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Chapter 9: Death, Real and Imagined
"What the...?" Unterscarfuehrer Karl Platzer tightened his hands on the wheel as he felt the steering become sluggish. In one swift moment he knew what had happened. Wisely he refrained from using the brake and instead took his foot off the gas pedal leaving the open staff car slow down on its own.
From behind him a gloved hand came to rest on his shoulder. "What is the trouble, Corporal?" a weary voice asked.
"Flat tire, sir."
"Damn!" Waffen SS Captain Herbert Schütte muttered. This was the last thing he needed right now. At this very moment he was already supposed to have been in Fürstenfeld reporting to his new post as an officer to General Lutyens staff. It was his "punishment" for having allowed his four tanks and 120 men to have been driven out of eastern Burgenland by something so paltry as an entire Russian division. The fools! he angrily thought. No wonder we are losing the war. Imagine pulling an experienced man like me--a man born to command--out of the line and forcing him to become a blasted pencil pusher. How ignoble! To him these continual crazed exhortations to hold to the last man for the Fatherland were imbecilic drivel and he knew well enough that if he had not ordered a general pull back to the west his whole command would have been annihilated by now. Although Fürstenfeld, his destination, was still in German hands at the moment it was only barely so. It was his estimate that the Russians would be at the gates of the city by tomorrow evening. Only the night before he had led his men down this very road; quietly moving through the narrow streets of the doomed city as they passed to the west.
It was Schütte's retreating column that Janice, Mel, and Sergeant Anthony had seen the previous night.
SS Corporal Platzer eased the car to the side of the road and shut off the engine. As the inside door latch no longer worked he had to crook his arm over and open the door from the outside.
"Change the tire and be quick about it, Corporal," the captain ordered.
Platzer's response was an automatic, "Jawohl, Herr Hauptsturmfuehrer." Officers! he thought, ruefully. They are all the same--hurry, hurry, hurry; rush, rush, rush. The Reich is being ripped to shreds like rotten sail in a hurricane and all these prima donnas can think about is making their fucking reports.
Setting the parking brake, Platzer then got out of the car and made a quick inspection of the "tires." Or at least, what fit the general description for them. Indeed they were round, black, and had a little rubber in them but on two of them there was not a sign of tread anywhere to be seen as far as he could tell. As he suspected it was the right rear tire.
"Hurry up, Platzer! What are you waiting for?" Schütte impatiently snapped.
"Nothing, sir. I will see to it at once, sir." Officers! he disdainfully thought again. The hell with all of them! Quickly he retrieved the jack and the tire iron from the trunk and laid them down on the pavement. He then hefted the spare tire off its bracket and rolled it around to the side of the car.
"What is it now, Corporal?"
"Ahh, beg you pardon, sir, but it will be necessary for you to step out of the vehicle, sir; so I can jack her up, sir."
Schütte looked at him blankly for a moment and then curtly said, "Of course."
As Platzer fell to work changing the tire, Schütte got out and walked around to the front of the staff car. He desperately wished for a cigarette but he had none. Why should I? he bitterly wondered. We are measuring our fuel supplies in liters, our ammunition is pitifully low, the men have not had decent rations for weeks. Our panzers our falling apart, our artillery is worn out and fat boy Goering's Luftwaffe is but a dim memory--why should we expect to have anything so luxurious as tobacco?
Clasping his hands behind his back, he began to stroll along the ditch that lined the road. He did not hear Platzer mutter his vile oath as his tire iron slipped of the lug nut causing him to smash a knuckle. No, his thoughts were now in a very much different place. In his mind's eye it was now 1940 and '41 again. My God, he thought, the great triumphs we won! How invincible we all felt! He remembered the pride he had felt in being German when his SS unit rolled into beautiful Paris in June of 1940. Now, not quite five years later, he found himself wondering if those happy days had in fact not been only a dream. He thought of his parents, killed in a British bombing raid on Hannover. He thought of Liesl, the girl he was to have wed. She had perished in the dreadful house to house fighting when the Americans took Aachen. And now with the "barbaric" Russians at this very moment smashing down the Reich's eastern door, he fully expected to be joining his loved ones very soon.
"It is finished, sir." Platzer called out a few minutes later as he dusted off his hands.
"Good," Schütte replied, nodding stiffly. As he turned to make his way back to the car a scrap of paper blew out onto the road in front of him. Schütte gave it but a very cursory glance and continued on. Suddenly he stopped. Spinning hard on his heels, he quickly walked over to the other side of the road where the paper now lay. Snatching it up in his gloved hand, he began to minutely examine it. It was a wrapper, so brown in color it was almost black. Most of the front had been torn away leaving only a large silvery "HE." He turned it over to inspect the back. There he read, "Hershey Chocolate Co., Hershey, Penn."
Schütte had seen these before. While with Kampfgruppe Peiper during the initial successes of what was now known as the Battle of the Bulge he and his men had in addition to robbing their American captives of all their valuables and many of them of their boots and coats as well, also gleefully relieved them of all sorts of amenities such as Wrigley's chewing gum, Lucky Strike cigarettes...and Hershey chocolate bars. That several of these very men were later murdered by some of his Komeraden at a place called Malmédy was not something that he lost ever any sleep over. After all, this was war. Besides he knew well enough that on the Eastern Front this sort of thing was routine--for both sides.
What in hell is this doing here? he wondered. There isn't an American within a hundred miles of Fürstenfeld. Suddenly it dawned on him. Or is there?
Stuffing the wrapper into the pocket of his mud-spattered tunic, Schütte briskly walked back to the car and the waiting Platzer. "Get us to Fürstenfeld, Corporal. As quickly as you can."
"Jawohl, Captain." He then smoothly pulled the staff car back out onto the road. In weary exasperation he thought, Now what? The next thing you know the brave captain will have us single-handedly taking on a column of Russian T-34's with our mighty staff car!
Anthony eased his way down the rickety ladder. He then quietly walked over and stood beside Janice who, still perched on her keg, was intently staring out through the slit in the wall. "Seen anything?" he asked.
Without shifting her eyes away from the hole, she murmured, "Just some planes off to the southwest a while ago. I couldn't tell whose they were, though."
"Good. That's the way we like it," declared Anthony. "Nice and quiet."
Leaning back from her peep hole, Janice closed her eyes tightly and then twice blinked hard.
"Go on up and sack out for a while. I'll take the next watch," said Anthony.
Janice nodded and stood up. "Is Mel asleep?" she asked.
"Like a baby," he grinned. "How does she do that? You'd think she was back home in her own bed instead of out here in the middle of enemy territory."
That's because she knows I'm here to watch over her, bub, she thought. Inside she felt a warm glow at the thought of Mel's simple, yet oh so powerful expression of trust. Then again, she thought, it might be the woman is just be worn out from last night's hike.
Remembering the rough night Mel had gone through outside Rome, Janice asked "Was she breathing all right?"
Anthony darted her a puzzled look and said, "Yeah, I...guess so. Why?"
"Nothin,'" was Janice's laconic answer. She put her hand to the back of her neck and, tilting her head back, slowly turned her head first one way, then the other. "Wake me up in a couple of hours, no matter what."
Janice nodded toward her pack and said, "And if Mel gets up tell her to save her sandwich. She can have mine." She did not know when they might eat again and she wanted to make sure Mel had something for later. Janice Covington was used to being hungry.
No wonder you're such a little thing, Covington, thought Anthony. But wisely did not tell her this but instead merely replied, "Okay." As Janice turned to leave Anthony cleared his throat. "Ahh, Covington?"
"Huh?" she grunted.
"You mean Mel?" she asked, now interested.
"Well? What about her?" asked Janice, suspiciously fixing those green eyes on him.
The intensity of her gaze did not escape Anthony but he put it down to the simple desire of this fiery woman to serve as a sort of protector to her more vulnerable friend. Bravely pressing on, he said, "Well the truth is I like her--a lot."
And there it was.
So that's it, thought Janice. Well welcome to the club, pal. Everybody who has ever known her for more than five minutes feels the same way. She knew well enough where this train was heading.
"Do you think if we get out of this mess alive she might, you know...want to...go...out with me?"
Janice certainly had no desire to be either cruel or patronizing here. She liked the guy. As she saw it the real cruelty would be to allow him to cling to any false hopes he might have. In fact in a way she sympathized with him. After all, the sweet beauty with the warm heart and the jet black hair and the long, gorgeous legs was quite a package indeed and that he had become so smitten so quickly was not surprising. Not at all. Way back when Janice, too, had fallen for her like a block of granite.
So, it was with an understanding little smile she softly said, "'Fraid not, Sergeant. You see, she already belongs to someone."
