Halo of Blood
Author's note: I was inspired to write this piece after discovering COMBAT, an old TV show from the 1960's. It... Show full author's note »
Halo of BloodSergeant Chip Saunders woke up to cold water being poured over his face. His whole body was burning up with heat, searing deep in his muscles and bathing his body in sweat. Groaning softly, he struggled to open his eyes. How did I get here? What happened?
The room was filled with dim lamplight that hurt his eyes. Some cold, metallic thing was touched to his lips, and cold water ran down his chin until he had sense enough to open his mouth and swallow the sweetness that flowed down his parched throat. “Thank you,” he whispered, sensing the presence of someone hunched over him. A dark, blurry shape loomed in his vision. He blinked again and stared harder as the shapeless blob slowly started to form. A face…long braided hair…two huge brown eyes that were staring right at him. He gulped in surprise and held back a gasp of pain as the person’s hand touched the searing wound in his chest. He drew his sweaty arm across his forehead and found himself looking into the thin, pale face of a thirteen-year-old girl.
Trying to get some answers, the young sergeant attempted to raise himself but was forced down by pain and sheer weakness. He smothered a scream, blue eyes rolling back into his head as agony scorched his raw nerves. He began to mumble incomprehensively, cursing himself and moaning for help all at the same time. “Someone…help me…take cover over there…the information…I have to get up….I must…”
The girl was rubbing his chest now, bathing out the wound with a wet washcloth. The sudden agony snapped him to his senses and he cried out, jerking his body away from her. She spoke to him softly in words he couldn’t understand. “Where am I?” he groaned. “What have you done? I have to get back…tell them…”
Everything suddenly cemented in the sergeant’s feverish brain. He remembered running through the woods, dodging trees and craters while mumbling over and over to himself the important information he had memorized less than an hour before. It was information that could save hundreds of lives and he had to get it to B Company immediately. There had been no jeeps to spare so he had made out on foot, stumbling through the rough French forest and clutching his tommy gun tightly to his chest. He was running, gasping, running, lungs shuddering, running… running…
Koff! The gunshot rang out, sending something small and hot smashing into his body. He barely saw the sniper in the trees, barely comprehended the stream of bullets he sent in the enemy’s direction, never heard the soft thud as the German’s body dropped to the leafy forest floor. Pain, blinding pain, pain unlike anything he’d ever felt jolted through him, twisting his limbs into grotesque positions, locking his jaw in a silent scream, grinding his fingernails into the dirt. And now he was here, lying flat on his back in a ramshackle farmhouse, his brain a clod of moronic porridge as he struggled to make sense of it all.
The information! He could still remember it, but it would do no good to anyone now. How long had he been lying here, swallowed up in a haze of terror and agony while hundreds of innocent men were slaughtered on the front lines? The Germans… his squad…
Something touched his shoulder and jarred him back to reality. The girl was standing over him again, her braids hanging down like hairy ropes. Saunders blinked, blood a sour spume in his mouth. “Do- do you speak English?” he asked slowly. His tongue felt like sandpaper. She nodded. “A little.”
Saunders rolled his eyes around, taking in his surroundings from what he could see flat on his back. He was in a small, dark cellar, sprawled on a bed of dirty straw. The room was lit with a hurricane lantern that cast weird shadows on the limestone walls and illuminated his skin like gold. His undershirt and jacket had been removed, exposing his entire upper body, while his wound had been bandaged with strips of white cloth that criss-crossed around his chest and under his back. The worst of the bleeding had stopped, but the pain was unlike anything he had ever endured. “What happened?” he asked softly. “How did I get here?”
The girl stared steadily into his eyes. “I found you in the woods,” she said simply. “I do not know how you were shot, but I brought you here so you can get well.”
“How did you get me here?” he asked, not sure if he could trust her.
“I dragged you by your boots,” she replied, smiling a little at the floor. “You are very heavy, sergeant.”
The soldier grinned faintly through his pain. “I’ll bet.” He looked at her silently for a while. “My name’s Saunders,” he said quietly. “Will you tell me yours?”
“Marietta,” she replied soberly, twisting her small hands in her lap. He noticed her twig-thin wrists and fingers.
“That’s very… very pretty.” He winced as pain blossomed through him again. Hunger scraped in his belly and he lifted his hand in a futile gesture. “How long have I been here…like this?”
The girl shrugged. “Hours, Days. I do not know. I have lost track of the time.”
The soldier nodded, shifting his body on the hard bed. “I’m starving,” he said softly. “Can you give me anything to eat, please?”
“I will bring something later,” she replied, turning towards the door. “You are not going to be here much longer, anyway.”
Saunders frowned. “W-what do you mean?”
“You shall see, sergeant. All too soon, you shall see.” She closed the door.
The sergeant’s eyes snapped open. He’d been dozing, drifting away in a dystopia of agony and hunger for hours on end. He raised his eyes to the rough-hewn ceiling, wondering what had disturbed him. The rafters shook; he could plainly hear Marietta’s voice, pleading and desperate, while a gruff, husky voice he’d never heard before drowned her out.
Saunders flinched inwardly as he heard the rough male slap Marietta, who was now crying softly. He heard the door slam shut and the sound of her sobs coming through the thick floorboards. His forehead throbbed with a splitting headache as he turned the matter over in his mind. Something was wrong, and it made him uneasy.
After a few minutes he heard footsteps on the stairs and opened his eyes, seeing Marietta standing there with a bowl of soup in her hands. “Hush, sergeant,” she whispered. “I have brought you something to eat.”
Saunders’ nostrils quivered at the rich aroma of the soup. “Give it to me quickly,” he begged, holding out his hands for the small bowl. She shook her head. “I cannot. You will be sick. Lie down and I will give it to you.”
