(2005) No infringement upon the rightful owners of "Combat!" and the characters thereof, is intended. This piece of fan fiction is for enjoyment only, and in no way will the author gain monetary profit from its existence.
by Thompson Girl
The rainstorm had blown over just past sunset, leaving cloud remnants drifting across the sky on a fast, cooling breeze. The moon had risen in the early twilight, round, and just a day past full. Now, as midnight passed, everything lay damp and glistening with water droplets, the air smelled fresh and clean, the moon at the zenith illuminating the trees around the farmhouse through the patchy clouds. It should have been beautiful.
It wasn't, though Saunders couldn't put his finger on what was wrong. He settled on blaming the wind, which seemed to have taken on a life of its own after the last shower had passed. Sighing and murmuring in the trees, it shifted shadows at a whim and drew his eyes again and again to potential dangers that each time proved nothing but the wind mocking him. It herded the errant clouds one by one to block the moon's face and darken the landscape for moments or minutes, then pushed the clouds on again relighting the woods in washed-out brilliance.
It all made him jumpy for no good reason, and he didn't like that. The farmhouse they were using as an observation post was well-situated, and the perimeter guard was strong. Nothing would approach without them knowing it. But somehow, that knowledge didn't seem to help tonight.
He dropped the cigarette butt he'd been smoking and crushed it out harder than he needed to with the toe of his boot.
"Coffee, Sarge?" Littlejohn asked.
Saunders started at the voice behind him. The damned wind again, he thought, now doing its best to obscure approaching footsteps. Saunders tried to shake the uneasy mood as he turned to face Littlejohn. "Yeah," he said and accepted the cup Littlejohn handed him. He looked at it in surprise. It was a real teacup, the kind that you trotted out on your best tray for company. The kind that made an upturned thimble look generous.
He lifted the ridiculous thing by its tiny ornate handle and said exasperated, "Littlejohn."
"Sorry, Sarge. That's all they had in there." Littlejohn crooked a thumb at the dark bulk of the farmhouse behind them. "It's clean at least." He sounded insufferably cheerful to Saunders, but then Littlejohn had been inside for the last hour, not standing outside with a cold breeze creeping down his collar.
Saunders hid a scowl and turned away from the big man. The china felt smooth and ready to shatter in his hand, and he gripped it gingerly. He took a sip, then grimaced, wondering why he'd assumed the coffee would somehow taste better than normal. If anything, the fine china accentuated the coffee's scalding acidity.
"Someone's coming in," Littlejohn said suddenly.
Saunders stole a glance at Littlejohn to make sure the private was looking the other way, then flung the teacup's contents into the bushes. He turned back around and thrust the fragile thing back into Littlejohn's hand. "Uh, thanks, Littlejohn."
Caje came around the end of the farmhouse, followed by four unfamiliar soldiers, and Saunders moved forward to meet them, Littlejohn beside him.
"This is Sergeant Carson and his men," Caje said. "They're bringing in a prisoner."
"I'm Saunders," Saunders said and shook hands with the sergeant, studying him in the moonlight. He was older than Saunders by quite a few years, a burly, powerful man with a grip like a vice and, at first glance, what looked like it should have been a round, jovial face. Carson looked like he belonged behind a bar, polishing glasses and trading jokes with the customers. That is, Saunders thought, if the bar were at a penitentiary and his customers were all on death row. Saunders had seen a lot of haunted faces, had gotten to a point where he had stopped seeing them. It was Carson's eyes that grabbed his attention now. They held more than bad memories; they held barely suppressed terror. The sergeant's hand that had so recently crushed his own was back gripping his rifle, and it was white-knuckled.
Curious now, Saunders looked at the two privates accompanying the sergeant. They were guarding a German Colonel between them. The Colonel clearly had seen better days, but Saunders wasn't interested in him. He focused on the sergeant's two men. Carson introduced them. Norman was average height with a youthful open face; the other was Karoli, over six feet tall, broad-shouldered and powerful -- a man Saunders wouldn't have wanted to tangle with in hand-to-hand combat. Both were doing a worse job than their sergeant of hiding their fear.
The farmhouse's front door banged open and all three newcomers jumped and looked that direction. Saunders took dubious comfort in the fact that he wasn't the only one on edge that night. Out of the corner of his eye, Saunders saw Littlejohn and Caje exchanging an uneasy look and knew the men's nervous behavior hadn't escaped their notice either.
Saunders turned to see Kirby coming out of the house, clearly attracted by their voices and overcome with impatient curiosity to see who had arrived. He sauntered up, feigning nonchalance. "Hey, you guys aren't the replacements we're expecting, are you?"
"Afraid not," Carson said in a deep rumbling voice. He never even looked at Kirby, just kept his attention focused on Saunders. "Just passing through with a prisoner we picked up. Sergeant Saunders, I need to talk with you."
Saunders nodded, glanced at Caje. "Caje, get back to your post."
Caje nodded and took off.
Carson watched him disappear around the far end of the farmhouse. "Good man," Carson said, almost too softly for Saunders to catch, but there was something very much like heavy guilt in the man's tone. "Sergeant, can my men get a cup of coffee?"
Kirby, grinning, said, "Right this way, gentlemen. Now, it's not the Ritz--"
Saunders interrupted, "Kirby, take the prisoner."
Kirby stood there a moment, mouth open, his left arm still extended in a welcoming gesture. Then he slowly closed his mouth and hid his irritation.
Saunders went on, "Littlejohn, show Karoli and Norman inside."
Carson dismissed his men, who hurried after Littlejohn toward the farmhouse door.
"All right, you," Kirby snapped at the German Colonel and raised his B.A.R. "Over here. Against that wall."
Carson turned to face Saunders. "Where can we talk privately?"
Saunders paced inside the barn. He pulled off his helmet and rubbed a hand distractedly though his hair. He could hardly believe the story he had just heard. It didn't make sense. Except that when he turned, he met the sheer grimness lining Sergeant Carson's face. And he couldn't forget the barely hidden terror on the faces of the man's squad members -- or rather, what remained of his squad. As fantastical as the story sounded, one look at Carson's face made any objections Saunders had seem irrelevant.
Saunders said, "I can lend you some men--"
"And get them killed too?" Carson shook his head. "Too much on my head already, Saunders. I don't want your men too."
The wind whistled loudly through the cracks in the barn. The single lantern they had burning flickered briefly. Somewhere in the loft, a broken board banged repeatedly against a wall as if the wind resented Saunders' escape from its clutches and was trying to break in. Saunders cursed it silently.
Carson pulled out a rumpled pack of cigarettes, offered one to Saunders. When Saunders shook his head, Carson shook one out for himself.
"This Kraut sniper...." Saunders broke off. It was what Carson had called him, but it wasn't the right word. Snipers shot you cleanly. The gruesome deaths of his men as Carson had described them were out of some city detective's nightmare. It made no sense. In war, dead was dead. Why take the time to... Saunders shook the image off and went on, "Was he trying to free the prisoner?"
Carson shook his head wearily. "Probably. But it was an odd way to go about it. If he could get close enough to pick us off one by one, why not just ambush the lot of us and get his Colonel back?"
"It's just one man?"