The disappointment clearly evident on Anthony's face, he replied. "Oh." Slightly embarrassed now, he smiled sheepishly. "Hell," he said, "I should have known better. I mean, a dish like her." After a deep sigh he added, "Well whoever the lucky son of a bitch is I hope to God he knows what a prize he's got."
With a faint smile of amusement playing across her lips, Janice clapped him on the arm and replied, "Oh I do, Sergeant. Believe me, I do."
With that she left him standing there gawking after her with his nose wrinkled in puzzlement. It was not until she set her foot on the bottom rung of the ladder the he figured it out.
Captain Schütte snapped his heels together smartly and threw his arm up and out in the Nazi salute.
"I'm very busy, Captain. What is it that you want?" the superior officer said, ignoring the junior man's salute.
"I have reason to believe there might be Kommandos operating in this sector, sir."
Unlike Schütte, Colonel Manfred Bayerlein was regular army. Having served with distinction in the First War as an enlisted man, he had been severely wounded in the Argonne Forest. To this day the leg bothered him. Now he leaned back in his chair and stretched out his aching leg. With dull, tired eyes he looked over the gaunt-faced young/old SS Captain standing so stiffly before him. "What makes you think that, Schütte?" he asked, plainly uninterested. After all, intelligence was reporting that his three rag tag battalions could expect to almost any hour now be hit by no less than five Russian divisions; at least two of which were reported to be armored.
"I found this, sir," replied Schütte, producing the candy wrapper.
Bayerlein took the wrapper and incredulously looked it over. "You waste my time over this? This could have come from anywhere," he opined. "It could have blown out of a bomber for instance."
Schütte shook his head. "That is an assumption we cannot afford to make, sir."
"And what if there are?" Bayerlein asked, shrugging. "In the light of the present circumstances I hardly see why we should wet our pants over a few, what is it the Americans call them...'cowboys?'"
"Good God, man!" Bayerlein's angry shout cut off Schütte's protest. "What is the matter with you? We are about to have a Russian sledgehammer smash in our skull and you're worried about an American mosquito bite on the ass?"
Defeatist pig! Schütte raged silently. You should be shot for talk such as that. However his outward appearance remained calm and his voice even. "We must ask ourselves why they are here, Colonel."
At this moment the tension in the room was broken by the appearance of a harried young lieutenant at the door. "Beg your pardon, sir. I have wonderful news."
Bayerlein smiled wryly at him. "Yes, Krichbaum, what is it.? Have the Russians surrendered?"
"Ahhh no, sir. I'm afraid not. But we just received a communication from OKW. General Keitel wishes to inform you that the Fuehrer has awarded you the Iron Cross, First Class."
Bayerlein dismissed the young lieutenant with a weary wave of the hand. "See, Schütte?" he began, his voice very bitter. "You're looking at yet another of the Fatherland's valiant heroes."
"You must be deeply honored to know that the Fuehrer has such confidence in you," Schütte replied. However in his mind he was thinking he could not for the life of him see why.
Bayerlein lowered his eyes. In a quiet, rueful voice he said, "The Fuehrer has every confidence I will defend Fürstenfeld to the last round, the last thrust of the bayonet, the last drop of my men's blood." Looking up at Schütte again, he smiled weakly. "All right, Captain, tell me about your chocolate eaters."
"I am of the belief their appearance here is somehow connected to the aircraft plant, sir," said Schütte. "That is the only thing left of any importance in our area. As you know parts for our Swallows, the 262 jet fighters, are manufactured there. It could be an attempt on the Americans' part to keep the 262's plans from falling into their hands of their..." Here his lip curled in an disdainful sneer. "...allies, the Russians."
"Not a chance," retorted Bayerlein. "The order for the destruction of all blueprints and machining equipment and has already been issued."
"The personnel then," offered Schütte, doggedly refusing to let it go.
"All right, Captain," Bayerlein said with a sigh. "Have it your way. You can fight your own private little war if you like. It doesn't matter anyway. Take a squad and see if you can locate this grave threat to the Reich. If by chance you do don't bother returning with them. Execute them and be done with it."
"Jawohl!" cried Schütte, again snapping off the straight-armed salute.
Bayerlein limply lifted his hand in a half-hearted return of the salute and said, "On your way out tell Krichbaum to come in here." The old Imperial Army veteran watched Schütte smartly step out of the room. Already he had made up his mind that under no circumstances would he allow himself to become a Russian POW. Better to take the warrior's way out. He hoped his dear Helga would understand. Well, my dedicated young friend, he thought, sadly, it looks as if we weren't such supermen after all.
The squeal of the long neglected brakes jolted the nodding Anthony back to full consciousness. Peeking through Janice's slit, his heart turned ice cold as he saw several men in gray uniforms spilling forth from the back of a truck. Jee-sus Christ! he thought, Germans! "Covington!" he hissed loudly. "Covington!"
She, too, having been awakened by the squealing brakes, Janice had already given Melinda a violent shake of the shoulders and was now scrambling down the ladder.
"Krauts!" Anthony again hissed as Janice joined him.
"How many?" she asked, chambering a round into her .45 automatic.
"I dunno, eight, ten--enough," replied Anthony. "How the hell did they find us?"
"Maybe they didn't," she quickly answered. "Maybe they're just snoopin' around."
However Hauptsturmfuehrer Herbert Schütte was not merely "snooping around." He had skillfully tracked his fox to the hole and now his hounds were about to dig it out for him. It had all been so obscenely easy. He had reasoned they would surely have to be somewhere very close to Fürstenfeld by now and after carefully scrutinizing a map of the area had decided this sector was the best place to start his hunt. Sure enough, after three hours of scouring the countryside pounding on the doors of the local farm houses he had hit pay dirt. Either his prey had been in one hell of a big hurry, incredibly stupid, or both because a thirteen year old girl, too frightened to lie, told them she had seen three "men" quietly moving thought her father's apple orchard on her way to milk the family cow just after sunrise. Thinking they might be looters, she had kept a careful eye on them. She told Schütte she had seen them cross the field toward the old Krause place, now unoccupied at the moment, its former tenants having been impressed into work the work gangs building tank traps in front of Fürstenfeld.
While not exactly comparable to the time he had personally accepted the surrender of a whole regiment of the American 106th Division in the Ardennes it was nevertheless a source of satisfaction for him. These days one took their victories where they could get them.
Sweeping his arm over the barn, Schütte now shouted, "Surround the building!"
Inside, Janice saw this and muttered a saturnine, "Fuck!"
Now she and Anthony were joined by Melinda. Hearing the harsh, excited voices outside, she asked "Jan, what are we going to do?"
Turning quickly to her lover, Janice said, "Sweetheart, I want you to get back up in the loft and cover yourself up with that old tarp. No matter what happens, no matter what you hear, you stay there, understand?"
"But, Jan, I--"
"Do it!" Janice barked, forcefully pushing her toward the ladder. "Go!"
Suddenly they both jumped as the loud report of Anthony's M-1 erupted behind them. He had just drawn first blood by downing a German who had foolishly gotten too close to the barn too soon. "Bite on that, you bastard!" he growled through clenched teeth.
As she whirled around, Janice heard the ping of his ejected shell casing as it bounced off a nearby support beam. This was immediately followed by firing from the outside in every direction. A Mauser 7.92 millimeter round slammed though the barn's half rotten plank siding, spraying wood splinters into Mel's hair. Instantly another one ripped into the ground at Janice's feet, kicking up a deceptively harmless looking spray of dirt. Seizing her friend by the arm, Janice shrieked, "Get out of here!" While she was doing this Anthony again shouldered his M-1 and snapped off its remaining seven rounds in rapid succession.
As Janice was pushing Mel toward the ladder a slug tore through the side wall, menacingly whined just past her right ear, and impacted in one of the stall gates. By this time Anthony had jammed another clip down into his superb weapon and was sweeping his sights to and fro in search of a suitable target. To his momentary frustration he found none, the enemy having now taken cover. But then, peering into the old corn crib standing twenty-five yards away, he saw a small patch of field gray suddenly shift position ever so slightly. With a grim smile of satisfaction Anthony let loose three quick rounds in that direction and was immediately rewarded with the immensely gratifying sound of a sharp cry followed by the sight of one of those familiar coal scuttle helmets tumbling forth from inside the crib.
Having now gotten Mel safely up the ladder, Janice rushed to the barn wall opposite from Anthony and threw herself on the ground. All the while the Germans kept pouring fire into the barn at a fierce rate. Peering out from behind a loose board, she thought she heard muffled voices off to her right. A second later a jack boot kicked open the side door near where she lay.
For one brief moment two German soldiers were taken aback by the sight of a small, lithe figure nimbly rolling over on its back. It was the last thing they ever saw. Janice's .45 erupted and her first round caught one of the surprised soldiers dead center in the jugular vein. Her second one struck his comrade in the chest just above the left nipple.