Fighting back words of protest and anger, the sergeant silently let his body relax on the stiff wooden pallet, feeling his stomach wrenching inside of him like a tormented beast. Marietta pulled up a stool and began to feed him the watery nourishment with a small pewter spoon the size of a doll utensil. Struggling against his will so that his body trembled noticeably, Saunders subjected to the indignity of being spoon-fed like a baby, though it wasn’t his pride but only his shrunken stomach that hurt him the most. Slowly, a few precious drops at a time, the little girl scooped the steaming liquid into his mouth. It was disgusting soup, thin and sour and mainly water, but he had never tasted anything so delicious.
Satisfied at last, Saunders let his head drop, surveying her with his sunken blue eyes. “What happened up there, Marietta? Your cheek is bruised.” He reached out to her with his hand, but she shrank back, her face a pale mask of terror. “I- I cannot tell you,” she mumbled.
Saunders shifted his shoulders on the lumpy straw. “Marietta,” he said softly, “I don’t want you to be afraid. If something is bothering you, I want you to tell me.” He stopped and then added, “I know I’ve been a great burden to you and I appreciate all that you’ve done to help me. I know that you could have left me out there to die and I’m thankful that you didn’t. So if there’s anything I can do to repay you, just say it and I’ll do it the best I can.”
His speech was intended to calm and reassure her, but instead it seemed to make her even more upset and tears spilled from her large brown eyes. “I had no choice,” she whispered. “I did not want to take you in. It would have been better for you to die in the woods than to be taken into a place such as this!”
He stared at her, puzzled. “What do you mean? What are you talking about? Didn’t you want to help me?”
“Oh yes,” she sobbed, “very much. That is why I am crying now, because I have not helped you.”
“What are you saying? You have saved my life. If it hadn’t been for you I would have bled to death out there.”
“It would have been better for you all the same. Don’t you see?” she sobbed, wringing her thin hands in her dress. “My brother is going to turn you into the SS as a prisoner of war.”
Saunders paused, feeling his heart kick sickeningly against his lungs. He gazed into her face, hardly daring to believe the truth. “Then you’ve got to help me escape. Now. Before time runs out.”
The girl shook her head, fingers twitching nervously. “You are too weak. You cannot walk yet. You have no chance, sergeant.”
He stared at her desperately. “Don’t you want to help me?” he asked softly. “Don’t you want to repent what you have done?”
Marietta chewed on her thin lip. “I am sorry, sergeant. This war has taken a terrible toll on us. My mother and father are dead. The Germans are winning. We have no choice. It is either this, or we starve.”
The young soldier felt his hopes diminishing. “Please,” he pleaded. “There’s still time. I can make it, but I can’t do it without your help.” She turned away, fear flashing briefly on her face. “I cannot fight my brother.”
Saunders stared at the girl from deep within his eyes. “Marietta,” he said softly, “do you have any idea what this means to me? Do you know that I have a family back home in the States, a mother and three little brothers and a little sister? Have you ever considered what would happen to them if I die? I don’t have a father anymore either, and I have to provide for them. Do you see what I mean? Is that all you see me as, a piece of property to be handed over for profit? Just one of dozens of other human beings that you’ve duped into believing that you are a decent person willing to care for them and love them when they have no hope and the only people that do love them are thousands of miles away? Have you even thought of it that way, Marietta?”
She was standing now, her back turned to him. “Don’t, sergeant. There is no other way. They will be here any minute.”
Saunders swallowed hard. His wound ached and his lungs heaved like wet paper sacks. “Trading human lives is no way to feed yourself, Marietta.” Silence.
“Marietta, if you help me get out of here, I will take you back to the States with me and we can live with my mother. This wound is going to put me out of the war for sure, so I’ll be home again and you can live in a free country where there is no fighting.”
“I have heard that before, sergeant. They all say that.”
Saunders gritted his teeth, fighting off waves of nausea. He was beaten; there was no way out. “I’m sorry, Marietta. Very sorry. Not just for me, but for you. All you’ve even known is war. No one has ever taught you what it means to be human.”
Silence. “I have about 50 dollars in my pocket here. That should cover what they Germans will give you for me. Now, let me go.”
The girl bolted around as soon as she heard the crackle of the wadded paper bills. In one swift movement she tore them from his hand and stuffed them in her skirt. “I will go with you. You do not know these woods like I do.”
Saunders eased himself to his feet, biting his lip bloody to hold back his pain. Slipping his arms into his torn jacket, he slung his Thompson over his shoulder and leaned against the wall for support. “Okay. Open the door and let’s get out of here.”
“Halt!” A piercing gunshot echoed throughout the entire room, the noise pounding in Saunders’ temples. He froze, hardly daring to breathe as a tall, blond youth blocked the doorway, leveling a Luger straight at Saunders’ wildly thumping heart. Two German soldiers were standing behind him, the gold logos of the SS gleaming on the collars of their black uniforms.
Fear paralyzed Saunders’ muscles. For a blind moment he thought of leaping past them, decided it was suicide, and slowly raised his hands in the air.
Marietta slunk into the corner while one soldier roughly stripped Saunders down to his jacket and undershirt. Binding his hands with strips of coarse leather, the Germans poked and slapped him towards the door and herded him up the stairs. He saw for a fleeting second Marietta’s brother holding out his hand as the soldier plunked six pieces of gold into it and saluted him with a gruff “Heil Hitler!”
For a brief moment the sergeant’s eyes met Marietta’s, then his head was jerked away and he was pushed outside into the bright moonlight. All his hope drained away like sand in a sieve.
* * * *
The young sergeant awoke hours later in a pile of dirty straw, his skin cold and sticky with sweat and every muscle in his body stretched and sore. Grinding his fists into his eyes, he opened them and came face to face with another sergeant, younger than he was but very dirty looking and rough. “Easy, dude,” the soldier muttered, placing a strong hand on Saunders’ trembling shoulder and forcing him to lie down again. “You’ve lost a lot of blood and you’re kinda in shock.” He lifted a cup of murky water to Saunders’ cracked lips, and Saunders swallowed every drop.