"Just?" Carson laughed harshly, but without anger. "Yeah, Saunders. It's just one man. One raving blood-crazed lunatic Kraut who prefers a bayonet to a rifle for doing his duty for the Fatherland." Carson finally lit his cigarette, waved out the match. He tipped his head back, blew smoke at the ceiling. "After the second murder, we just kept moving, trying to get back to our lines as fast as possible. I still lost Daniels. He was in the rear. We never heard a thing. That Kraut Colonel outside saw the bodies. Didn't faze him. He just smirked. Karoli nearly took him apart."
Saunders asked, "What do you want to do?"
"We'll spend the night here and leave in the morning. I'm not budging any more this night." Carson took another drag on his cigarette. "I know what that sounds like, Saunders, but you weren't there. You didn't see what was left of my men when that lunatic was through with them."
"You think he's still following you?"
Carson was silent a long moment as he smoked. Finally, he simply said, "Yes." He turned his haunted expression directly on Saunders, and the guilt was back in his voice as he went on, "You know what that means for you and your men? It means I've led that lunatic right to your doorstep."
The wind banged the board upstairs again, laughing.
Saunders considered his options and found none of them to his liking. He blew out a breath, then walked to the barn door, opened it. "Kirby, bring the prisoner in here."
He watched as Kirby said, "Get moving," and sent the Colonel stumbling toward the barn with a shove to his back. Saunders stopped Kirby at the door while Carson took the prisoner inside. "Go relieve Nelson," Saunders ordered Kirby. "Tell him to report to me here."
"Yeah, okay," Kirby said grumpily and headed out.
Saunders shut the door. He turned around to find Carson eyeing him consideringly. Carson said, "Got an idea?"
Saunders walked through the night, the wind his only companion. The treetops swayed overhead, branches creaking and leaves rustling. He couldn't even hear his own footsteps on the wet ground over the wind's incessant noise. The crickets that had been out in droves immediately after the rainstorm had ended had clearly gone to bed, sick of competing to be heard over the undying wind. The puffy low-riding clouds, though, were petering out. Fewer and fewer skudded by to block the moon's light. The moon itself was dropping rapidly toward the western horizon.
Carson had reluctantly agreed to Saunders' plan. It wasn't a good plan. It had enough holes to drive a Panzer division through, but it was all he'd been able to come up with. Saunders pulled up in the shadows and checked his watch. Carson, Billy, and the German prisoner had been gone four hours already. No one but Saunders and Caje knew the three had disappeared into the windy night to try and reach their lines in secrecy. No one at the farmhouse had seen them go, and Saunders had trailed them for half an hour making sure nothing but that cursed wind followed them. Saunders had pulled Caje in to keep up the pretense that they were still guarding a prisoner at the farmhouse. Carson's two men, Karoli and Norman, had been sent earlier by Carson to join Saunders' men standing watch at the perimeter. As far as they knew, their sergeant was just grabbing some much needed sleep until morning.
It was a cheap sort of deception, but Saunders didn't care as long as it lured the Kraut into trying to reach the farmhouse. It was one thing to take out guys strung out in a row behind enemy lines. It was another to get by six of them hidden, alert and waiting, seven counting Caje standing guard at the farmhouse. Saunders hadn't had to tell his men what had happened. Karoli and Norman had taken care of passing the grisly story on, and it had spread fast.
Saunders tugged his collar up against the wind's caress. He would have loved nothing more than to--
A man's agonized scream shattered the stillness, then was abruptly cut off.
It had come from his right, toward where Karoli, Kirby, and Scott were stationed. Heart hammering, Saunders broke into a run.
He heard sudden footsteps paralleling his to the left and saw Littlejohn barreling through the woods, Johnson not that far behind him.
"Get back to your posts!" Saunders yelled at them.
Littlejohn drew up sharply, looking his way.
"Move it!" Saunders shouted.
Johnson and Littlejohn hurriedly turned around, after exchanging a quick glance at each other. Saunders swore at them under his breath. Damned fools! They still didn't know what was really out here. It could be one lunatic Kraut, or it could be one Kraut acting as a diversion for a dozen more. The scream could have come from anyone -- even faked as a ruse just to draw them away from their posts.
The wind hissed through the treetops, and Saunders cursed it too, even more angrily. Its constant noise washed out a hundred other noises. More dangerous noises. Noises that could get him and his men killed.
Saunders was approaching Karoli's position when he heard Kirby's voice start swearing fluently up ahead. Damn it, had none of them stayed at their posts? Furious, he stalked forward.
Their latest replacement, Private Scott, was doubled over, vomiting into the grass nearby. Kirby was kneeling on the lip of Karoli's foxhole. Kirby spotted him and started to say, "Sarge--"
"Shut up!" Saunders snapped at him, then he reached Karoli's foxhole himself, and he stopped dead. He swallowed and, for a second, his eyes lifted from the body, darted around the clearing, looking for danger, looking for something, anything, to kill.
Carson had told him what had happened to his men. Had described it in detail too vivid for Saunders' liking. It still hadn't prepared him for the reality of it.
Karoli hadn't been killed. He had been butchered. The moonlight filtering through the branches overhead did nothing to soften the impact, just turned what should have been red into a sea of black. Saunders looked away, sick to his stomach. For a moment, all he could feel was relief that he had sent Nelson away with Carson. He did not want Billy to see this.
The woods lay still around them again except for the whisper of vegetation swaying in time to the mocking wind. Scott had stopped retching.
"Norman went for Doc," Kirby said. His voice wasn't working properly. It was hoarse, strained. "Karoli was his buddy...."
Dully, Saunders wondered what possible use anyone thought Doc could be to Karoli now.
Scott said timidly, "Sarge, let's get out of here."
Saunders found his voice. It didn't sound much better than Kirby's. "No. We're going to catch whoever did this."
"How?" Kirby said, flaring in sudden anger. He jumped to his feet and whirled on Saunders. "Karoli was a good soldier! Didn't stop him from getting chopped."
"No, I mean it--"
"You mean what?" Saunders demanded. His own anger over Karoli's death found an easy target, and he turned his rage and frustration on the B.A.R. man.
"You just nothing. You follow orders, and your orders were to remain at your post. And while you were busy not following those orders, the man or men who did this could have slipped right past you!"
"Sarge, the guy who did this is already past--"
"And if it was a diversion? Did you think of that? You disobey me one more time tonight and I will have you court-martialed, do you understand?"
Kirby's jaw was clenched.
"I said do you understand?"
"Yes, I understand." Kirby ground the words out.
"Then get Scott and get back to your posts! You stay alert and no one -- no one, you hear me? -- approaches you but me. You shoot first and ask questions later."
Kirby stood there a moment longer, then stepped around Karoli's foxhole and went to help Scott up. They disappeared into the woods.
Saunders blew out a long breath. Feel better? he asked himself angrily. As if dressing down Kirby could bring back Karoli or make him feel any less helpless. Kirby hadn't said anything he himself hadn't been thinking. But Karoli's slaughtered body had shaken him more than he cared to admit.
The moon's glare went behind a cloud, and Saunders jumped as even the shadows slid into darkness.
Doc trotted up, his medical bag over his shoulder. "Sarge? What happened?"
Saunders wanted to warn him, call him back, spare him somehow, but then Doc was past him, sliding down into the foxhole beside Karoli.
The moon came back out.
Doc recoiled sharply, slipping in his panic to get away from the body. He came up against the backside of the foxhole and froze there, staring in horror at Karoli. "Sarge, I... he...."
"I know, Doc," Saunders said softly. "Come out of there. There's nothing you can do."