Up in the loft, the terrified Mel disobeyed Janice and crept to the edge of the loft. Her hands shaking, she forced herself to peer over and look down and was just in time to see the second of Janice's two victims lurch back out the door. She then saw her friend roll back on her belly and rapidly crawl behind an old plow. It was then she heard a faint, sickening little thud and sweeping her eyes to her left, she saw Sergeant Anthony do a slow roll over onto his side, his left leg jerking violently. In horror she saw the blood spurting from the ghastly wound in his head. She wanted to scream but her vocal chords betrayed her. In fact she was almost petrified by her fear. She felt so helpless, so impotent. My God! Anthony, my Jan--we're all going to die here! she silently lamented. And I can't do anything to stop it.
Right then a...feeling, for lack of a better word, began to wash over her. It was one of tremendous strength, fierce determination, and incredible self-confidence. It swept forth like a savage flood from deep within her soul to spread in every pore, every nerve ending, every fiber of her being. Her rapidly beating heart began to pulse with the vibrancy of that of another raven haired beauty of some thirty-one centuries before. The last thing Mel would remember was drawing herself up on her haunches like a panther ready to spring. For some reason she then paused for the briefest of moments to look down at her hands before making her leap down.
They weren't shaking anymore.
At precisely the same moment "Mel" was hitting the ground, Sergeant Alfred Koch was maneuvering himself into position. A veteran of hundreds of little scraps like these from his days on the Eastern Front, he had sized up the situation with his professional's eye and quickly determined the safest way to get near the barn without being detected. Of course, he thought, those two idiots Hessler and Müeller had aided his cause considerably with their ill fated attempt to charge in without knowing what they were getting into. Slowly, cautiously, he worked his way along the side of the barn, dragging his belly over the rich, black dirt.
From her new position Janice still had her .45 trained on the door, her eyes straining to see any sign of movement. Now, suddenly, the firing from outside stopped. Not taking her eyes off the door, she called out, "Anthony? You okay?"
"He's dead," a husky feminine voice said from behind.
Turning quickly, Janice saw Melinda standing behind her, feet positioned wide apart, one ahead of the other, and her hands away from her body in an uncharacteristically aggressive pose. Somehow she looked...different.
"It's you...isn't it?" Janice asked. "Xena."
"Yeah," came the terse reply. Looking down at the small figure sitting there on her behind in the dirt the warrioress saw not the face of a hard-bitten adventurer but rather that of the warm, incredibly compassionate little bard that had stolen her heart so many centuries ago. Fighting the urge to call her "Gabrielle," the warrioress said, "Janice, we've got trouble. Follow me." Her finely tuned senses had already detected the presence of Koch lurking just outside the door and the danger he represented. For her part Janice was already feeling the effects of Xena's overwhelming presence and she recognized that it would now be she who would be doing the following. She parted her lips so say something but she never got it out for in one lightning quick move "Xena" shot her hand down, caught Janice by the collar of her jacket, and with incredible ease lifted her to her feet. "Up the ladder," she ordered.
Janice eased the hammer down on her .45 and jammed it into the waist band of her trousers. And then she did as she was told, Xena hot on her heels. They could not have cut it any closer for it was at this precise moment that Koch chose to toss in his "potato masher."
Scrambling up the ladder, Xena saw the sinister looking device sail through the door and land with a heavy thump. Despite having never seen a hand grenade before, in that one nanosecond her warrior instincts deduced the deadly purpose of the strange object. Up in the loft now, she caught Janice's by her thin shoulders and threw her against the far wall of the barn. The warrioress then flung her long body down beside that of her strange friend. No sooner had her weight hit the floor when an ear splitting explosion erupted down below. Shrapnel from the grenade flew up and out from the blast and slammed into and in some places through the loft floor. This was followed by a cloud of acrid smoke wafting up from below. From their spot against the wall the two women heard someone out in front of the barn yell, "Good work, Koch! Wait until it clears!"
Veteran that he was, Koch did not need Schütte to tell him his business. "You and those little momma's boys take care your end, you pipsqueak," he muttered to himself, "and I'll take care of mine."
Like Koch, Xena also did not need anyone to tell her what to do next. "Janice," she whispered, "we don't have much time."
"What are you going to do?" asked Janice.
"No time to explain," Xena replied. "But I need your help. Are you with me?"
"You kiddin'?" Teeth clenched, Janice said, "Just name it."
Easily flipping herself up on her feet, Xena reached down and yanked Janice up. "Keep an eye on that door and when that man comes through use that...thing of yours on him."
"You got it," Janice assured her, with a grim little smile. "But what about you?"
Xena/Mel shot her a look that chilled even the gutsy Janice to the marrow for it signified power and a savage fury most human beings could not even begin to comprehend.
Looking down on the smaller friend she towered above, Xena said in a sinister voice, "The rest belong to me."
The newly promoted United States Army major raised his field glasses to his eyes and focused in on the old structure sitting 150 yards away to the east.
"What the bloody 'ell is going on over there, mate?" his friend asked.
"I think it's those guys we almost blundered into this morning back at the crossroads," replied the major.
"You mean those yobbos we saw in the bloomin' truck?"
"Who do you suppose they're after?"
The major lowered his glasses and gave his old friend a wry look. "I'll give you one guess, pal."
It had been an unfortunate set of circumstances that had caused the major and his buddy to miss their connection with Janice and her party. Moving in from the east, they had been forced to make a wide detour around Schütte's retreating column--the same one that had caused Janice and the others so much consternation--and then this was compounded by their stolen vehicle giving up the ghost on them so by the time they got to the rendezvous point they were a good hour an forty-five minutes late. Working on the assumption that the party had landed and were intending to carry on as best they could, the major had back-tracked toward Fürstenfeld all the while hoping he might get lucky and find them. And now that he was fairly certain he had he only hoped they were still alive.
"So what do we do, Cap'n--I mean, Major?"
Pulling back the bolt on his British made Sten gun, the major said, "What else? We get our ass over there and see if we can bail 'em out."
His big friend grunted his assent and so off they went, running across the field as fast as their low crouches would
The nervous private ever so slowly peeked around the opening to the barn and looked inside. On the ground not more than a step away lay the body of an dead American soldier. Carefully he scanned the whole interior of the barn, the stalls, the hay pile, the old, rusted farm implements. Nothing. To him it looked all right but one had to be careful about these things. A slip up could get him killed. Peering in, he sucked up his breath and held it, intently listening for any sound. Nothing. It was when he saw Koch's welcome form fill the opening in the side door. He saw Koch nod to him. It must be all right then, he thought.
Turning to the waiting Schütte, he said, "It's all clear, sir."
Schütte immediately signaled for Platzer and the other two men to move in.
High up in the rafters, a dark form poised its muscles in readiness to spring forward. Wait till they all get in, the
form reminded itself. Have to hit hard and fast. With the kind of weapons they've got you'll only get one chance. However
Xena was not completely unarmed herself for tightly gripped in her right hand was the old rusty sickle she had found in the corner
of the loft. As first one, then another of the enemy cautiously stepped through the doorway Xena raised herself up on the balls
of her feet. Get them all, she again reminded herself. Kill them all.
From her hiding place at the far end of the loft Janice watched Koch ease his way through the door below, his rifle at the ready.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Schütte and the rest of the others begin to enter through the main door. Ever
so slowly she brought her .45 up with both hands and aimed it at the point where Koch's neck met his shoulders. Just a little
more, you bastard, she grimly thought. Remembering Xena's admonition to wait for her, Janice blinked hard once, took a
shallow breath and held it. Any...second...now.
Looking the scene over, Koch's tried and true combat instincts began sounding alarm bells in his head. Something
is not right here, he thought. He could just feel it. He watched as Schütte took his foot and rolled over the body
of the dead American. Then it came to him. Those were not rifle shots that killed Hessler and Müeller. There must be
someone else in here. Immediately his experienced eye began to sweep upwards toward the loft...and Janice.
It was just as she had hoped. The enemy--five of them--had indeed stopped for just a few moments to gather around
the lifeless body of Sergeant Anthony. Quickly sizing up the situation, Xena picked out the one she thought to be the
greatest initial threat. The freckled faced one beside the officer, she thought. He dies first. And so, having charted out her
course, Xena now launched her ship of death.