“Where am I?” the young sergeant moaned, pressing a hand to his throbbing chest. It came away sticky with blood.
“Relax, I said. You’re in a prisoner of war camp now. Nothing you can do about it.” The soldier unzipped Saunders’ jacket and pushed a rag against the bleeding wound. “The name’s Duce. You’re the only guy I’ve seen here in a long time. What’s your name, huh?”
The wounded man closed his swollen eyes. “Saunders,” he whispered hoarsely, trying not to move his chest too much. “W-what happened?”
Duce shook his head. “They hauled you in by truck about 3 hours ago. I guess you must have passed out on the road, so they loaded you up on wheels. You’re the first prisoner they’ve had in two weeks.”
Saunders didn’t reply and Duce went on, checking the bleeding every few minutes to be sure that it was under control. “I used to have my whole platoon for company, you know. Captain Kurtz, he tore ‘em apart, one by one. First they got the Lieutenant, then the Dunn brothers since they were our bazooka team, then Rob Pritchard our BAR man, and everyone else.” His voice was low and bitter and full of hatred. “Finally we were down to just seven guys, and Kurtz cut our food rations in half…” he swallowed. “I’m the only guy left. They transferred Tait and McPherson two days ago and now it’s just me.” He gently zipped up Saunders’ jacket to keep the primitive bandage in place and knelt back in the filthy straw. “That’s all we got in the way of First Aid around here, dude. Just lie down and try to sleep. It’s the only remedy for pain we got around here.”
“Thank you,” Saunders whispered. He closed his eyes.
* * * * *
Bright sunlight shone into the young sergeant’s eyes, and he sat up with a grunt. His surroundings caved in on him and he shook his head, trying to clear his vision. Information…prisoner of war…Captain Kurtz… He got to his feet quickly, hands grasping the worm-eaten wood stall that he had slept in all night. Sudden pain reverberated down his chest and into his empty stomach; he kept himself from falling again only through sheer willpower.
Painfully, Saunders rolled his eyes around, sizing up the situation. He was in a small, ramshackle barn with gaping holes in the walls that revealed the fenced-in yard, devoid of any grass. Duce was asleep in the corner, his snores rattling the rotting roof tiles. Saunders took a staggering step forward and collapsed, weakness settling into his aching legs. Duce woke with a start at the sound of his body hitting the hard dirt floor. “Whoa, take it easy, dude. I didn’t know you’d be awake this early.”
Saunders accepted the hand that was held out to him and pulled himself to his feet again. “My head’s going to explode,” he mumbled. “When’s chow around here, anyway?”
“Noon, and it ain’t much,” Duce replied. “But I wouldn’t worry about that now if I were you. Here, sit down and have some more water. You’re going to need it.”
Saunders crawled onto a broken packing box and gratefully accepted the cup of murky water. “This Kurtz… what is he like?” he asked, lifting the putrid liquid to his lips and shuddering as it oozed down his swollen throat.
“He’s an animal,” Duce sighed, rolling up the sleeves on his tattered jacket. “He wouldn’t hesitate to kick your skull in. He’s done just that to some of my men. Me, I didn’t have any valuable information, so he left me alone, if you don’t count all the grass I ate when he cut rations in half for two weeks.” He reached out and touched Saunders’ chest. “Let’s have a look at that wound, huh? How’d you get it?”
Saunders ignored his question. “What will he do to me?”
Duce straightened his back, shaking his head in an expression of dire pity. “I won’t say, Saunders. It won’t do to get you all riled up before it actually happens. All I’ll say is this; I’ve never heard men scream so much in my entire life.”
Without warning, the door swung open and harsh voices prodded the two soldiers to their feet. Three armed Germans grabbed Saunders and surrounded him quickly, cuffing his wrists and searching through his ragged clothes for any weapons. Duce raised his hands, standing off to the side while the Germans did their work. “Good luck, dude,” his voice tickled Saunders’ ear. “Whatever you do, don’t give in!”
Too dazed to even breathe, Saunders was yanked out into early morning sunlight, hauled across the compound to a small house, and brought before a desk in a small room where sat a tall, middle-aged German officer. Saunders stared at him with an expression of calm awe. The man’s eyes were like molten steel, burning and yet icy cold at the same time, swallowing up everything they rested on. Saunders saw his own tiny reflection in the shiny wet orbs, and their piercing clarity made his flesh crawl. The officer smiled, then pointed to a large overstuffed chair in front of the desk. “Sit down, sergeant,” he commanded in heavy English. Saunders silently obeyed.
Kurtz dismissed all the guards and tamped some tobacco into his pipe, a very expensive pipe as the young sergeant noticed. He watched the officer’s every move, sensing the tension growing in the room. Kurtz lit a match and sucked in a cloud of smoke, then exhaled in Saunders’ face. He leaned back comfortably in his leather armchair and propped his black leather boots on the desk. “Welcome, Sergeant Saunders. Please, make yourself at home. Would you like a cigar?” Saunders tightened his jaw, straightening his shoulders slightly. “No, thank you, captain.”
“Do not fear, comrade. You shall be treated well here. All of my prisoners are treated well.” He blew another cloud of smoke into Saunders’ face. “I am sure your fellow prisoner has told you who I am. Therefore, I will expect your cooperation.”
Saunders blinked and swallowed again, then said in his soft, husky voice, “My name is Saunders. Sergeant. Serial number 2270622.”
Kurtz drew in a long breath of smoke, setting his pipe down in a glass ashtray. He unfolded a large map on his desk and tapped a certain spot with his thick finger. “Let’s see,” he mused, half to himself. “They tell me you are from K Company. That unit has been milling around here, and Hill 245 is over here, so you must have been captured right here. “ He traced an area of woods with his fingernail. Saunders’ heart jumped a little. He recognized the map, and Kurtz was dead right.