Doc crawled out of the foxhole backwards. Saunders caught his arm, helped him up. Doc whispered, "I've seen a lot of things, Sarge. I've never seen anything like that."
None of us have, Saunders thought. Not like that. He came to a quick decision and said, "Get back to Caje and Norman. Stay with them. Tell them to stay put at the barn. From now on, everyone stays in pairs."
"What about you?"
Saunders ignored the question. "Go."
Doc took off, clearly happy to get away from Karoli's body. When his footsteps through the grass had vanished, no sounds remained except the wind again. Shadows from the trees spread skeletal fingers over Karoli's foxhole. Saunders shivered, then forced himself to jump down beside the dead man. He looked around, carefully avoiding looking at the man himself. It was bad enough to smell the stench of fresh-spilled blood.
Karoli's rifle lay untouched beside him and his bayonet was still sheathed. He had been surprised, that much was certain, but Saunders couldn't tell any more than that. He checked the man's gear, but nothing seemed missing. Whoever had killed him had been interested in nothing but blood. As Saunders was climbing out, his foot kicked something crinkly and he stopped.
A rain poncho. Karoli was lying partially on an open rain poncho.
The light vanished again, and Saunders glared up at the moon glowing serenely behind another passing cloud. He tugged the rain poncho free, his hands sliding on the slick wet material. He didn't need the sudden return of the moon to know that the poncho was covered with blood. He didn't know if the poncho was Karoli's or not, but it sure wasn't Karoli who'd used it last. The murderer had taken care not to splatter himself. Saunders spread the poncho over what was left of Karoli's face and chest, hiding the man.
Handling the poncho had left his hands sticky and wet. Saunders felt his stomach turn, and he quickly climbed out of the foxhole, wiping his hands compulsively on the wet grass. He stood, moved upwind of the body and took several deep breaths.
A branch snapped.
Saunders dropped into a crouch, whirling toward the noise, Thompson ready.
Nothing moved, nothing except every blade of grass, every tree branch, every leaf of the trees. The landscape shifted and sighed constantly with the wind's breath. Shadows deepened and faded with the cloud's passage overhead. Frustrated, Saunders waited another moment, then straightened. There was nothing there. It was just the damned wind, snapping weaker branches with gleeful abandon, taunting him.
But somewhere, out there, lurking under cover of the night and wind was a Kraut who enjoyed carving people up.
"I'll find you," Saunders muttered.
Saunders dropped into a crouch at the edge of Kirby's foxhole. "Anything?"
Kirby was unsmiling, his eyes roaming the area he guarded with a look as if he could make the murderer appear by the sheer force of his will. "Three ghosts and an owl. Can't you do something about this wind? It's giving me the creeps."
Saunders smiled in spite of himself. "I'm pairing you and Scott up." He looked through the forest toward where Scott's foxhole was forty feet away. "Scott, get over here," he called, just loudly enough for the replacement to hear him.
The young man hurriedly scrambled their way.
Kirby said softly, "You just made Scott one happy kid. He's terrified."
"Karoli... back at the farmhouse before.... He was saying this Kraut was knocking them off one by one. He'd kill one of 'em and disappear. Then sneak in and kill another. If he'd wanted to, he could have taken them all out in one sitting and freed that lousy Kraut Colonel. But he didn't. He waited patiently and hacked them up one by one instead. What kind of person does that to another person?"
"I don't know, Kirby."
"Sarge, you think he really did slip past us already?"
It was exactly what Saunders feared. "Maybe."
"Then maybe we shouldn't pair up then. We can lure him--"
"No," Saunders cut him off sharply, knowing exactly where Kirby was going. "I'm not using anyone as bait. This isn't a game. I want everyone alive in the morning."
"But it is to him, isn't it? A game?"
Saunders said nothing. Finally, he conceded softly, "Maybe."
"He's toying with us. I don't think he gives a damn about rescuing that Colonel. It's us he wants." Kirby was silent a moment. "I ain't gonna die like that, Sarge."
"Then stay alert. Stay together. Don't leave each other no matter what you hear or what you see, you got that? You stay put until you have that bastard in your sights. Separated, you'll just make easier targets yourself."
Scott dropped into the foxhole beside Kirby. Saunders could see the look of profound relief on his face at having Kirby and his B.A.R. for company.
Littlejohn and Johnson were on station in their foxholes. Both seemed calm and confident, and Saunders had to remember that they hadn't seen Karoli. They didn't know. He planned to keep it that way. They'd hear the stories from the other guys later, but that was better than seeing the real thing.
"Karoli's dead," he said without preamble when Johnson had joined him at Littlejohn's post. "Murdered. You two stay together. I want no one alone out here tonight."
Saunders looked at Johnson and Littlejohn, two confident, armed men and wondered what fool would try and take them on with just a knife or bayonet. But then, Karoli had been over six feet and two-fifty pounds, and he was dead. It was like Kirby said, this was some sort of game to the man. The murderer was not sane. Saunders knew he could not hope to guess what a madman might do. A madman might see a man like Littlejohn as some kind of a perverse challenge, not a threat.
He left them and headed back toward the barn to check on Caje, Norman, and Doc. If the murderer had any sort of target, Saunders feared it would be Caje at the farmhouse. Caje standing guard over a non-existent prisoner. The worry spread through him that he'd waited too long, and he picked up his pace.
He hadn't gone two hundred feet before he saw a flash of pale material moving through the woods and came to a halt. It was Sgt. Carson's other man, Norman, approaching. The private was alone, his rifle clutched in front of him, his eyes even wider than normal. "Norman," Saunders called softly.
The man jumped a mile and a half at Saunders' voice, then his shoulders slumped in obvious relief as he realized who had called his name. "Sorry, Sarge."
"What are you doing out here?" Saunders asked. "I told Doc to tell you to stay at the barn."
"I came to get you, Sarge. Caje sent me. He heard something out in the woods behind the farmhouse. He went to investigate, told me to get you immediately."
"You let him go alone?" Saunders said sharply.
"Sarge?" Norman looked worried. "I do something wrong?"
Saunders gritted his teeth and said nothing. "When did he send you?"
"Fifteen minutes ago?"
Fifteen minutes... Saunders felt the pit grow in his stomach. So, his fears had been right. The Kraut had indeed gotten past them and gone straight for the farmhouse and Caje. Saunders bit back a curse, said, "Let's go," and turned to run.
He didn't remember being struck from behind, didn't remember falling, but when he could form a thought again, he found his face pressed into the rain-soaked earth. The cloying smell of it gagged him, and he knew he was sprawled on his stomach across the ground. Unbearable agony raged through the base of his skull, neck, shoulders, left him too stunned to see, to move. Nausea and pain blinded everything.
Only one thought came crystal clear through the pain -- I'm not going to die like Karoli. Some part of him realized ironically that Kirby had said basically those same words less than a half hour ago. The horror of Karoli's death was enough to galvanize him. Move. Do something. He tried to tighten his right hand, but his trigger finger closed on empty air. The Thompson was gone already.
What felt like a boot heel pressed hard into his left shoulder, pushed, and he was rolled onto his back. He tried to open his eyes. Blurry darkness and spots of white overhead -- those damned leftover storm clouds bright in the moonlight -- and one fuzzy pale spot that hovered above him that had to be Norman's face.
The man's voice drifted to him, indistinct, vague, but understandable. "Sorry, Sarge," Norman said. He didn't sound sorry at all. "It was your idea to send my sergeant away all quiet-like with the prisoner, wasn't it? You surprised me there. Guess I got so used to Ol' Carson being too scared to think that I forgot he might let someone else do his thinking for him. Well, why don't you do some thinking over here for awhile?"