Koch's eyes came to rest on an oddly shaped form pressed against the barn wall. A man? he wondered. Squinting hard at the apparition, his eyes then grew wide. Yes! It is a man! He began bringing up his rifle to bear while simultaneously opening his mouth to shout out a cry of alarm. As his lips and tongue formed the first syllable his peripheral vision detected a large object hurtling down from out of the barn rafters. For a fraction of a second it broke his concentration and he flicked his eyes in the general direction of Schütte and his men. By now Koch's Mauser was to his shoulder but upon swinging his gaze back to where it had been before he saw the horrifying sight of an unmistakable muzzle flash. Koch was too late and he knew it. In that next fraction of a second his racing mind could only feebly hope that his enemy would miss and give him a chance.
Janice did not miss. Her slug slammed into Koch's rib cage just below his left armpit. The bullet penetrated the bones
of his rib cage and tore into Koch's left lung. With a violent gurgle he dropped his Mauser and felt his knees giving way.
Slumping downward, he did a quarter turn exposing his back to Janice who promptly planted one more .45 slug right
between his shoulder blades. By the time Koch crumpled to the ground Janice was already tearing for the ladder at the
far end of the loft in hope that she might be able to render assistance to her friend. She need not have bothered.
As she had always done, Xena measured her leap perfectly. Alighting solidly behind the freckled face soldier she had targeted she caught him by the chin strap of his helmet and savagely jerked his head to one side. In the same motion she swung her right arm up and over his shoulder and drove the tip of the sickle deep into the shocked young man's heart. Using him as a support Xena swung her right leg up and with a long, sweeping kick struck the soldier standing next to her in the jaw with such force that she instantly broke his neck. She then heaved the body of her first victim into the solider standing directly opposite her, knocking him off his feet. In vain Schütte tried to draw his pistol for he now saw he was next on Xena's list. Instead she caught his hand in her own and with one powerful squeeze broke three of his fingers. She then swung her sickle with such strength, that rusty as it was, she still managed to drive its blade halfway into the officer's neck.
As for Platzer he had been initially so stunned by this devil-woman's version of the blitzkrieg that only now was he clumsily unshouldering his MP44. His delay cost him his life. Xena seized the weapon still looped around his shoulder and, using it as a handle, threw Platzer's body heavily into a nearby support beam. Closing on him, Xena caught him by the hair of his head and smashed his forehead into the support beam as hard as she could.
All this carnage occurred in within the space of only few heartbeats; so swift and lethal was her attack. Turning her deadly attention to the lone surviving man, she saw him scramble to his feet and in sheer terror bolt out the barn door. Of course she immediately gave chase to the panic stricken man but she had not even gotten to the door before she heard an eruption of small arms fire on the outside. The fleeing man had run straight into the major and his partner.
Standing in the door now, she saw one man--it was the major--walk out from behind the Germans' truck. His partner, whom she saw to be a very large man, then eased his way around the corner of what had once been the Krause's hen house. Twenty yards directly in front of her lay the body of her quarry--shot down in the crossfire between the two now men approaching. For the warrioress it was finished. The danger, or at least the immediate danger, was over.
Janice hopped off the latter three rungs from the bottom, neatly landing on the balls of her feet. Quickly scanning the scene before her, she was filled with a sense of awe at what had been wrought by Xena's savage display of raw power. One man lay with his head twisted an a ridiculously odd angle, another with a large, jagged hole in his chest, another sitting with his back against the barn wall--the weapon of his destruction still lying buried halfway in his neck. Next to him lay a man with an appalling depression on the top of his forehead.
Turning to her left, Janice saw her friend slump against the edge of the doorway and bury her face into her shoulder. "Mel!" she cried, rushing to her.
To Melinda Pappas it seemed as though the fog in her woozy head was never going to clear. "Ohhh," she softly moaned. She thought she heard a voice, maybe Janice's, call her name but at this moment she could not be sure of anything except how much her head hurt. What is happening to me? she vaguely wondered. The last thing she could recall was being up there in the loft and now here she was down on the ground at the entrance to the barn. How...?
She felt an arm slip around her waist. "Mel," said a tender voice. "Oh Jesus, Mel, are you all right?" It was Janice.
The belle nodded feebly and replied, "Yes, I...I think so." She went to wipe her brow but as her hand came to eye level she saw it was covered with...
Oh my, she thought, is that blood? "Golly, Jan," she gasped, "what happened?"
"It's all right, Kid," Janice cooed, as she squeezed Mel's waist. "It's all right now."
"Are you blokes all right?" a voice inquired.
"Yeah," Janice said, now intently watching the two men as they approached. "Are you guys who I think you are?"
Only now did the major's friend realize who, or rather what, these two were. Blimey! he thought, incredulously. Why they're sheilas!
No sooner had Janice spoken when the other man stopped dead in his tracks. "Oh my God. It can't be!" she heard him exclaim. His partner, thinking there might be trouble, asked "What's wrong, Major?"
In an instant Melinda recognized the "Major's" voice. It was one long seared into her memory. But it...can't be! He's....
She bore her eyes in on the tall, lean man harder still. He was indeed thinner than she remembered and his face bore signs of having endured much hardship. He was also heavily bearded and that made it difficult for her to make out those oh so familiar features she had known most of her life. Be that as it may there was no mistaking that voice. Now she felt the first tears begin to well up. Putting a hand to her mouth, she emitted a soft, joyful sob, "Oh my."
Her mind was racing now. Can it possibly be him? Am I dreaming? This can't be! It must be a dream. But no. Or is it? Oh, sweet God in Heaven, it's....HIM! "Bubby?" she asked, her voice barely above a whisper. "Is that you?"
She took a hesitant step forward and for the first time in their fourteen months together the big man saw his friend, the major, lose his composure. No matter what the situation or how tight the spot, the major--then a captain--had always kept his head. Until now.
The major spoke but one word and yet even then could not keep his voice from cracking. "Melly?" the big man heard his friend sob deeply.
Like the bearded man's partner, Janice also was momentarily puzzled by what was happening. Then, in an instant the realization came to her. Oh my God! she thought. It's Robert!
It was only a fleeting moment while brother and sister stood there gawking at each other in utter disbelief but to each of them it somehow seemed like an eternity. But it was in fact only a moment. Now Melinda tore herself from Janice's arm and rushed madly toward her broadly grinning brother. "Robert!" she cried. "Robert!"
Major Robert L. Pappas, United States Army, brother of Melinda Rose Pappas, joyfully caught his beloved sister in his arms and hugged her as hard as he dared. "Oh, God, Melly," he sobbed. "I've missed you so much." And for the next few jubilant seconds he was not Major Pappas, decorated, battle hardened veteran of the Italian Campaign, but Bobby Pappas, the ten year old boy who followed his older sister everywhere.
As Melinda held her brother just as tightly somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind the thought kept nagging at her. This cannot be happening! It's not real. It's, it's a...dream or...something. Any second now she fully expected to wake up but the longer she held him, the longer she felt his warm breath on her ear, the more she dared hope it was not a dream and that it was indeed real--that he was real. "They told us you were dead."
"I know," he whispered. Pulling back, he smiled at her and wiped her teary eyes with the crook of his finger. "Just look at you," he said. "My God you're more beautiful than ever."
"Yeah sure," she said, somewhat embarrassed. For as long as she could remember he had been telling her that. Even back in her "ugly duckling" high school and early college days.
"How's, how's Momma?" he asked his voice tentative. "Is she all right?"
"Momma's fine," Melinda assured him. "And just as stubborn as ever."
"Wouldn't have her any other way now would we?" he grinned, obviously relieved to hear this.
She looked at him for a moment and then again threw herself close to him. Her tears returning, she asked "Oh, Robert, what happened to you?"
Major Pappas gave her a gentle "shhhhh" and then said, "It's a long story and we'll have plenty of time for all stuff that later. But, right now, Melly, we've got to get the heck out of here--and fast."
While this Melinda and Robert had their reunion Janice, not wanting to intrude on their wonderful moment, had sidled over to Robert's big partner. "We sure are glad to see you guys," she said, quietly watching the two Pappas' embrace.
"Likewise," said the big man. He then nodded to the two siblings and added, "Is that really the major's sister?"
"Yep. Unbelievable isn't it?" allowed Janice.
"Too right," the big man answered. "I mean, what are the odds of that?"
Suddenly Janice's mind raced back to that day in Donovan's office. What was it Mel had told her? "I must go." Maybe this was it all along, she thought. Maybe this was the real reason Mel was drawn here.
The big man furrowed his brow and said, "You know, they never said anything about sendin' us a couple of ladies."
Janice squinted one eye and cocked her head to one side. "Australian, right?"
The big man bowed stiffly and then stuck out his hand. "Corporal Chris Michelhill, late of the Ninth Australian Infantry, at your service, luv."
Janice chuckled and replied, "Janice Covington, not so late of the OSS. So tell me, Corporal, what the hell's a Digger doin' here anyway?"