The officer smiled coldly. “A rather clever little operation, isn’t it, sergeant? There are lots of starving French orphans willing to exchange Americans for food and gold. Your GIs are so stupid that they fall for every bit of it. But a sergeant, like you! Ha! I am very surprised that someone as experienced as you would.” He rose and began to pace around his desk, holding a small crop whip in his hairy hand. “So tell me,” he began. “Are you really from K Company? Perhaps L Company? Or C Company?”
Saunders repeated slowly, “Saunders. Sergeant. 2270622.”
Kurtz kept pacing, lines grooving around his mouth. “I already know that, sergeant. I am not deaf. I am trying to be patient with you and the results will be painful if you do not cooperate.” Saunders swallowed, his blue eyes unblinking. “Saunders. Sergeant. 2270622.”
“Crack!” The whip in Kurtz’s hand snaked out, cutting into his cheek. The sergeant winced and turned his head sideways against the blow, feeling blood dripping down his face. “So you will not answer,” the officer snarled. “We shall see to that, Saunders!” The whip lashed out again, lancing into the sergeant’s neck. Saunders bit his tongue, holding up his tied hands to shield his face.
“You are helpless and a fool, sergeant,” Kurtz hissed in his ear. “Many men tried to resist me. Their bones are now bleaching in the sun. You’re never going to get out of here alive, and you know it. So you might as well tell me everything you know, and make it easy on yourself. Germany is winning the war anyway. Your death will make no difference. America has forgotten about you, sergeant. You’re just another name on a casualty list, another unmarked grave.”
Saunders barely heard his last sentence. His head roared and his ears burned red. “Maybe you’re right, Kurtz. Maybe you are winning this war. Maybe America has forgotten about me.” His lips barely moved and he struggled to keep his voice steady. “But those are maybes. And I wouldn’t have fought this war in the first place if I knew someone didn’t care, if I knew it was based on maybes. But someone does care. You wouldn’t know- your god is Hitler. You may be a soldier, but you’ll never understand what it truly means to fight and die for what you know is the real truth.”
Kurtz smiled. His hand was raised, the whip poised for another blow which never came. “You are well versed, sergeant. You know I have the power to kill you right now, and yet you sit here unflinching. Remarkable.” He turned, signaled to the guard outside the door. “Schnell!”
Saunders stared, confused, as his hands were untied from behind his back. Then his eyes widened in shock. Kurtz was holding a poker, turning it slowly around and around in the fireplace until the sharp, cruel piece of metal glowed. Saunders’ shirt was pulled from his body. His blue eyes never left the hot iron as Kurtz slowly advanced, the white-hot metal quivering in his hand.
At first, there was no pain. And then there were no words to describe the pain.
* * *
“Maybe we could dig a tunnel.”
“How?” Duce mumbled. “All we got is our bare hands.”
“Then we’ll use them.”
Duce lifted himself up on one elbow to stare at Saunders through the dim twilight. The sergeant’s face was still swollen, his left eye sealed shut, the wounds crusted over and oozing on his chest and shoulders, but there was the same determined, dangerous tone in his voice that Duce had learned to be aware of. “I told you, Saunders, I’ve tried to escape before, and do you know what happened to six of my men? Kurtz had ‘em machine-gunned right here in the yard, and they rotted there for weeks. Look what he’s already done to you. You almost died from that branding and here you are digging tunnels. Well, let me tell you somethin’. The Army’s forgotten about us veterans, and it don’t matter to them whether we live or not. Yeah, so it says in the book that you gotta escape if you’re captured. Well, it also says that you gotta stay alive!”
Saunders’ one good eye caught a shaft of moonlight as he turned towards Duce, making it look like a burning blue coal. “I know the book inside-out. It also says on page thirty-two, section B, paragraph twelve that a soldier has to be ready to give his life for his country at any given moment. It also says that you have to follow orders, even if it means life and death, and gives me the right to command as superior officer.”
Duce raised his voice a notch, spitting out the words with heavy sarcasm. “Oh, yes sir, Mr. Sergeant, I’m just gonna hand over my life to some crazy lunatic and hope that my number isn’t on any of those machine guns shooting at me. Do you know I got a wife and three kids back home? Does it matter to you if I never see them again? My son’s gonna grow up and never know his father, and I don’t even know what the other two kids look like! So don’t think I’m going to let you ruin my life just because you ain’t got nothing to live for!”
Saunders’ voice was quiet and venomous. “No,” he said huskily, “maybe I’m not married yet, maybe I don’t have any kids. But I have just as much to live for as you do. If we stay here we’ll starve to death, one way or the other. If we try to escape, at least we have a chance.” He got up slowly and dug his fingernails into the moist dirt floor by the base of the rotting wall. “Look,” he said softly. “This dirt is loose enough so we can use our hands. It’s about six feet to the barbed wire fence from this wall, and there’s old bottles in the loft we can use for scrapers.”
Duce sighed and put a hand over his thin stomach. “You’re nuts.”
“Maybe. But we got to risk it.” The sergeant weakly crawled back to his corner and leaned his naked back against the wall, folding his hands again between his crossed legs. “You know what I’m thinking about, Duce?”
“Grilled lamb chops. A nice, huge, medium-rare grilled lamb chop, marinated in olive oil and red wine and rubbed with expensive herbs and seared to perfection on the top rack. What d’ you say?”
“I still say you’re nuts.”
Saunders turned his face towards the wall, digging his fists into his aching stomach. “No matter. We start tomorrow.”
* * *
Grunting under the effort, Saunders pushed an armful of dirt behind him, groveling on his hands and knees while scraping away at the ground with a broken bottle. Dirt was everywhere: grinding between his teeth, smothering his lungs, caking on the roof of his mouth. Duce was resting on a packing box, trying to conserve his strength for when his turn would come. Saunders slowly backed his way out of the tunnel, feeling more dirt and grime sifting through his sweaty hair. “Okay, Duce, she’s all yours,” he gasped.
