bandages showed through a tear in his shirt. “I hear we got a new commander.” He extended a hand. “That must be you, Captain.”

“Sergeant Ortega is the man who led Third Platoon back into the ruin to light the explosive charges and tease the Krauts into believing we were still there.”

Gray shook hands. “God damn, sergeant. I'm pleased to meet you.”

Gunny pointed at Ortega's bandage. “What happened to you?”

“Bullet hit a grenade. Medic says I got a bruised rib.” The Sergeant touched the bandage. “I was lucky. Grenade coulda gone off.”

Fick couldn't contain himself. “Doesn't anyone in this company salute a superior officer?” He looked at Gunny. “Begging your pardon, but you didn't even salute the colonel.”

Before Gunny could respond Gray snarled, “For Christ sake, Fick, quit showing your ass. Up on the line you don't fucking salute. The Germans have eyes. They see men saluting and they kill the dumb officer who allows that crap. You want to live, you better get your head out of your ass.”

Fick swallowed and tried to speak. All that came out was a squeak.

Gray turned to Gunny. “Who's your best platoon sergeant?”

“Ortega and Cooper are corporals until the colonel fixes the promotions. Wilson and Wheeler are both staff sergeants with a good deal of experience. Wheeler is due for another stripe and an assignment as first sergeant. I'd say Wilson would be your best bet. Right here in First Platoon.”

“Thanks, sir,” said Wilson, who'd been listening from a nearby foxhole. He looked glum for a moment, then brightened up. “But the lieutenant might not want to be in this platoon. I've had three platoon leaders since we hit the beach. Two are dead and one lost a leg and some other -- uh -- parts to a land mine.” He grinned at Fick. “What do you say, sir?”

Second Lieutenant Fick, recently of the US Military Academy at West Point, croaked and fell over.

“Christ,” said Gunny. “We already got one clown who passes out like that.” He saw the question in Gray's eyes. “Long story. You'll meet Old Guy and Donnie later.”

“And you'll regret it to your dying day,” added Paisley.

“Did someone mention my name?” Old Guy joined the group.

Gunny groaned. “I'd hoped to spare the captain for a little while. What did you do with Donnie?”

“He was still digging when I left. Unless he hits bedrock, we may never see him again.”

“Meet the new Bravo Company commander, Captain Gray. This is Old Guy, a battalion messenger and the biggest liar on the planet.” Gray shook hands gingerly, as if he was afraid of catching something.

“A new commander? The Army finally forced the Corps to take you back, eh?” Old Guy laughed. He nudged the unresponsive lieutenant. “What's with the shavetail?”

“He's sensitive,” explained Wilson.

“Name's Fick,” added Gunny.

“Jeez.” Old Guy stared at the lieutenant. “By God he has that same sneer. It's hard to tell with his face in the dirt like that, but I believe he has that same ugly phiz. A younger version of our Fick.”

“He's going to be Wilson's platoon leader.”

Old Guy grinned. “I thought you liked Wilson.”

Gunny sighed. “Captain Gray may decide to assign him with another platoon. It's his choice.”

“Gray.” Old Guy considered the captain. “Have we met somewhere else?”

“I don't think so,” said Gray. “But I only toured Leavenworth once. I might have missed you.”

Old Guy laughed with the rest. “I like this guy, Gunny. Have you told him about the Air Corps pilots and the whorehouse?”

“Christ, no. We've been attending to business.”

“Well, to hell with that.” Old Guy settled back. “There were these Air Corps pilots, Captain, and they had maps with a big red X printed on it. Well . . .”

Not far away, Leutnant Fischer crawled out of a ditch and stood looking at the wreckage strewn along the road. A detail was already dragging bodies into rows. Many men from Klein's platoon had been killed in the bombing attack.

Klein limped over and saluted. “I'm working on a count, sir. I don't -- we -- there aren't many left.”

Fischer said nothing. He sat down on a tire lying in the road. The company mess wagon lay in a shattered heap in the ditch. Three dead horses were sprawled in front of it. He had no idea what had happened to the fourth horse.

Artillery boomed in the distance. He could hear the uneven roar and whine of aircraft. All that seemed far away and unimportant. Nearer to hand a man moaned as a medic tended him. A few meters up the road a half track burned quietly. Bodies hung out of the back. Beyond the things in his immediate area, Fischer saw nothing. The grim reality was too much.

“It's a closed door, Klein.”

“What door, sir?”

“The future. My future. Yours.”

“Come on, Leutnant.” Klein helped Fischer to his feet. “We will gather the survivors and march to battalion headquarters. They will know what to do. We can rebuild, regroup. We're not finished yet.”

“You were on that hill with me. We had no heavy weapons. No artillery. No hope.”

“Ah, that was just one battle, Leutnant. Tomorrow will be different. You'll see.”

Fischer walked along beside the Feldwebel. They moved at an easy pace, collecting men from the company as they went.

“Tomorrow will be a different day, Klein. That's all. We've lost this war.”

The big feld shook his officer gently. “Hush, sir. Keep your head up. We must not allow the men to see you this way. We are Germans. No matter what, we are Germans.”

As Fischer marched along with Klein and a growing band of company survivors, his head cleared. He brushed the worst of the mud off his tunic. Dealing with the trousers would require a washtub. “My cap. I've lost my cap.”

Klein handed him a field cap. “I took it off a dead officer. He won't mind.”

Gefreiter Milch joined them, looking much the worse for wear. Over his shoulder were slung two weapons. He smiled at the Leutnant. “I found the Haupmann's Beretta, sir. Klein told me you wanted it.” He pulled the sub-machine gun from his shoulder and displayed it. “I'll carry it for now, if you want. I have some ammunition pouches as well.”

Suddenly Fischer was eager for the weapon. “Give me the gun, Milch. And thank you for finding it. Keep the pouches for now.”

New cap on his head, Beretta slung on his back, Fischer stepped out with renewed energy. Klein hurried to catch up. “Leutnant, slow down. Some of the men . . .” He indicated wounded soldiers toiling along behind. “They can't keep up.”

“Nonsense, Feldwebel.” Fischer tugged at his cap and stepped out again. “They are Germans. None of them can bear to be left behind.”


15,185 words. Sheesh.

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