In his own way echoing Major Pappas, he shook his head with mock solemnity and said, "Well Oz is back of Bourke, that's
for sure. But it's a long story, Covington."
Chapter 10: A Captain Courageous
All around him they stood, the Aussie and the three Americans, silently looking down at the body of the young man that until until just a few minutes ago had been so full of life. More than anyone it was Melinda that felt his loss. For the Aussie and Major Pappas, both veterans of horrific combat, it would not be fair to say they viewed him as just another casualty of war for one never becomes accustomed to seeing their own men die. However they had witnessed enough death in their young lives to know that the only thing to be done was to deal with it and move on. Death, either the possibility of their own or someone else's, was not something to be dwelt upon. It would drive one crazy it they did. But for Melinda it was different. She had gotten to know him, if only a little. She had heard his laugh, had learned what he cared about, what he feared. He had shared his candy bar with her--a little thing to be sure but then again the human experience for the most part is made up of little, mundane things. While cataclysmic events like war may make shake the very foundation of civilization from time to time sooner or later the waters become calm again and once more life boils down to things like the every day struggle to provide for one's family, to watching the children grow up, to fretting about the future...to sharing candy bars. "Little" things are the main fare on the table of life.
Robert somberly shook his head once. "What was his name?"
"Anthony," Janice softly replied. "First Sergeant Brownlow Anthony."
"Brownlow?" Robert remarked, dropping to one knee beside the dead soldier. "That's a Southern name."
"He was from Virginia," said Melinda, trying not to cry. "He was a good man, Robert."
And that's the part that stinks, thought Janice. He was a good man. And now he's dead.
Robert took Anthony's dog tags in his hand and, with a firm little jerk, broke the chain on which they had been strung around his neck. That done, he took Anthony's M-1 and stood up. He stuck his hand inside his jacket and stuffed the tags into his shirt pocket. Handing the M-1 to Michelhill, he said, "Get rid of it."
"Right." The big Aussie walked to the back of the barn where Koch lay face down in the dirt. After clearing the weapon, he gripped it by the barrel and slammed its stock against one of the big support beams, smashing it. Having still had not gotten used to his friend's promotion he asked, "Cap'n?"
Michelhill nodded toward Koch. "You want I should search this Jerry?"
"Make it quick," said Robert, who then kneeled down beside Schütte and did the same. Neither man found anything useful. Rising to his feet again, he said, "Guys, it's time we hauled ass."
"Damn," Janice muttered, referring to Anthony, "I hate like hell to just leave him here like this."
"I know," said Robert. However they both knew very well there was nothing else to be done.
It was then they heard off to the east a low rumble very much like thunder. Except this thunder was not the fleeting natural result of the sudden expansion of air in the path of lightning. No, this thunder now rolling in from the east was due to 125 pieces of heavy artillery lined up hub to hub only four kilometers outside Fürstenfeld.
Hearing this, the four of them gathered at the door of the barn. "Somebody's gettin' plastered," noted Robert.
"Looks like our friends the Russkies have arrived, mate," said Chris.
"Yeah. The Krauts don't have big stuff in numbers like that anymore," remarked Robert. Turning to Janice and Mel, he said, "I'd bet London to a brick the Russians will be in Fürstenfeld by this time tomorrow---possibly sooner."
"That means we've got to move fast," said Janice. "Now according to my map Cernak is being held about five kilometers from here. Is that about right, Robert?"
"Dead on," he replied.
"Beggin' the lady's pardon," Chris chimed in, "but if we try to go anywhere near Fürstenfeld in the daytime we're goin' to find ourselves in more shit than a Werribee duck." Catching himself, he quickly added, "'Scuse my French."
"Can't be helped, big fella," Janice retorted, grinning. "Our window of opportunity is closing fast. Besides, the quicker we go in there and get him the quicker we get the hell out and go wait for Blake's bus."
Instinctively Chris looked to the major. "Don't look at him," Janice said, sharply. "I'm the one callin' the shots here."
"She's got ya there...mate," Robert said, impishly. "Those are the orders, you know."
The big Aussie grinned sheepishly and with a shrug of the shoulders said, "Awww don't pay any attention to me. "Sometimes I don't know if it's Pitt Street or Christmas. I meant no disrespect."
Melinda wrinkled her nose. "Huh?"
"Forget it, Melly," Robert chuckled. "I've been around this lug for a year now and I still don't understand him."
"On your bike, Major--sir," Chris huffed.
"Now, Chris," teased Robert, "your government won't take your attempts to damage relations between our two countries too kindly."
In spite of their differences in rank, this good-natured bantering was a common practice between them. For two who had seen what they had seen and endured what they had endured things like rank and military courtesy did not mean much--at least when it was applied to them.
"Never seen an officer yet that didn't have tickets on himself," muttered Chris. "And that goes bloody double for a certain Yank officer."
But as the two of them verbally sparred a troublesome thought came to Mel. "Ja-yun?"
"What if Janik's not there? I mean, at this time of day won't he most likely be at that factory ?"
Good point, thought Janice. Damn good point. Looking up at Robert, she asked "Whaddaya think?"
He response was to tilt his head in the direction of the ominous rumble. "I don't know if you are aware of it or not but the main works are east of the city. If we can hear that then chances are--"
"It's already in Russian hands," said Janice, finishing the sentence for him.
With a puckish glance at Melinda, he replied, "As our granddad used to say, 'Shore 'nuff.'"
All right, Covington, she thought. You said you were calling the shots--so call 'em. What do we do here? Wait until nightfall and risk losing Cernak altogether or go now and risk getting us all killed before we get within miles of the place? Down deep, she already knew the answer. "Chris!" she barked.
"Here, luv," he answered.
"Strip a couple of these guys of their tunics and, uhhh, pick up a couple of these helmets too."
She saw Robert slowly break into a sly grin. "I knew you'd do it," he told her.
"Do what?" Melinda asked.
"We're going in there right now, in broad daylight, aren't we?"
"You bet your sweet ass we are," Janice answered back.
He nodded he understood and then the smile faded from his lips. "Uhh, just one thing. What about Melly here? I think it would be best if we--"
Melinda Pappas knew all too well where this road was leading. "No, Robert!" she blurted out, cutting him off. Alternating a look of desperate defiance between Janice and her brother, she declared, "No. Ya'll ain't leavin' me behind." As both Janice and Robert knew, whenever Melinda became extremely agitated, her soft drawl had a tendency to be much more pronounced.
Sweetheart, I'd trade five years off my life if it meant we could do that very thing, thought Janice. But with a shake of her head, she said, "Sorry, Robert, no can do. As much as I'd like to do just that we have to bring her along."
"Why?" he persisted. "And while we're at it why the Sam hell did you drag her into this mess in the first place?"
Janice locked her green eyes on him in a steely gaze. "One, because, she wanted to come. Two, because she's the only person that can finger this Cernak joker. Three, she's a big girl now. Get over it." But in her heart she actually felt much the same way he did.
Robert shot his sister a quizzical look. "You know him?"
"From college if it's any of your bees wax," his sister huffed, somewhat embarrassed by his behavior. "Which I might add--it ain't."
Her brother gave her a sheepish little grin. "Looks like I succeeded in getting both of you pissed off at me in record time. You're right, I had that coming. Sorry, Melly. You too, Janice."
"Don't sweat it," replied Janice. From her experience with Melinda she guessed that this was about as close to a "fight" as these two ever got. From her own personal experience she knew that it was well nigh impossible to stay angry with the sweet Southern beauty. And to be sure Mel's idea of a violent temper tantrum was to stamp her foot and stick that nose of hers in the air.
"Oh for goodness sake," said Mel. "Ain't we a pair? The two of us fightin' like this after..." Here her words trailed off.
"It wasn't a fight, Mel," Robert gently assured her.
"Okay, I got 'em, Chris announced, returning with his arms full.
Janice took one of the German helmets and sat it on the top of his head.
"Well?" he asked.
It was plain for all to see the thing was adjusted much too small for him. It struck Melinda as funny looking and she put her hand to her mouth in order to suppress a snicker. Her brother, unfortunately, was not so diplomatic. "Jesus Christ, Chris," he chortled, "when you were at Tobruk what the hell did you use for a helmet--a dish pan? It's like settin' a teacup on a watermelon!"
"Robert!" chided Mel. "That's not very nice." But in spite of her reproach she too could not resist a giggle.
And Janice? It was the pitying way Mel had said "That's not very nice." that got her. Now she found she could not hold it in any longer and so she burst out laughing.
Chris rolled his eyes in disgust at this and glumly muttered, "Bloody Seppos. Think the sun rises and falls on their arses."
Holding her shaking stomach with one hand, Janice sympathetically clapped him on the arm with the other. "I'm sure you can adjust that thing to fit," she offered. "Why don't you go check out the truck and we'll finish up in here."