The rattle of wood against barbed wire brought both men scrambling to their feet. Two armed German soldiers were entering the gate, dragging behind them another soldier with bound hands. “Krauts!” he hissed to Duce, diving down and crawling towards the tunnel. The two men hurriedly threw planks of wood and straw over the hole and Saunders sat down on top of it, while Duce collapsed in a horse stall and pretended to be asleep. Saunders picked at a louse in his hair and tried to look bored as two seconds later the door was kicked open and the new prisoner was thrown inside.
The new soldier knelt motionless in the straw, his head sunken onto his chest and bright red blood streaming from an ugly wound on his cheek. The silence was deafening. Neither man dared to breathe. Slowly, Saunders slid one foot in front of the other and approached the hunched figure. He knelt quietly in the straw and cautiously laid his hand on the man’s trembling shoulder. The soldier’s head jerked up, the large brown eyes desperate and wide with fear. Saunders felt his heart skip a beat. There was something in his face, something he knew from a long way back.
“Chip?” the young soldier whispered, his face pale with disbelief. He stared into the sergeant’s bloody, wounded face. “Chip… I-I don’t believe it…” Saunders locked his arms around the man’s shoulders, pulling him into a masculine embrace. “Tony,” he mumbled. “I thought I told you to stay out of this stinking war.” He quickly untied the man’s bound hands, his own hands shaking so badly he could barely get the knots undone. “Where have you been? How in the heck did you get shipped over here?”
The soldier wrinkled his nose at the smell of Saunders’ body. “Eh, I been around, Chip. Everyone back home thinks you’re a hero, so I set out to prove them wrong.” His voice softened a bit. “I never thought I’d see you in a place like this.” His large brown eyes looked over Saunders’ body, taking in the protruding ribs, the bloody scars, and his left eye, which was still swollen shut. His face clouded. “What’d they do to you, Tiger? You look like you been through a meat grinder.”
All this time Duce had been leaning against the opposite wall in silence, but now he spoke up. “Mind introducing me?” he grunted. “What are we, barbarians? You two brothers or something?”
Saunders rubbed a hand across his face. “No,” he said quickly. “Just good friends. Uh, Tony, this is Duce, the boss of the place, and Duce, this is my friend from Boot Camp. We had some wild times back there.” The sergeant squeezed Tony’s shoulder weakly. “Well, make yourself at home. You have a rough time with the krauts? How’s the war out there?”
Tony sighed and leaned back against the wall, rubbing the blood back into his wrists from where the rope had left its mark. “Yeah, well, my squad got caught in an ambush, and me and Kelly were laying down fire so the Lieutenant could get in some grenades, but the krauts had a mortar and we didn’t know it.” He glanced at Saunders for a second, pausing and grinning for effect, then went on. “Well, they got the lieutenant and then they got Kelly and me. I was cut up pretty good; that’s how I got this little scratch on my face, and before you could say “retreat” they had me. So here I am.” He sighed. “How’d they get you?”
Saunders didn’t reply right away. “It’s a long story,” he said quietly. “I don’t really want to talk about it now.” Tony nodded , rubbing a hand across his belly. “I’m famished. When’s chow around here, or do you even get chow?”
Saunders shrugged, feeling his stomach contract into a small, hard ball. “There’s no more chow today. Get used to being hungry.” Tony said nothing else.
* * * * *
It was about five-o-clock in the morning when Saunders finally scraped away the last of the dirt from the inside of the tunnel. They were under the fence now, and all they had to do was dig up through the ground and they were free. He slowly backed out of the hole and wiped his dirt-streaked hand across his forehead. “All right, I’m going in there. I’ll whistle when the coast is clear. Tony, give me the knife.” Tony handed the sergeant a long, sharp piece of bone with a carved handle. “Good luck, Tiger,” he muttered, patting his friend’s shoulder. “I’ll see you in the States.” Saunders pursed his lips grimly and crawled forward. He was not the type for long goodbyes.
All night long, three sentries patrolled the perimeter of the barbed-wire fence surrounding the barracks, leading vicious, snarling German shepherds with chains and toting MP40’s over their shoulders. Any prisoner found outside the grounds would be either ripped apart by bullets or torn to shreds by the howling dogs while the Germans egged them on.
Saunders’ heart was pounding and his breath came in short gasps as he wormed through the tunnel on his back, feeling along the dirt walls with his hands. The bone knife was clenched in his teeth, and he did not intend to lose it in case he had to fight his way out. Over top of him, a German sentry walked briskly across the soft carpet of grass, leading three growling dogs and completely unaware of the unfolding escape. Dawn was beginning to glow in the pale grey sky, and a thin red line rimming the horizon predicted the reappearance of the sun. It was going to be another hot July day but a beautiful one, and Saunders could hardly wait to see daylight.
He was under the fence now. Taking out his scraper and working franticly with his bare hands, he began to hack away at the dirt above him, taking great care not to make any noise. A streak of light shone from under a small crack in the earth’s crust and he poked his hand through it, kicking franticly at the dirt above him until his body was released from the earth that imprisoned him. His thin face broke into a wide grin as he faced the glorious rising sun. He was free!
An intense stab of pain brought him back to his senses. A snarling, wriggling mass of saliva and fur was charging right for him. Sharp dog’s teeth cut into his arm and he quickly rolled out of the way onto the warm turf, covering his throat and face with his hands while dogs slashed at his writhing body. Screaming in pain and fear, he turned over on his belly while the vicious teeth and claws worked over his naked back. Chains popped as the dogs were forced back and bullets shattered through the air, thumping into the ground just inches away from his side. Slowly the young sergeant raised his head. His eyes were full of dirt but he could see that armed soldiers and growling dogs surrounded him. Captain Kurtz pushed through the ring, huge and terrible.