Hands grabbed him under the arms, and Saunders felt himself dragged across the wet ground. Not far, ten or twelve feet, then his face slammed into something cold and rough and the pressure under his arms vanished. Come on, move! Now. His arms were pulled to encircle something, hands drawn palms together on the other side. Wire bit viciously at his wrists and by the time he tried to move his hands, it was too late, they were bound tightly.
Saunders tried to force his eyes open again. Tried to force any part of him to move, but his body was no longer on speaking terms with his brain. The haze of pain seemed to block everything else.
"Gotta take care of your men now," Norman's voice went on. "Which one first? You sent that kid, Billy, away. Caje told me when I went looking for my Sarge. What'd you do that for? He would have been fun. I don't think I like you for that."
Saunders felt the cold sharp edge of a blade press against his neck. A slow steady horizontal pull drew blood and stung like hell.
"Nah, too easy."
The pressure of the blade disappeared.
"It's no fun when they can't fight back."
Saunders got his mouth working. "You try...."
"Shut up, Sarge," Norman said, and Saunders felt a foul-tasting wad of cloth get stuffed in his mouth. He moved his head side-to-side and tried to spit it out. Norman snapped, "Stop that." Saunders felt the man tying something tightly around his head to keep the gag in place. He kicked out with a leg to try and catch Norman, but he was slow, awkward, and he missed, then he was gasping, choking on the gag, and doubling sideways as the man's boot caught him hard in the stomach. Through a haze, Saunders heard Norman's voice whisper in his ear, "Don't worry, Sarge. I'll be back for you. You like thinking so much. Maybe you can guess which of your men I'm going to slice up first? You just think about that. Time'll go by faster, and I'll be back before you know it." A warm hand slapped him lightly on the cheek, then Norman's footsteps moved away from him, and Saunders was left alone with just the jeering wind once more for company.
He didn't know where he hurt more, but he pushed the pain aside. He got his eyes open, and this time kept them open, blinking, forcing them to focus. He was lying mostly on his side, his arms tied around a good-sized tree. Saunders wiggled his hands, trying to yank them apart, gain some space. But the wire had no give, and the circulation in his hands was already going.
Go after Kirby, he thought viciously after Norman. He saw your handiwork. He's waiting for you, and he'll take you apart as surely as I will if I get my hands on you. The B.A.R. man was angry and jumpy as hell, but intent on one thing -- Saunders was confident there was no way Norman would be able to catch Kirby off-guard. Not tonight. Not after Kirby had seen what was left of Karoli.
Then Saunders groaned. His brain still wasn't thinking clearly. Norman wouldn't try to catch Kirby off-guard. He didn't have to. Not when he could simply call for help, tell him Saunders was wounded, injured, whatever. Kirby cared too much; it was what got him in trouble. Saunders had already fallen for the same trick. Kirby would too. Norman would call urgently for help for Saunders, and Kirby would send Scott to investigate. After Saunders' earlier rebukes, he doubted Kirby would risk leaving the foxhole again himself. But he would send Scott. And replacement Scott would go, terrified, but not too much. It was a G.I. calling for help, after all. How much could go wrong? It was a lunatic Kraut he had been told to fear. Not a nice guy like Private Norman. Not an American. And then Kirby and Scott would be separated, vulnerable.
The same tactic would work with Littlejohn and Johnson despite Saunders' orders not to budge from their post. Norman would be able to isolate each man in turn.
Furious, desperate, Saunders worked his hands, only succeeding in cutting the wire deeper into his wrists. He subsided, gasping, wincing, then began scraping his cheek along the rough bark of the tree, trying to dislodge the strip of cloth that was bound over his mouth. It took several tries and so much force he drew blood on his face, but he shifted it down to his chin. He worked and finally spit the gag out, coughing, sucking in great gulps of fresh air.
For a second, he hesitated. If he yelled and it brought Littlejohn and Johnson out of their foxhole, he might be doing Norman's work for him, separating the men unintentionally. But if he didn't.... Until they were warned, the advantage remained in Norman's hands.
He yelled hoarsely. He had to break off, coughing a couple of times to get his voice working again, then he started shouting for the two men. The wind blew louder through the trees, but he knew his voice was still carrying. He knew how to yell to be heard when he had to.
Littlejohn came. Before he even got close, Saunders shouted, "Go back and get Johnson! It's Norman. Norman's the murderer. You see him you shoot on sight."
"Sarge, what about you--"
"Get Johnson first. Send him to warn Kirby and Scott. You see Norman you shoot, you hear me? Get everyone back to the barn."
Littlejohn took off, and Saunders tried to relax. They'd be looking for the right man at least now. Norman couldn't surprise them that way. Not now that they knew they were looking for an American, not a German.
Caje and Doc....
Saunders felt the surge of panic. Norman had been with Caje and Doc alone at the farmhouse. They could still get back there far too late.
A chuckle came over the moan of the wind.
Saunders twisted at the sound, trying to locate the voice's source.
"All alone again, Sarge," Norman's voice called from somewhere behind him. "How fast you think that big guy can move? Think he can get back here before I kill you?"
"Why don't you try it, you--"
A bullet slammed into the tree beside Saunders' head, spraying bits of wood at his face. He ducked instinctively, closing his eyes, heart pounding at the unexpectedness of it. There had been no sound of a shot. No sound of gunfire to shatter the night.
"Shut up, Sarge. I don't like your voice," Norman said. "What do you think of my gun? Stole it off a dead Kraut officer. Don't see a gun with a silencer lying around every day. Figured it might come in useful. I don't like being heard."
Saunders shot back, almost without thinking, "Then why don't you keep your mouth shut?"
Norman's voice chuckled again. "Pressing your luck... I like that. You won't go down without a fight, will you?"
Saunders heard him rustling in the bushes, changing position. Saunders started moving, sliding the ring of his arms around the tree, trying to turn far enough to spot the bastard's hiding place.
Norman's voice grew softer as he went on, "You just stick to thinking, Sarge. Think about all those shadows around you. You think it's a black and white world out here? Us or them? Krauts or Americans? You're wrong. It's nothing but shadows out here. And when you least expect it, I'll be waiting in one of them for you."
Footsteps approached from the opposite direction, and Saunders shouted, "Littlejohn! Get down!" He heard the snap of twigs as Littlejohn took cover. "Norman's out here. He's armed."
"Sarge, let me get to you."
"Stay put!" Saunders had finally maneuvered himself around to the other side of the tree. At least he had it between him and Norman's last position if Norman got trigger-happy again. Not that he had stayed there. Saunders was guessing he'd moved off immediately. Off to hide and lay his next trap. Still, Saunders waited anyway, watching the rippling shadows and listening past the wind's whispers, until he was as sure as he could be that Norman had truly gone. Then he called Littlejohn over.
Littlejohn didn't try to hide his anger when he saw how Saunders had been bound. The big man dropped to his knees immediately, his fingers trying to free the wire from around Saunders' wrists. Saunders winced and said nothing.
Johnson came through the woods to join them. "Kirby and Scott are on their way to the farmhouse," he reported.
"You carrying any wire cutters?" Littlejohn asked him.
Johnson shook his head.
Saunders closed his eyes and gritted his teeth as Littlejohn kept at the wire determinedly, slowly untwisting the ends until, finally, he could unwrap it from around Saunders' bloodied wrists.