"Bloody oath, that's a good idea. Or else I might forget me manners."
Watching him stalk toward the truck, Janice said, "It's a good thing he's got a sense of humor."
"Hmph," snorted Robert. "You're not just whistling 'Dixie.' If that guy had a mind to he could chew all three of us up for breakfast." What he did not tell her was that on more than one occasion he had seen the big Aussie kill a man with nothing more than his bare hands.
"Okay," she sighed, turning her attention back to the job at hand, "help me with Anthony here." To her it would not have been right to have left him lying there in a pool of his own blood so with Robert's help she moved him into one of the stalls and there they carefully straightened him out.
As they did Melinda looked away to avoid seeing the awful wound in Anthony's head. Now she felt ashamed of herself for what she perceived to be simply dreadful disrespect on her part for tittering like that at Robert's silly jibe. She had no right to be laughing. This morning he was a young man with a future. All he is now is a face...and a memory. For a moment she even thought she was going to be ill and was much relieved when the unsettling sensation then passed as quickly as it had come. And it was here that another, even more unsettling, thought came to her.
Because of all the excitement over her reunion with Robert it was only now that she realized she did not know what had really occurred here. But, intelligent creature that she was, she could guess. That made her even more uncomfortable. Not one of the four Germans had been shot and she knew that even Janice, for all her toughness, could not have wrecked such havoc. She also remembered seeing poor Anthony die even before the Germans entered through the front of the barn. That left only...her! "Oh my," she said, under her breath. Still, she was well aware that this sort of thing had happened before and as always she had remembered nothing afterward. And for some reason she could never get Janice to tell her anything about what "she" might have done. Perhaps, for her sake, it was just as well.
Janice gently folded Anthony's arms across his chest and rose to her feet. Puffing her cheeks, she slowly exhaled. "I guess that's that."
"It always stinks to see a buddy dead," said Robert, reading her mind.
All Janice could do was nod once and very softly answer, "Yeah." By now the irrepressible Chris had returned to the barn. "How about the truck?" asked Janice.
"She's apples, mate," said Chris, holding up the key.
"Good, then let's blow this joint," she said.
"I'm with you, Chauncey," said Robert. He then snatched the key from Chris' and hand announced, "I'm drivin.'"
"Like hell you are," retorted Janice, deftly plucking the key from his hand. "I'm driving."
"Then I got shotgun."
"Nope, guess again," grinned Janice. "I want Muscles here up front with me."
"No. You and Mel get in the back and lie down. Just be ready with that grease gun of yours in case there's trouble." Then
just for a moment she inexplicably allowed the "tough broad" persona to fall away and for that wonderful five seconds someone
besides Mel was able to see her for the caring person she really was. Mel always thought of her as something akin to a rose
bush. A soul of indescribable beauty awaited if one could only negotiate through that multitude of prickly thorns. Janice cast her
lover a brief, but unmistakable look of tenderness and without taking her eyes off the love of her life softly said, "Besides, I think
you owe our Melly here some answers."
Janice put on Anthony's knit cap and tucked as much of her hair up under it as she could before looking back into the bed of the truck. "All set back there?" she asked. Robert gave her a "thumbs up" in reply. "Okay," she said, pressing her foot on the starter switch, "here we go." The old truck's engine turned over and, to everyone's relief, immediately started. Janice carefully eased out the unfamiliar clutch and slowly pulled out onto the road. They were off. Beside her sat Chris, her pilot's map spread out upon his knee. Although he and Robert had in fact been observing Cernak's quarters for the better part of the last three days they had not been so foolish as to use any of the roads to move about. Consequently, neither he nor Robert were quite certain what was the best, or safest, route to take in order to reach their destination.
In the back Melinda and Robert lay on their stomachs near the tail gate. Mel watched her brother check his Sten gun and carefully lay it down within easy reach. "I still can't believe you're really here," she said, smiling at him.
"Well I can certainly say the same for you," he said. "You know, I used to mentally write letters and pretend I could send them to you via some cosmic mail service." He smiled faintly and said, "Stupid, isn't it?"
"Oh not at all," Mel quickly assured him. "Me, I'd go up in the attic at Momma's house and open up that big trunk where she keeps you things. I'd get that medal they gave you out and..."
"Medal?" Robert asked.
Mel's look was one of mild surprise as she replied, "Why don't you know? They gave you the Distinguished Service Cross."
"Meee?" he asked. "No kiddin'? Gee, nobody told me a damn thing about that."
'Well they did," she said, clearly proud. But then a pained expression came over her face and she said, "Bubby, what happened to you? Why didn't you write? Why didn't they tell us you were alive? How could you allow me and especially Momma to go through hell like that? How could you, Robert. How could you?"
The anguish now so plainly evident in Major Pappas' eyes was no less acute. "Melly, you have to believe me. It was not the Army's intention to deceive you. They just didn't know I was alive. I am so sorry about that.
"Well just tell me what happened to you," she pleaded. "All of it."
"All right," he replied. "If you're bound and determined to know." He took a deep breath and began. " The night of the 23rd, the night before it started--Sunday night--Colonel Siak called me into his HQ and told me that early the next day we were going to assault Cassino. He then said my company was going to be one of the lead units. Now you can imagine I was not too crazy about this and I told him so. See, my boys had taken an awful pounding of late. They were dog tired and the company was nowhere near full strength. Not that the Colonel or anybody else would have been all that sympathetic, mind you. After all, just about everybody else was in the same shape we were. And besides, the Army doesn't pay captains to whine. They pay 'em to shut up and follow orders which the Colonel made very plain to me I might add. And so I did.
Early next morning our heavy stuff opened up and pounded the hell out of the heights. It got so bad you could not see the heights for all the dust and smoke. But by this time Cassino had been bombed and shelled so much that all we were really doing now was rearranging the rubble. And for somebody who knows their business rubble is a fantastic defensive asset. And the Germans knew their business. Anyway, after about an hour the shelling stopped and up we went. Of course as soon as the big guns stopped the Krauts popped their heads up out of their holes and prepared their welcoming committee for us. They let us advance about two hundred yards up the hill and, boy, did they open up on us. I mean mortars, 88's, 37's, heavy machine guns...they hit us with everything but the damn kitchen sink and I think one of them did chuck the drain pipe down at us. And let me tell you, Melly, they weren't fartin' around either. They had already been up there for weeks and by now they had zeroed their stuff in on every rock, every hole, every friggin' rabbit path. They blasted the hell out of us."
"My God, Robert," Melinda cried out, "how awful."
"As bad as we were getting it, though, it was nothing compared to what Charlie Thomas and his boys were over on our right got hit with. I mean they were just decimated. Well. I didn't need to be Napoleon to see there was no way we were going to make it up those heights.
After about another twenty minutes of this we were finally ordered to fall back. Only thing was, our support flank had already collapsed by this time leaving us pinned down and wide open to a counter-attack. I mean, you talk about somebody's underwear flappin' in the breeze..."
At this point Janice hit a fair sized chuck hole which caused Mel to be pitched up against the side of the truck bed. "Golly, Jan!" she yelped, struggling to right herself inside the heaving truck. "Watch it, will ya?"
Robert grinned at her. "You all right?"
"Peachy," she declared, rubbing her sore butt. "You jes' go on with your story."
"Well needless to say the Krauts did counter-attack. He shook his head and went on, "Do you remember all that stuff we used to hear about the blitzkrieg?"
His sister nodded. "It means lightning war, doesn't it?"
"Yep. It's what the Germans are famous for. But you wanna know what really makes those bastards so tough?" He shook his head in genuine awe. "Counter-attack. Those guys are absolute masters at picking out our weak spots and hammering them to pieces." He paused for a moment and then went on, "And that's pretty much what they did to us."
He looked at her oddly and said, "But you know...somehow, some way...I knew it was coming. I could just feel it--even before their barrage let up. I made up my mind then and there that just as soon as the shelling stopped I was going to send those boys back down that hill PDQ. And when it did--I did."
Melinda shot him a sorrowful look. "But why in God's name did you stay behind like that, Robert? What did you think you were going to accomplish?"
"I sure wasn't trying to be some kind of hero it that's what you mean. All I wanted to do was hold up that infantry advance juuust enough to let my boys get off safely." He flashed her a rueful little smile and said, "It wasn't part of the plan to take that shrapnel in my left leg." Pulling at his trouser leg, he asked "Hey, do you want to see my scars?"
"They--they wrote us that they saw you get wounded," said Mel, weakly.