“I see,” snarled Kurtz, looking Saunders over with his hawkish eyes. “A tunnel. I surely thought you would have been more sensible than to take such primitive measures, sergeant.” Saunders shivered, his throat twisted into a tight knot. “You will be punished for this,” Kurtz went on, “and your friends will receive no food rations for a week. And as for you-“ the young sergeant was hauled to his feet and bound with ropes. “You shall see no more of your comrades, Sergeant Saunders.” He motioned with his hand “Take him away!”
Breathless with fear, the young soldier was taken behind the building and tied to a post. Why hadn’t they killed him right away? A short, chubby German began to tear at the sergeant’s pants, trying to pull them off. However the wounds on Saunders’ legs had clotted into the fabric and it was practically impossible to remove them, so eventually, with the impatient protests from the other soldiers, they remained intact.
Saunders shivered in the cool dawn, heart beating savagely in his throat. Blood streamed from his arms and back and left crimson droplets on the hard-packed dirt. The Germans seemed to be in no hurry to get on with whatever they were going to do to him. Suddenly his face paled beneath his tan as he noticed one of the soldiers take a long whip from the wall and uncoil it. He snapped it at the ground with deadly accuracy. The long coil jerked towards him, popping inches from the young sergeant’s nose. The other soldiers backed away, grinning.
The sergeant squeezed his eyes shut as the long lash arched before him, hissing like a steam engine. But this was no machine. This was going to kill him. The first blow tore into his chest and knocked him over backwards, his naked back flinching against the pole as the pain seared through him. His legs trembled but he did not fall, clenching his jaw to keep from crying out. Shickack! The Germans hooted with laughter as he nearly screamed, biting his lips white. A roaring inferno of pain swept through him as the lash kept coming…coming…coming…
He lost count at twenty lashes. His brain became numb. After a while it no longer mattered if they were going to stop or not. One last agonizing cry ripped out of his throat, and he sank to his knees as the whip jerked his legs out from under him. He rolled his eyes upward in one last gesture of anguish and saw Captain Kurtz standing by the small window in his office, his steel-grey eyes full of satisfaction as the young sergeant writhed in his own blood.
* * * * *
Saunders’ eyes were sticky with blood and it took many attempts to open them. At last he succeeded and took a weak, feeble attempt to look at his surroundings. He was not in the barn. He was a prisoner in one of the many rooms in Kurtz’s quarters, separated from his friends and unable to move. His pants had been ripped to shreds and he could see the bloody, swollen skin through the torn fabric, while his entire chest had some sharp, stabbing pain inside it and his lungs felt congested with blood. The skin around his stomach and groin area was an ugly purplish color that made him sick to look at it.
Throughout the entire war, his capture and his imprisonment, Saunders had been holding in all his emotions, bottling them up in his chest for fear of letting them out. But now, his body stretched to a breaking point, he just couldn’t contain them any longer. He felt the scream clawing inside his throat and working its way up. He tried for a second to fight it, but then realized that it was no use. All his pain, anger, and helplessness came bursting out of his mouth in a long, agonizing cry. It took him a few seconds to realize that he was crying softly. Hot, salty tears trickled down his raw face, smarting the bleeding wounds on his neck and shoulders.
“Oh God,” he whispered, “Oh God, please, please help me.”
Saunders opened his eyes again when he heard the door open. He weakly turned his head, expecting to see Kurtz coming in to torture him again. His body was so numb with pain that no matter what the German officer did to him, it probably would make no difference. A figure darted inside and closed the door behind it, its footsteps so light he could barely hear them. It knelt at his side and set down the lantern it was carrying. Saunders blinked as the fur muffler was removed from its face. It was a woman.
“Who-?” he began, but she clapped her hand over his mouth. “Shhh,” she hissed. “If I am discovered we will both be killed.” Her short hair shone in the dim light, and her eyes were fringed with artificial lashes. It struck the young sergeant that she was very pretty and he felt ashamed of his nakedness in front of her.
Whoever she was, she didn’t seem to notice or care. Reaching into her purse, she pulled out a bottle of strong-smelling medicine and began to bathe the long, deep cuts that marked his body. It bit like fire and he almost screamed, but she silenced him again by clapping her hand over his mouth with uncommon strength. “Be quiet,” she ordered. “Your wounds must be cleaned or they will become infected.”
The medicine dulled the pain somewhat, and Saunders found himself beginning to breathe easier. She gently cleaned and bandaged the ugly slash marks left by the German dogs and pressed a wet rag to his chapped lips. “I didn’t know Kurtz had a girlfriend,” Saunders whispered hoarsely, but blood choked in his throat and he exploded into a fit of coughing. The woman paused ever so slightly in her work. “Please try to understand,” she whispered, coiling a thick bandage around his torn hand. “He only did what was his duty in circumstances of war.”
Saunders felt his heart speed up. “Is beating a man to death an officer’s primary duty?” he asked, his voice hushed with pain, yet strong. “Is treating a human being like an animal just another military procedure?” He smothered a cry of pain by suddenly clenching his teeth. His chest heaved and quivered for a second; he wondered if he should not talk because he was so grateful for her help.
“Do you know that I’m only 25 years old?” he continued, more softly. “Can’t you see what your boyfriend has done to my life? I have a family back home, too. What do you think they’re going to do when I’m shipped back to them in a box?”
The woman avoided eye contact with him, staring at the floor. Saunders watched her, breathing hard. The ropes were squeezing his chest and it hurt, but at least the bleeding and pain had stopped. His voice softened to a hoarse whisper. “Thank you, Frauline. I will never forget you.”
She did not look at him but for a second. Pity and remorse glistened in her eyes. “Heil Hilter,” she said softly. Then she was gone.