His hands fell apart, and Saunders gasped in pain as blood rushed back into his numbed fingers. He rolled away from the tree and lay there on his back a long moment, staring at a drifting cloud. He ripped away the remains of the cloth that had been tied over his mouth and tossed it away from him. The wind blew raspberries through the branches overhead, but Saunders had no energy to curse it anymore. Besides, he'd run out of original things to call it.
"Give me a hand," he said. Johnson and Littlejohn each took an arm and got him on his feet. He swayed unsteadily, asked, "Where's my helmet?"
Johnson located it and the Thompson, near where Saunders had been struck, and brought them back while Littlejohn hovered anxiously at Saunders' side. Saunders wanted to tell him to back off, that he wasn't going to fall over, but when he started to take a step he realized his optimistic evaluation of his own condition was decidedly premature. Littlejohn was clearly smarter than he was. The wave of pain when he tried to move had him instantly flushed, sweating, and nauseated, and he remembered how marvelously comfortable the ground had felt. How very nice it would be to allow his muscles to relax and not bothering trying to support his weight any longer.
And he remembered the sound of Norman's confident laugh in the night, and he kept his feet under him.
The helmet was a dead weight on his head, and he found he couldn't move his head more than an inch or so to the right before the bruised muscles in his neck and shoulders seized up. He rubbed at both wrists a moment, careful of the deep cuts the wire had left, flexed his fingers until his hands felt like they might not drop his weapon. Then he took the Thompson from Johnson, cradled it against his arm, and slipped his finger over the trigger. Relief washed over him, and he let out a soft exhale. As far as improving his health, he thought, simply holding the gun's familiar weight again worked far faster than anything Doc could have done for him.
"Let's go," he said.
They flanked him as he began walking. He was moving forward resolutely enough but, he thought dismally, the word "walking" didn't exactly describe his method of locomotion; "staggering" seemed much closer to the mark. But each step seemed to help shake off the haze that enveloped him. The wind chilled the sweat dripping off him, and he shivered against the sudden cold. That helped too and, slowly, clarity returned. By the time the farmhouse came into view, he was steady on his feet, the pain nagging and throbbing, but tolerable.
Kirby, Scott, and Doc met them in the front drive. "Caje is gone," Kirby said grimly.
Doc said, "He and Norman took off into the woods together. Norman came back briefly and said he was going to get you."
Saunders grimaced. He knew how that story ended already. He filled them in on his encounter with Norman.
Kirby said, "We've been through the house and barn twice. They're clean."
Saunders let his gaze slid past the right corner of the darkened farmhouse to the woods beyond. That's where Caje would be. Somewhere out alone in the woods. Alive or dead? he wondered. Dead, his heart told him dully, and the thought of it threatened to tear the resolve from him. Caje hacked into bits like Karoli....
Unless... unless Norman meant to use him as bait? What did that madman want? Who did he want? What had Norman been saying to him back at the tree? Saunders had been only half-conscious then, and he had to wrack his hazy memory. Norman had wanted him to do something. Then he remembered: he was supposed to guess which man Norman intended to kill first.
"Games," Saunders murmured angrily. It came back to that.
Norman had had him. Could have killed him easily. But he hadn't. He'd left Saunders alive, just as he'd left his own sergeant alive, keeping him for the end. Saunders straightened slightly with the realization. Norman had killed the rest of his squad, intending to take Carson out last. But now Carson was gone, out of Norman's reach. Saunders wondered then, if that wasn't it. He was Norman's replacement for Carson. Norman's game was with Saunders and Saunders alone now. The rest of the men were only pawns, pieces to move across the board to force Saunders to come to him. Norman had probably revealed himself simply to up the ante. But it was really all part of the game, all designed to taunt Saunders, to tell him that even knowing who was stalking him wouldn't help him avoid his fate at the end of a knife.
But if that were true, at least it meant that Caje was probably still alive. Alive to be used as bait. If Saunders stopped playing the game by Norman's rules, then Caje would be killed. But not until then. And that just might give him some time.
Saunders froze at the sound of breaking glass. Kirby whirled on the farmhouse, B.A.R. raised.
"Came from the other side," Johnson said.
Saunders realized a second too late what had been thrown through the farmhouse window. Even as he yelled, "Get down!" the grenade blew the right half of the farmhouse apart. The concussion swept them all off their feet.
The fall knocked the breath out of Saunders and jarred his right side back into agony where he hit the ground. He threw his left arm over his head as wood debris and shards of glass crashed down on top of him.
As soon as he felt nothing more landing on him, he forced himself up, grabbing the Thompson. His ears rang from the deafening explosion.
The right half of the house was demolished, nothing but smoking, splintered timbers and the collapsed roof. Clouds of dust and smoke dissipated immediately as the wind eddied them away. Only the closest corner still stood, the joining walls rising to a ragged-edged top.
He glanced down and saw the men moving. Kirby shoved off two boards that had fallen on him and sat up, yanking some kind of shrapnel out of his left upper arm with a grimace. Johnson and Scott seemed stunned but unharmed. Both were getting to their feet, and peering through the destroyed farmhouse for more danger. Only Littlejohn lay still, and Doc was already crawling through the rubble to get to his side.
Saunders moved a short distance and pulled up in the lee off the remaining corner walls, risked a look around the edge toward the woods beyond. He had a clear view. The moon lay behind him, and its light fell squarely on the front line of trees, illuminating trunks and branches clearly. Nothing seemed to move that didn't belong there, but he didn't expect Norman to be out in the open. He would lurking in the impenetrable darkness beyond that first row, under cover.
Then he heard Norman's distant voice, laughing.
He didn't hesitate, just opened fire on the area of the woods he thought the voice came from, hoping he'd get lucky. His ears were still ringing from the grenade explosion; the gunfire didn't seem nearly so loud as it should have. The silence afterwards though seemed even deeper and, for a long moment, Saunders heard nothing.
Then Norman called out, "Won't do you any good, shooting blind like that, Sarge. You're gonna have to see the whites of my eyes before you're able to kill me. And by the time you've gotten that close, I'll have killed you."
Saunders shifted his aim, fired again, using up the magazine. He dropped it out, pulled a fresh one from his jacket and slammed it in place. He glanced over his shoulder and gestured Johnson and Scott down to the other intact end of the farmhouse. They both took off at a crouching run.
Norman said, "Why don't you come get me, Sarge?"
Saunders felt someone come up beside him. He turned to see Kirby joining him, the B.A.R man peeking around the other side of the corner wall to look across the farmhouse wreckage.
When he got no answer, Norman said a little more loudly, "Come get me, Sarge, or I kill Caje. How about that?"
You want to play? Saunders thought. All right, let's play. He called back to Norman, letting the anger creep deliberately into his voice. "You think I'm stupid? You've already killed Caje."
"Nah. He's alive."
"I don't believe you," Saunders called back.
For a half-second, Saunders thought he might be able to force a concession out of Norman, then the man just laughed again. "It won't work, Sarge," he said, and Saunders knew his bluff had failed. Norman went on, "And no, I'm not going to bring him out where you can see him. You know he's alive. So, come on and find him."
"I'm not going to play your games!" Saunders said harshly.
"You already are, Sarge," Norman said, his tone mildly admonishing. "That's what makes this so fun."