"Yeah, two of my guys, Hopper and Mullins, came back for me. But by that time my leg was already feeling like a dead log and I knew if they stayed there and tried to help me all they were going to succeed in doing was either getting themselves killed or captured. So I yelled at 'em scram out of there but that crazy Hopper, he didn't want to go. That fool tried to get me in a headlock and pull me out of the ditch. I had to slug him to make him let go."
Hearing this, Melinda guessed this was where Robert had lost his dog tags. The loyal Private Hopper must have inadvertently broken the chain during the struggle with his captain.
For a moment Major Pappas paused and it was clear to Mel he was struggling mightily to control his emotions. His voice cracking only a little, he said, "Hopper was a good man. They were all good men."
"What happened then?" his sister asked, her voice hushed.
"After a couple of minutes the BAR jammed." Under his breath he muttered, "Damned mud."
"But anyway, one of those jokers got in close and lobbed at potato masher at the ditch. Luckily for me it fell short of coming in on me but it was still close enough for the concussion to knock me silly. The next thing I knew some bastard had the point of his bayonet stickin' against my belly and was screaming at me like a banshee. The guy must have had a cold because he kept sniffing his nose real hard and swallowing the snot."
"Ewww," Melinda grimaced, a lump forming in her own throat now.
I was still kind of dopey at the time and I remember thinking, 'Gee, I hope old Fritz here doesn't sneeze because if he does I'm going to have a spare belly button."
"That's not funny, Robert," Mel said with a frown. But by now she was much too spellbound by her brother's story to be very annoyed. "What then?" she asked.
"Well about that time this little runt of an officer came over and he and Sniffles talked for a minute or two and then I saw Shorty jerk a thumb over his shoulder in my direction. I thought to myself, That's it--I'm dead."
"Oh you poor thing," Mel softly cried. "You must have been terrified."
"I wasn't about to break out singing 'Der Fuehrer's Face' if that's what you mean."
The truck rounded a sharp curve and Janice hit the squealing brakes to slow down. In attempting to drop down one gear on the unfamiliar shifter in order to accommodate for the lower speed she inadvertently missed "second" and shifted straight into "low." Naturally as soon as she took her foot off the clutch the old truck lurched violently, its engine whining loudly in protest of the abuse.
"Stone the crows, mate!" Chris yelped, fending off the dashboard with his hand. "Whose side are you on?"
Janice's response to him was to utter an unbroken string of very colorful dialogue.
In the back Janice's error caused Melinda to bump her head on the floor of the truck bed. She then shot an irritated glance toward the cab of the truck. "Good Lord," she groaned, rubbing her head. "And she thinks I'm a bad driver."
"This isn't much of a road," Robert reminded her.
"So what happened next?" Mel asked.
"Like I said, I thought it was curtains for me and old Sniffles was going to finish me off then and there but damn if he doesn't whistle for this other guy to come over. By now the fighting had pretty much died down and I knew the Krauts had whipped our ass. Anyway, you can imagine my surprise, and my relief, when Sniffles and this other fella helped me up, put my arms around their necks for support, and began walking me back toward their lines. It was that little officer that made them do it."
German or not, Melinda Pappas wished her brother's unidentified benefactor was there right now so she could lay a big one right on his old kisser. She wanted to ask him why he was spared but deemed it too inappropriate.
Robert, however, knew his sister all too well. Reading the subtle look of inquiry on her face, he said, "I think it was because they saw I was a captain."
"Huh?" Mel asked in surprise.
"You were wondering why the Krauts didn't kill me. I think they saw my rank and figured I ought to be good for interrogation."
This was in fact the very reason Captain Pappas was spared. At the time the Germans defending Cassino were desperate for any intelligence regarding what they were up against and von Senger, their commander, had ordered him men to take any prisoners they could. Especially officers.
"Once they had me up there," Robert continued, "they patched up my leg as best they could and then took me straight to see a guy named Captain Schmidt. He was an intelligence officer and, Melly, he spoke better English than I did.
Right away he jumps in asking me all these questions; What was my outfit? Where were our artillery batteries located? What was our strength? That sort of stuff. And after every question all he got was my name, rank, and serial number. After about fifteen minutes of this I could see he was starting to get pissed. Sure enough, he asks me again what my outfit is and when I feed him the same line as before he hauls off and busts me right in the chops."
Mel was aghast. "Golly, Robert, they didn't..." The idea of her brother being subjected to something so brutal as torture was too horrible for her to vocalize.
"Nahh," he assured her, "they didn't do anything like that. Luckily for me these guys were any of those SS bastards. Oh yeah they roughed me up a little bit and I finally ended up feeding them a line of bull just to get them off my back."
Naturally Melinda was quite relieved to hear this.
"Over the next couple of days they brought me in...I think it was three--no four more times. They'd push me around a little and I'd hem and haw a little just to make it look good and finally I'd start telling them whoppers." He grinned at her and added, "I knew that drama class I took in college would come in handy some day."
"Well at least they didn't hurt you," offered Melinda.
"Not too much anyway," Robert wryly countered. "I guess they figured they had gotten about all they were going to get out of me because a week later I found myself in a POW camp up near the Po River." He smiled and said, "That's where I met Chris. He had been a POW in one camp or another ever since Tobruk fell to Rommel in June of '42. Mostly it was British and Americans but there were a few Greeks, a handful of Poles, one guy from New Zealand--God, what a piece of work he was--some Frogs, and two Diggers; Chris and a another fellow by the name of John Phillips.
Although the Germans had managed to almost all the shrapnel out of my leg, by this time infection had set in and I was starting to get pretty sick. It got so bad that I went out of my head for three or four days and almost everybody figured I was going to die for sure."
"Wasn't there a doctor?" Mel asked.
Robert shook his head. "All we had in camp were a couple of medics. But they had no medical supplies so there really wasn't much they could do except stand by to see whether I was going to live or die." He shook his head as if amazed by his own survival and said, "The next thing I remember was lying on that hard bunk looking down at my sock feet and wondering who the bastard was that stole my boots. One of the medics, a man named Barnes, later told me it was a miracle I was alive. All I can say is thank God I was a big, strong guy. Naturally I was pretty weak for a couple for the next couple of days but within a week I was up and around. A good thing too, because it wasn't long after that when they marched us over to a nearby rail line and herded us into cattle cars. Everybody figured we were being shipped to Germany."
"Oh my," said Mel.
Her brother shot her a little grin and said, "I remember my reaction as being more along the lines of, 'Oh shit!'"
"Take this next left up here," said Chris, looking up from his map.
Janice nodded and took her foot off the gas pedal. "So tell me, Chris," she said. "Just what is an Aussie doing in this next of the woods?"
"Most of the time I've been rotting as a POW in an Italian prison camp," he replied. "When Italy surrendered and the Germans moved in things didn't change much until after Monte Cassino fell. The camp I had spent almost two years in was abandoned and we got moved to a shit hole of a place farther north. That was where I met the major."
Echoing much of what Robert would relate to Melinda, he then went to relate the details of their escape from the Germans and the subsequent year he, Phillips, and Pappas had spent operating with the partisans behind German lines.
"So what did you do before the war?" Janice asked, after he had finished.
"After I got out of secondary school I worked as a sparkie in Adelaide for a couple of years," he replied. Till this one day when this bloke 'ires me for a little job and when I'm all finished the bastard spits the dummy and says it's a botched job--that he's not goin' to pay us till I did it right. There wasn't nothin' wrong with my work. He was just bein' a knocker. Well I bailed that little sook up and told him I'd been makin' me crust this way for a long time and I didn't need a drongo like 'im to tell me my business. He then takes a swing at me and so we end up 'aving a blue right there in there in front of his bloody house."
Janice eyed the big muscles on his arms and wryly said, "He probably had you scared to death didn't he--that you were going to kill him, I mean.
Chris shook his head ruefully and said, "The bastard won in the end 'cause he ended dobbin' me in and it cost me my
job. So after spending the next four months on the wallaby track I decided to try my luck on the top end but times were tough
there too and, besides, those banana benders sure as hell weren't going to go out of their way to help me.
After another month or so I finally said the hell with it and I enlisted in the army. My pisser luck held because six months
later the whole Commonwealth declared war on Germany. The rest, as those bloody writers like to say, is 'istory."
"How on earth did you ever manage to escape?" she asked.
"Again, luck," he replied. "Plain and simple. You see, that very evening our train was attacked by a flight of P-38's. Those fly boys swooped down on us and began strafing hell out of the train."
"How awful," remarked Mel.
Robert shrugged and said, "It wasn't their fault. They didn't know we were on there. In war these things happen."
They certainly do. For example; on two consecutive days, July 24-25, 1944, in preparation for Operation Cobra, the breakout of American Forces from St. Lô on the Normandy Peninsula, USAAF bombers attempting to support "Lightning" Joe Collins VII Corps hit the wrong targets. The sorry result of these errors was that 136 American soldiers were killed and over 500 more were wounded by "friendly" fire from their own planes.