* * *
The young sergeant awakened from a half-conscious sleep as the door to the room creaked open and the tall, muscular form of Captain Kurtz stomped over to his bed, escorted by two armed guards. He causally pulled off his white gloves and looked the sergeant over with a satisfied glance, apparently pleased at his agony. Saunders wondered if he would notice the bandages that covered his body. “A lovely day isn’t it, sergeant?” the officer said calmly. “I assume that you are not very comfortable on the bed we have provided for you?” Saunders stared into his horse-like face, keeping his only good eye expressionless. The officer smiled coldly. “I see that you have been properly cared for by the means of a certain angelic nurse.” Saunders’ heart jumped for a second. Kurtz went on. “Have you any requests or complaints, sergeant?”
Saunders checked his voice. “One,” he said huskily. “Release me. Let me go back with the other prisoners. You’ve won all right, I can see that now. I won’t live much longer one way or the other.”
Kurtz chuckled dryly, sounding like a dying cat. “Very amusing, sergeant, very amusing. But I know your kind, you American sergeants. You are the true soldier. I can see it in your eyes, by the way you talk, the way you carry yourself. Never would a man like you admit to the enemy that he has lost. You always keep fighting, till the last drop of your blood has been spilled on the ground and every man under you has breathed his last. Something stupid called patriotism, I believe. No, sergeant, I am afraid I must turn down your request.”
Saunders struggled to keep his voice steady. “Then let me send a message to my friends, to let them know that it’s hopeless and I’m not going to make it. By the rules of the Geneva Convention I have the right to do it.” He hoped that for once the heartless officer would actually follow those rules.
Kurtz was beaten-- he knew it. “Yes,” he muttered after a few moments of consideration. “I am aware of the rights of the Geneva Convention. Very well, sergeant. You may have your wish.”
Saunders was given a small piece of paper and a pencil. Moving his right hand as best he could from where it was tied down to the bed, he carefully wrote:
He folded the paper in half, creased it with his lips and weakly gave it to the officer. Kurtz made a stiff salute. “We shall meet again, sergeant. I shall arrange for your execution, as you are no longer of any value to me. You are to be shot the day after tomorrow.” He set his thin lips in a tight line. “Think about the decision you have made, sergeant. You could have cooperated with me and you would have been well treated; fed, clothed, and sheltered. See what happened to you now because of your own choice, a foolish choice. What will your mother say when she finds out that her boy died such an undesirable death from his own free will?”
He sneered coldly. “Look at yourself, Sergeant Saunders. Starving. Dying. All of this because you chose it. You are not the hero you think yourself to be, but a fool. You are a fool who chose death over life, and a very painful death at that. You are a coward. You are now going to die because of your own stupidity. What kind of soldier would have decided that?”
Saunders said nothing. Kurtz smiled wanly. “Heil Hitler!”
* * *
“Concentrated sunlight,” Tony mused, fingering the faded piece of paper. “Magnifying glass…” he bit his lip thoughtfully. “It’d be risky, but we’d have to try it. Heck, we could burn down this entire compound with a dot of sunlight no smaller than a pencil eraser.” He turned and faced Duce, who was lying in the corner and staring into space. “We gotta escape now!”
“Huh?” Duce opened one eye. “What are you mumbling about, country boy? Escape? Are you cracked? Look what happened to your sergeant buddy.”
“Exactly! That’s whey we gotta do it!” Tony shouted, his face pink with excitement. “It’s been almost a day since we got this message, and God knows where Chip is now, or if he’s alive or not!” he lowered his voice several notches and squatted at Duce’s side. “Look,” he said softly, “Chip is my friend, and we’ve been through a lot. He helped me back in basics, and now it’s my turn to help him. He’s probably dying in there and he’s counting on us to get him out. There’s some old broken bottles in the loft. Here, let me draw a map.” He knelt in the dirt, tracing a rough outline with his finger.
“Naw, you’re not doin’ it right,” Duce sighed, pushing himself to his elbows. “Here.” Shoving the young soldier aside, he drew an octagon in the dirt with a twig and added several boxes and dots to stand for buildings. “This here’s the compound, “ he muttered, scratching at a louse in his short beard and rolling to a sitting position. “Here’s Kurtz’s quarters, the guard house, and the water tank. After we start this thing, you go over here…” he traced a crooked line behind the barracks with his finger to the back of Kurtz’s quarters- “And you get Saunders. He’s probably in the first room to the East, the one with the big window.” The two men nodded and conversed over their escape plan, adding changes here and there and improving their attack routes. Duce lowered his voice to a whisper. “Now whatever you do, don’t get caught by Kurtz, or he’ll shoot you on sight. If you can’t find Saunders, then he might have already been killed off. Do you hear?”
But Tony was hardly listening. He had already set up a small pile of straw and was reflecting a small dot of sunlight onto it with a broken piece of glass. Duce discarded his primitive map and crawled over to watch. Slowly, a small wisp of smoke rose up from the ground, twisting into the air and vanishing without a trace. Tony pushed more straw around it, praying. There was a soft hiss, and then an uneven wad of fire burst out of the small heap of dry fuel with a roar of heat.
“Okay, son” Duce whispered, grabbing his razor blade and arming himself with a piece of metal pipe. “This is it.”
* * * * *
Saunders awoke from a half-conscious sleep to the sounds of yelling and rapid gunshots. Weakly raising his head, he got a glimpse of the acrid smoke billowing past the closed window. “They did it,” he whispered, his heart beating quicker than ever. “Thank God.” He remembered that he was to be shot that very afternoon.
The sergeant tried in vain to loosen the tight ropes that cut into his numb body, but hunger and lack of water had weakened him considerably. With a soft cry he let his head drop, trying not to look at his arms which were cold and purple from poor circulation. “Please let Tony find me,” he prayed silently. Listening to the chaos outside was torturous, and he wished desperately that he could do something to help.