Saunders jerked around the corner, targeted a slightly different area of the woods, and fired again. Johnson and Scott opened up from their positions on the left side of the farmhouse, their rifle shots cracking out over the staccato of his Thompson. Kirby joined in, raking the woods with the B.A.R. They stopped shooting as soon as Saunders did.
"I have two more grenades," Norman called. "You're missing me by a mile, but I guarantee the next grenade I throw won't miss you. So here's the deal... I'll give you until sunup, Sarge," he said. "The woods are yours. Find Caje before sunup and you get to keep him. Otherwise...." He trailed off into silence.
Kirby started to speak, but Saunders held up a hand for silence.
But Norman said nothing more.
Saunders lowered his Thompson. He checked his watch, tilting it to catch the moonlight on its face. Less than an hour remained until dawn.
"What are we going to do?" Kirby asked.
Saunders tipped his head back against the wall as far as the sore muscles would let him move. What choice did he have? He answered simply, "Find Caje."
"Are you kidding?"
"You have a better idea?"
"We go into those woods, we're dead."
"We have until dawn."
Kirby rounded on him incredulously, "You believe him? Sarge, all he has to do is be lying low somewhere out there. We'll never see him in the dark if he's not moving, no matter how hard we're trying. Then he takes us all out."
"Kirby, if he wanted us all dead he'd have tossed that first grenade over the house into our laps instead of into the farmhouse itself. He hasn't lied about a single thing yet. It's not part of his game."
"You know it's suicide!" Kirby persisted.
"You think he's bluffing about what will happen to Caje if we don't find him before dawn?"
Kirby fell silent.
Saunders turned away from him and walked over to where Doc knelt by Littlejohn. Littlejohn was sitting up, holding his hand to his head, looking dazed.
"He's okay, Sarge," Doc said. "Just banged up a little."
Johnson came out of the remains of the farmhouse, kicking at fallen debris. "Radio's gone," he reported. "Blown to pieces."
Saunders nodded, then said, "Kirby, let Doc look at your arm."
"It's all right," Kirby said.
"Doc, look at his arm."
Doc got up and approached Kirby, who sat down on a fallen timber at the side of the farmhouse.
Saunders walked slowly back to the corner wall, ostensibly to keep watch, more to simply be able to lean back against something. He needed that wall to stay upright. He was ready to collapse and he knew it.
Johnson came up beside him and offered him a canteen. Saunders accepted it gratefully and drank about half of the water in it before handing it back. "Thanks."
"What's this guy playing at, Sarge?" Johnson asked.
Kirby said, "He's got all the Krauts to kill that he could possibly want out there. Why's he gotta come after us?"
Johnson said softly, "I'm not sure I'd wish this guy on the Krauts either."
"Better them than us," Kirby muttered.
Saunders peered around the edge of the wall toward the woods again. An hour until the sun came up. It seemed an awfully long time. He paused, struck by a thought, wondering about Norman's sudden generosity with allowing them to look for Caje. Something was wrong there. Either it was a trap as Kirby feared, or Norman wanted the squad combing the woods for the next hour. Why?
Because it left him free to do something else. To set his next trap, perhaps, or....
Saunders froze. He turned and called, "Littlejohn, Doc!" They nearly jumped at the sudden harshness of his tone, even though it wasn't aimed at them; it was aimed at himself for overlooking the obvious for so long.
"Sarge?" Doc asked, pausing as he cleaned the wound on Kirby's arm.
"You two go find Caje."
"He's not out there. The woods are clear. Norman just wants to keep us busy, wasting time jumping at shadows and searching the woods while he goes after his real objective."
"And what's his real objective?" Kirby asked.
"His sergeant," Saunders said quietly. "And Billy."
Kirby was on his feet instantly, unintentionally pulling away from Doc's ministrations. "They don't know," he said, then let out a soft yelp as Doc grabbed his injured arm none to gently and yanked him back down. "Watch it, Doc!" he said.
"Then sit down," Doc said, "and let me finish."
Scott looked sick again as he said, "Norman can walk right up to them, and they'll never even suspect until it's too late."
"Not if we reach them first," Saunders said. "They were going to spend the rest of the night in town, head back here in the morning. We still have time."
"Sarge," Littlejohn said, getting to his feet. "There's only one road back to town and Norman's got a head start. He hears you coming and he can ambush you as easily as Billy and Sergeant Carson."
Kirby added, "Besides, it's twelve miles to town, and you're not exactly looking your best right now." He at least had the grace to look uncomfortable when he said it, Saunders thought.
"I'll make it," Saunders said.
Doc finished with Kirby and began tucking items back into his bag.
Kirby flexed his bandaged arm experimentally and said, "Just so you remember that later, Sarge, cuz I ain't gonna carry you if you pass out halfway there."
"You're a big comfort, Kirby, you know that?" Saunders said.
Johnson gave a soft laugh.
Saunders went on, "But we're not going all the way to town. We just need to get to a radio. Four miles southeast of here, along the river, is another observation post. Small one, three guys."
"Well, why didn't you say so?" Kirby said, pulling his shirt and jacket back on.
Saunders said, "Littlejohn, Doc -- you've got an hour to find Caje."
"Let me come with you, Sarge," Littlejohn pleaded.
"Sorry, Littlejohn. Now, get going."
Littlejohn hesitated a moment, on the verge of saying something else, but Doc tapped his arm. He finally nodded to Doc, shoulders slumping just a bit, then turned and followed the medic toward the woods east of the farmhouse.
Saunders watched them until the dark line of trees swallowed their forms, then turned back to the rest of the squad. They stood waiting, ready to go. Even Scott, still pale, but with his thin lips pressed into a determined line. Saunders wanted to smile. "Johnson, take the point."
The last tattered remnants of clouds had blown over and the sky was clear, the brightest stars the only ones visible, as dawn crept slowly into the eastern sky. On their right, the slow-moving river paralleled their path, the setting moon's reflection riding in the middle of the water, distorted by ripples. To their left the shadows of the trees stretched long and thin, bowing and jerking to the wind's touch.
Saunders pressed on hard and still it didn't feel fast enough. Not with the wind pacing them easily, effortlessly, gusting ahead to bend the grasses flat before them. Not with Norman's whereabouts unknown. Not with the sunrise imminent. And certainly not with his own pain and shock-induced exhaustion. The stiffness and dull ache in his neck and shoulder muscles prevented him from looking to the right without turning his whole body. He fought the limitation, trying to force his head to turn despite the pain. Each time, he was brought up short. The wire cuts on his wrists still burned. He'd never even had Doc grab some salve for him.
But there was nothing for it but to keep going as the sky continued to brighten and time slipped away.
They were nearly to the location on his map, when he called a quick break. He leaned back against a tree along the riverbank and slid slowly to the ground.
Johnson said, "Never thought I'd be so happy to see a sunrise coming."
Kirby shrugged and paced impatiently nearby. "I'll be happier to see that OP."
"We should be encountering their outer guard any time now," Saunders said. "You and Johnson go ahead and let them know we're coming. See if you can't get Hanley on their radio."
Kirby actually grinned at him. "Come on," the B.A.R. man said to Johnson, and the two took off.
Saunders closed his eyes and pulled off his helmet. For the first time that night, the wind's cool touch felt good.
He heard Scott sit down nearby and opened his eyes to look at the young replacement. Scott was staring blindly out at the river that was changing color from black to grey in the pre-dawn light. He was about the same age, same height as Billy, just thinner, more angular. But Scott's face had lost the ability to smile overnight. It would have happened sooner or later anyway, Saunders reflected bitterly, as soon as the replacement had seen some action. The sensitive ones were always hardest hit. Karoli's mutilated body had merely jump-started the process.