"Anyhow, they shot that locomotive engine to pieces and a couple of them even dropped bombs on us. Fortunately there were no direct hits or we'd have been nothin' but hamburger. However they did manage to plant one of them so close that it ruptured the tracks and the next thing I knew our car was keeling over like a dead dog. In fact the whole train derailed. After unpiling ourselves old Chris up there ripped off a couple of the floor boards with his bare hands and out of there we went like the proverbial bat out of hell."
"Gee, Robert, weren't you afraid of...you know...gettin' shot?"
"This was our big chance, Melly. Sitting out the war by starving in some German stalag was not something I was looking forward to. So zoom! I was right on Chris' ass out that hole. John Phillips popped out right after me and, man, you would have thought it was Santa Anita. I mean, talk about a jail break! All up and down the line guys were doing like we were; crawling out of those wrecked cars and dashing like mad for the woods."
What Melinda Pappas did not and would never know was that the pilot responsible for wrecking the train with his
bomb was none other than Captain, then Second Lieutenant, Rex Coleman, so recently her ferryman to Rimini. This raid had
been his very first mission in Italy.
Janice pulled up to the crossroads and stopped. "Which way?" she asked Chris.
"Straight," the Aussie replied.
"Right," said Janice.
"Naw, mate, I said straight."
Janice shot him an annoyed glance but said nothing. As she was easing out on the temperamental clutch she suddenly once again depressed it all the way to the floor board.
"What is it?" Chris asked, looking up from the map.
"I think it's 'right' after all," Janice said in ominous tones.
Janice tilted her head in the direction straight up the road, and said, "Take a look at that."
Five hundred yards dead ahead was a Panzerspahwagen, an eight wheeled armored German patrol car, coming toward them at a moderate rate of speed, its five centimeter gun pointed right at them. "Blimey!" the Aussie exclaimed. "Looks like that plan's down the gurgler."
Sensing trouble, Robert turned to his sister. "Stay down," he whispered. He then arose and sidled his way to the front. "What's going on?"
"Look," said Janice, pointing straight ahead.
"What say we do the Harold Holt out of here?" Chris suggested.
Without missing a beat, Robert said, "No. Turn right, nice and easy. Don't hurry. Just like we're out for a Sunday drive. Don't give them a reason to think anything is out of the ordinary."
"What's happening'?" Mel asked, upon joining them.
"Damn it, Melly," Robert rasped, "I told you to stay down!"
"You ain't the boss of me, Rah-bert," huffed the belle.
Frustrated by his sister's obstinacy, Major Robert L. Pappas, United States Army, turned to the one person in the group that he knew he could command. "God damn it, Michelhill! Get that stupid helmet on before those bastards see you!"
"All right, all right," replied Chris. "Jesus, don't do yer block." The big Aussie glumly jammed the helmet on his head and checked the bolt on his Sten gun.
Robert reached inside the cab and patted Janice on the shoulder. "Go." Janice made the right turn and casually ran through the gears. "That's it," he told her. "Nice and easy."
"What if they follow us?" Mel asked.
"Linda, honey, will you please get down?" pleaded Robert.
"Robert, I told you---"
"Do as he says, Mel!" barked Janice.
"Oh all right!" Mel snapped, grumpily plopping her buttocks down in the bed. "But how am I supposed to see what's goin' on? And don't call me Linda! You know how I hate that."
"She's got a point, you know," Janice said. "It's going to get pretty exciting around here if they catch up to us."
"Let's just hope they go another way," replied Robert.
While Janice drove the truck Robert and Chris warily eyed the armored car while the sitting Melinda strained to see above the tail gate of the truck. As the armored car neared the crossroads they held their collective breath in anxious expectation of which way their threat would go.
Sure enough, the Panzerspahwagen turned in their direction. "Arrrrggghh!" Chris growled angrily.
"Stay calm," Robert said.
"Look," exclaimed Janice, "we don't have time to play pitty-pat here! It's time for Plan B."
"What are you--"
Janice did not give Robert a chance to finish the question. Placing both hands tightly on the steering wheel, she pressed her foot against the gas pedal and slammed it all the way to the floor. "Hang on!" she yelled.
"Are you crazy? We can't outrun that thing!" shouted Robert.
"I don't believe they're interested in us," explained Janice. "I think the Russians are giving them more than enough to occupy their mind."
"You don't know these bastards like I do," Robert persisted. "If they are told to inventory the toilet paper, by God, they'll do it even if the whole damn outhouse is caving in on them."
Glancing at her outside rear view mirror, Janice retorted, "Then they'd better count the two-ply faster. Because we're losing 'em."
Robert looked back over his shoulder and saw Janice was right. The Panzerspahwagen was not trying to catch up to them but rather moving along at the same steady pace. "What now?" he asked Janice.
"Leave it to me," she replied. "Chris?"
"We've got to double back. Keep an eye out on your side of the road for a place where we can hide the truck."
"I'm on it," said Chris. A quarter of a mile later, the Aussie stuck out his big arm and yelled, "There! That's so thick a dog couldn't bark in it!"
Janice slammed on the squealing brakes and after giving the prospective hiding place a very quick once-over, eased the truck around behind the dense thicket. "Quick!" she yelled. "Everybody out!"
She and Chris bailed out of the cab while Robert took his sister by the arm and together they jumped out of the back. Once clear, the four of them hustled over to a nearby gully and threw themselves down in it. A few tense minutes elapsed and then they heard the whine of the Panzerspahwagen's engine grow louder and louder as it drew nearer...and nearer...
Instinctively Janice and Robert both simultaneously reached out to push Melinda farther still down into the gully. Now Chris disdainfully cast aside the German helmet and spat on it for good measure. "If I 'ave to go, I'm checkin' out as a true blue Digger," he vowed, grimly.
Just as they had the night before with the "Tigers," Janice and Melinda could do nothing now but lie there and sweat it out. As the vehicle drew abreast of them the two men fingered the triggers of their Sten guns and waited. But just like the night before the Germans blithely rolled on past, totally unaware of just how close by their enemy actually was.
Even before the sound of the armored car's engine had faded, Janice was up and scurrying to the road, Robert right on her heels. Satisfied that the Germans were indeed gone, she brushed herself off and said, "Damn, I don't know how many more of these I can take."
"Huh?" asked Robert. Janice then proceeded to tell about their previous night's encounter with German armor.
Five minutes later they were back in the truck and tearing back down the road toward the crossroads. Along the way, Robert finished his incredible story to Melinda. After making good their escape, Robert, Chris, and John Phillips hid out in the woods for close to a week. On the seventh day of running--tired, hungry, and yes, scared--they were stumbling along a little used path when they suddenly found themselves surrounded by several dirty, roughly clad, but heavily armed men. That these men would, in fact, prove to be Italian communist partisans mattered not at all to either Pappas or his Aussie companions. All they saw were heavily armed, highly motivated men who were fighting the Germans. All they saw was a chance to get back in the war. And for their part the communists were delighted to have three highly trained, highly experienced combat veterans join them.
And that is what Captain Pappas and the two Aussies did. Over the next eleven months they participated in dozens of operations against the ever retreating Germans. In time Pappas would rise to second in command of a force that by March, 1945 would have grown to over a thousand men. On the last day of the month, elements of the American 10th Mountain Division linked up with these partisans and after an emotional farewell to men who, communist or no, he would remember for the rest of his life, Robert L. Pappas once again became a soldier in the United States Fifth Army.
But one man who did not return was John Phillips. In the winter of '44 he came down with a terrible fever and was
dead within a week. His Aussie mate Chris buried him high up in the mountains with the solemn promise that he would come
back for him once the war was over.
Barely three days after his return, Captain Pappas was promoted to major and, in light of his vast experience in operating behind enemy lines, was given the opportunity to "volunteer" for one last mission, a "last little thing" the man had ironically called it. Though not initially included in the plan Chris stubbornly insisted that he be allowed to go wherever Pappas went. The army brass had said "why not" and the next thing they knew the two of them were parachuted into Austria after being told to scout the area for the two OSS agents that were to follow.
Naturally the Army had been all for informing Robert's next of kin that he was alive but to their surprise he pleaded with them
not to do so. In the end he convinced them. His reasoning was simple enough. What possible good would it do to tell his mother
he was alive if there was a good chance they might have to come back two weeks later and say, "Oops, sorry, he's dead again."
He figured it was better to wait until the whole mess was over--one way or another.
Up front Chris tapped Janice on the arm and said, "Not much farther, mate."
Janice nodded solemnly and once again she began to turn over in her mind just what her options were regarding Cernak.
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