After what seemed like an eternity a rifle butt shattered the glass on the window and a young soldier crawled through the sill. “Tony!” Saunders cried softly, holding out his swollen hand. The soldier knelt down and began slicing through the ropes with a stolen German bayonet. “Hang on, Chip,” he panted, grinning from ear to ear. “Boy, we really did it out there. That was some fireworks in that barn.” He began rubbing the blood back into Saunders’ limbs. “Hang in there now, this could get a little crazy.” He shifted Saunders’ arm across his own shoulders and pulled him to his feet. The two men looked at each other for a fleeting second. “You ready?” Tony asked softly. Saunders nodded. “Let’s trip the light fantastic, old pal.”
“POW!” A sharp gunshot echoed through the room. Saunders felt Tony slump in his arms. He slid to the ground and caught his friend as his body crumpled to the floor, blood spurting from his forehead. Captain Kurtz stood rigid in the doorway, smoke drifting from the barrel of his Luger pistol. “Do not think of escaping, sergeant,” he said harshly. “You have no chance now.”
Saunders cradled Tony’s head in his hands, his heart sick with agony. The young man’s lips were moving ever so slightly; his eyes fluttered for a fleeting second. Then they closed forever.
“Now it is your turn, sergeant.” Kurtz brandished his pistol as his voice penetrated through Saunders’ numb brain. “You thought you could outsmart me, that you could get away alive. But you were wrong; this time, I will see you die. A painful, slow death. I want to see you writhing here on this floor, heaving your last breath, dying the death you deserve.” He chuckled and sighted his weapon. “This time, the victory is mine!”
The young sergeant lunged at Kurtz with all his strength just as the pistol exploded. It clattered to the floor unheeded as the two men wrestled and clawed at each other like animals. Hate had made Saunders’ body strong, and he grappled his way on top of the officer, wrenching Kurtz’s neck until he heard the satisfying crack of vertebrae breaking in two. He felt the body relax beneath him and released his grip, falling back panting onto the floor. It took him a few seconds to realize that Kurtz was dead.
Dead! Saunders could hardly breathe. The man so cruel and heartless, who could tear a man’s eyes out with his bare hands was now lying in a silent, bloodstained heap. Saunders was finally free, but barely able to stand. Crawling on his belly and leaving a crimson trail across the floor, Saunders heaved himself through the window with his last bit of energy, landing in the yew bushes by the side of the house. It was a long fall and he hit his head, coughing up a globule of blood onto the hard-packed dirt. His eyes were tightly shut and he couldn’t open them no matter how hard he tried. His mind seemed to be in a death-like trance. “Oh God,” he prayed silently with determined strength, “Please don’t let me die. I cannot die now. I have gone so far…” His stomach churned again violently and more blood forced itself out of his mouth. He groaned and writhed in pain. His whole body was wrapped in blackness.
Suddenly he felt strong arms around him. Relief and cold sweat poured through him at the same time. Duce was there, carrying him down the slope and away from the horrible camp. Light and darkness blurred his vision and pain seemed to take over every nerve and fiber in his being. A shudder went through the sergeant’s body, and he felt himself slipping further and further away from consciousness. His eyes closed gradually. He no longer felt any pain. A hushed, blessed darkness washed over him, engulfing his body in thick, rich sweetness. Then everything went black.
* * * * *
A soft, rocking sensation brought the young sergeant out of his coma-like trance. Slowly he opened his eyes and faced an incredibly bright light. At first he thought he was either dead or dreaming, but the sudden pain that flooded through his nerves assured him that everything was real. Two needles were stuck into his wrist and a pale liquid ran through thin tubes into the veins in his arm. All the blood and dirt had been washed off his body and he felt wonderfully clean and fresh. Silently he thanked God that he was alive, even though he had no idea where he was or what was going on.
After a few minutes Saunders sensed the presence of someone standing beside his bed. He turned his head slowly and saw a tall, thin, clean-shaven man who looked strangely familiar. “Duce?” he whispered, unbelieving at first, and then overjoyed to realize that it was indeed his old friend, only cleaner and more gentle-looking. The two men clasped hands for a few seconds until Saunders got his voice again. “Where am I? How did you get here?”
Duce shrugged and grinned in the way that the young sergeant had grown to love. “You’re on The Queen Mary. You were in surgery for a coupla hours, dude. But you’re gonna be all right. I can see it in your eyes. Yessir, just fine.”
Saunders smiled and squeezed the hand harder. “We made it, Duce. We made it! Did you ever think we would see the States again?”
Suddenly his voice dropped an octave. “Duce,” he mumbled, “do you know whatever happened to that German girl who helped me out while I was in there? Did Kurtz ever find out about her?”
The other sergeant was silent for a few beats. “Well,” he finally managed to sigh, “I guess you may as well know now. It was pretty awful, damn it all. Pretty damn awful.”
The wounded sergeant held his breath. “What happened to her, Duce?”
Duce shook his head and quietly folded his huge hands in his lap. “You know how it is…with war, sergeant. Sometimes you just gotta…well…you’ll understand.”
Saunders was about to ask again when he caught a glimpse of a tall, slim figure standing in the shadows. Duce turned and beckoned and it slowly emerged, revealing itself to be the very woman he was worried about. She looked different now: healthier, more vibrant. It made the sergeant’s heart beat fast to look at her.
Slowly, she approached his bed and placed her hand over his in a friendly gesture. Duce nervously got up and fiddled with his zipper. “Well, I’ll be seeing you around, sergeant.” Saunders nodded and laid back against the pillows. His whole body throbbed with pain, but his mind was elsewhere, concentrating on the woman sitting beside him. Her eyes were clear and bright, bringing a sense of new hope springing up in his heart. “Hello,” he managed to say, softly.
She did not reply, but just squeezed his hand. And Saunders knew that it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.