Scott said suddenly, "My uncle was killed in a car accident when I was five. I remember being rushed away before I could see anything. I'm thinking they should have let me see what death looked like then, while I was young. But no, they hide you from it, make you run away, teach you to fear it." His voice almost quivered with anger and resentment. "And then, when you do run into it... it's too late, and you're scared out of your wits. Maybe, if they'd just let me see him, let me understand... I'd have been prepared."
Miserably, Saunders tipped his head back against the tree and looked skyward. One bright star was framed between two branches of the tree overhead. Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight... Nothing would have prepared you for Karoli's murder, kid, he wanted to say. Nothing prepared me for it. Death wasn't something you understood, and it wouldn't make it any easier if you did. But he said nothing. It wasn't what Scott wanted to hear and what Scott wanted to hear, Saunders couldn't tell him.
He exhaled wearily and forced himself to his feet. "Come on," he said gently. "Let's go." He settled the helmet back on his head as Scott stood up.
The observation post was closer than he had realized, as the trees curved away from river and the grassy bank turned into a broad sandy beach at a bend in the river. A wooden boat lay canted in the sand at the water's edge. The small stone ferry house sat partway up the slope from the beach, a jeep parked in front of it.
Silhouetted against the brightening sky, the tiny building lay in unnatural stillness. Saunders found he could hear the river lapping at the sand behind him and, abruptly, he realized the wind had finally stopped. But its cessation brought no comfort. The nearby trees stood eerily motionless, like solemn witnesses, as Saunders and Scott walked up the sloping beach. No one hailed them or stopped them as they approached the ferry house, and Saunders felt despair and anger knot his stomach. His mouth went dry, and the sudden, overwhelming certainty that they were too late had him breaking into a run.
Johnson stood watch outside the open front door. Very little ever seemed to rattle the soft-spoken soldier, and seeing his somber expression now told Saunders all he needed to know. Almost too calmly, Johnson said, "You'd better go in, Sarge." Saunders started past him, Scott at his heels. Johnson grabbed Scott's arm. "Not you."
Scott stared uncomprehendingly at him a moment, then at the house, then he whispered in a rushing litany, "No, no, no, no...." He sagged, and Johnson quickly caught his other arm, helped him sit down against the outer stone wall of the house. Scott buried his face in his hands.
Johnson straightened and met Saunders' eyes. Saunders gestured to the jeep parked behind them. "Check it out."
Saunders stepped into the one-room house just in time to see Kirby hurl something across the room at the back wall with an angry wordless yell. It crashed and clattered to the floor. The radio, Saunders realized, or rather what was left of it.
The house was little more than a hut, with a small wood stove, shelves, a tiny table and a single chair on one side, and on the other: a narrow bed. It was in front of the bed that the three murdered men had been left. He forced himself to look dispassionately down at the bodies. He had a firm wall up between him and what he was seeing this time. Deep down, rage boiled, but he kept in tightly in place. There'd be a time for releasing anger later.
He knelt, touched one, and found the body long cold. Surprised, Saunders slowly straightened, pondering that. It was not what he had expected.
Johnson's shadow filled the doorway. "The jeep's clean. No booby-traps, plenty of gas."
"Get it started," Saunders ordered and, as Johnson left, he mused aloud, "Why'd he leave us the jeep?"
Kirby stalked toward him, still livid. "It's all part of his game! Leave it here."
The jeep rumbled to life outside.
Saunders half-smiled at Kirby in spite of himself and said, "You refusing a ride?"
Kirby did not smile back. "Sarge, he left it intact for a reason. He could have slashed the tires, or wrecked it any number of ways."
"He doesn't want us to be late," Saunders murmured.
"What?" When Saunders didn't repeat himself, Kirby went on, "Sarge, I checked the bodies, same as you. They've been dead awhile. Norman's been here and gone and not recently, either. Any way I twist that, I don't like it. He keeps staying one step ahead of us."
"Then we'd better get going." Saunders walked out of the house. Scott was back on his feet and moving toward the jeep under his own volition, his rifle clutched in front of him with a death grip, his lips compressed into a tight frown. It was one way to fight fear, Saunders thought -- get good and angry.
They climbed into the jeep, Kirby in the driver's seat, Saunders beside him, Scott and Johnson in the back. Kirby drove fast, jerking the wheel viciously to avoid potholes in the road. He stopped the jeep sharply as they reached the main road and asked tightly, "Which way?"
"Town," Saunders answered and hoped he had guessed correctly.
Kirby spun the wheel to the right and peeled out.
They'd barely gone two miles, when they heard shouting behind them. Kirby slammed on the brakes and looked over his shoulder. Saunders twisted left in his seat.
It was Billy and Carson, coming out of the woods, both men waving.
Kirby grinned, shifting the jeep into reverse and stepping on the accelerator. He braked neatly beside them and said, "Boy am I glad to see you!"
"What are you guys doing out here?" Billy asked. "Where'd you get the jeep?"
For a moment, Saunders realized he'd almost forgotten what delight sounded like. Billy was smiling like they'd brought him an unexpected Christmas present, and Saunders found he couldn't help smiling in return. At least they'd reached them in time. But the reminder of why they were there quickly sobered him, and he turned his gaze on the woods nearby. Norman was still out there, waiting, scheming.
Carson stepped up to the side of the jeep, his face serious. "We left early," he explained. "Your lieutenant's been trying to raise you on the radio. What's going on?"
"Get in," Saunders said heavily. He was not looking forward to this. "I'll explain as we go. Kirby, get us back to the farmhouse."
Kirby pulled the over-crowded jeep into the drive before the half-ruined farmhouse fifteen minutes later. The sun had crested the horizon and the golden light slanted across the treetops, bathing the eastern-facing barn front in a warm cheery glow. The rain had left the buildings and trees and even the row of rosebushes beneath the kitchen window looking sharper. The air was crystal clear with the chill of morning just wearing off beneath the sun's rays.
But when Kirby shut off the jeep motor, a heavy silence fell instantly over the area. For a second they sat there in the hush, listening for sounds that should have come and didn't. It was like the ferry house all over again, Saunders thought. He found himself waiting that extra second, expecting Littlejohn to step out of the barn door that sat wide open and inviting to wave or break the unnatural stillness with a greeting. But no one appeared and nothing stirred. With the wind gone, the farmhouse felt as cold and desolate as a funeral home.
"Kirby, Billy -- check the barn," Saunders ordered, keeping his voice quiet in that dead silence. It still sounded too loud to him. "Johnson, Scott -- the farmhouse. Carson?"
The sergeant nodded and followed Saunders as the men split into pairs and secured the area. Saunders and Carson walked the perimeter of the farmhouse and barn. Less than five minutes and they were all back at the jeep, grim and unsmiling.
"Nothing," Johnson said.
Kirby said, "No Littlejohn, no Doc, no Caje."
Carson looked ashen at Kirby's words. He'd been utterly quiet since Saunders had relayed the night's events. The man appeared to have aged ten years in just a few hours, and the ravages of guilt and hindsight had only just begun, Saunders knew. But to Saunders, it was better news than he'd been expecting. No men was better than dead men. He leaned against the side of the jeep, rubbed tiredly at his eyes and forehead.
"You need some coffee," Carson said unexpectedly, then added softly, "I need some coffee."
Kirby nodded with his head toward the farmhouse. "Kitchen's still in one piece."
"Saunders?" Carson asked.
"Sure. Sounds fine." It didn't sound fine at all. The last thing his stomach wanted was coffee. But he recognized Carson's need for something resembling normalcy to get himself back on track. "Coffee, then Kirby -- you, Nelson, and Scott take the jeep to town. Report in to the lieutenant." He knew he wouldn't leave the farmhouse until Littlejohn, Caje, and Doc had been found.
Carson said, "Be right back," and started for the farmhouse.
Saunders glanced at Billy, who stood quietly beside the jeep, his brow slightly furrowed, lost in thought. He'd taken the news almost as hard as Carson had, but for different reasons. Saunders knew Billy's guilt stemmed from feeling he hadn't been there when the squad had needed him. That maybe if he had been there, things might have gone differently. Saunders knew better, but it was too much a part of Billy's nature not to think he could have helped anyway.
Saunders jerked out of his contemplation at Carson's shout. Carson stood under the covered eve's way between the farmhouse side door and the barn wall, beckoning urgently. His rifle was not at the ready, and Saunders tried to take comfort in that. He quickly ordered, "Johnson, stay with the jeep. The rest of you...." Saunders indicated they should follow, and he took off at a jog.
He reached Carson's side and the second wave of relief in less than a half hour washed over him. Littlejohn and Doc, supporting Caje between them, were coming out of the woods forty feet away. Kirby took off at a run to lend a hand.
Carson stood a couple steps away, one hand on the side door knob, watching the approaching men with a half-smile. He looked at Saunders. "Something at least," he said. "I'll get that coffee now." He turned away and stepped up the three steps to enter the farmhouse.
Kirby reached their side and was slipping Caje's arm over his shoulder to relieve Doc.
Billy fidgeted beside Saunders, clearly longing to run forward and greet his squad mates as well. Saunders waited, just as impatiently, but too tired to show it. I'm done running for the day, he thought. Worriedly, he watched the men approach. Caje appeared only half-conscious. Without Littlejohn and Kirby's support, he would have fallen.
Scott was looking pale and sick again as the men drew closer and they could make out the blood on Caje's uniform.
"Scott," Saunders said quietly. "Go give Carson a hand."
"I'm okay, Sarge."
Scott pursed his lips a moment, then went. The side door closed behind him with a soft bang just as the men reached the farmhouse.
The blood was not from any knife wounds, Saunders saw, but from a gash on the side of Caje's head. His eyes strayed to the wire cuts on Caje's wrists, just like his own, and, angrily, his fingers clenched into fists. Maybe he wasn't done running. If it would let him catch Norman, he would have run to Paris and back on the spot.
Doc said, "We like to have never found him. We must have criss-crossed those woods a dozen times."
"How is he?"
"Concussed, probable skull fracture. He needs a doctor."
"He'll get one," Saunders promised. "Get him in the barn for now."
As they carried Caje past, Saunders heard Johnson calling him. Saunders said, "Billy, stay on guard here," then hurried across the drive to where Johnson stood next to the jeep. The man was standing almost casually at the passenger door, looking into the vehicle. Saunders stopped beside him.
Softly, not moving, Johnson said, "Behind me, Sarge. Beyond the wrecked half of farmhouse toward the woods. Something's moving. I know it's not the wind this time."
Saunders' breath caught in his throat, with a mix of anticipation and remembered fear. Just maybe, their luck was changing and Norman had finally run out of shadows to hide in. Just let him try something now in daylight. Saunders shifted slightly to get a better view, pretending to lean back against the jeep as he spoke with Johnson.
"What do you want to do?" Johnson asked.
"Ignore him," Saunders said. "Let's draw him out in the open."
Johnson rolled his shoulders uncomfortably. "Just standing here, I feel like I've got a target painted on my back."
Saunders felt the same thing, the hairs prickling at the back of his neck. The debris of the house lay piled high enough that it would afford reasonable coverage to someone moving low to the ground on the far side. He took a few steps toward the intact corner walls, the same place he'd stood by in the darkness a couple hours previously, firing blindly into the woods. This time will be different, he thought.
He put his back to the wall and glanced down toward the barn. All was quiet, Billy standing in front of the open doors. He desperately wanted to shout a warning, but to do so took away any element of surprise they had in catching Norman off-guard. If they didn't catch him unawares, Saunders had a feeling they wouldn't catch him at all. The murderer would shrink back into the woods and disappear. They hadn't the manpower or the time to run him to ground. All he would have to do is wait, and eventually another set of unsuspecting G.I.s would appear. No, they had to stop him now.
He sidled to the left blackened edge of the wall and risked a peek around the corner so he could look across the rubble toward the woods.
Something moved immediately to his right, in the right-angle of the abutting corner walls. Startled at its proximity, he turned to check it out, starting to raise the Thompson. He had barely registered that it was a person standing three feet from him, smiling coldly, when he saw Norman's left hand flinging something at his face. Saunders threw up a blocking arm and screwed his eyes shut a second too late, and the fistful of ash caught him directly in the eyes. He cried out in agony, and the Thompson slipped from his grasp as he involuntarily brought his hands up to his face. He pitched himself backwards, diving right to get the wall between him and Norman. It was the movement that saved his life. He was close enough to hear the two soft pops from Norman's silenced Luger. Something like an unseen hand tugged at the sleeve of his jacket and, from behind him, he heard Johnson's startled grunt of pain. Saunders rolled twice more, came up against something blocking his path.
Footsteps shifted in the rubble of the farmhouse, moving rapidly away.
It took all his willpower not to rub frantically at his eyes. He reached out a hand, realized he had rolled up against Johnson. By feel, he found the unconscious man's neck, hurriedly felt for a pulse, found one. Then eyes still screwed shut, he was reaching for Johnson's belt, hunting for his canteen. As he did so he yelled for Billy.
He found the canteen, unhooked it, and poured the meager contents across his eyes. It wasn't enough, and his eyes streamed with tears.
Running footfalls crossed the drive to his side. "Sarge? What happened--"
"Norman's here. Where's Kirby and Littlejohn?"
"In the barn... I didn't hear any shots."
Saunders raised his voice and shouted urgently, "Kirby, Littlejohn! Get out here!" Then to Billy, "Get Doc and get the rest of them out here now! Wait -- give me your canteen."
He felt the cold metal press into his outstretched hand, then he said, "Move! And stay alert. Norman's armed." He listened to Billy running away, then raised his voice again, angrily. Where the hell was everyone? "Carson! Scott! Get out of the house! Norman's here."
He unscrewed the cap from Billy's full canteen, sluiced the water across his eyes, gasping with pain and relief as the worst of the grit washed free.
Shouting came from the direction of the barn. Saunders shook his head, blinking his eyes free of water, still not willing to rub directly at them. He squinted blearily toward the barn door. Its double-doors were now closed, he could see that much. He could also see what looked like a struggle going on before them. A rifle fired once into the air, and the two figures lurched together in the parody of a macabre dance. Then one of the men fell. His eyesight was too blurry to make out who.
He dashed the rest of the canteen's contents hurriedly in his face, wiped the back of his hand across his wet cheeks and nose, then turned back to Johnson, quickly checking to see where he'd been hit. His left shoulder was bloody, and Saunders swore, knowing he had to leave him untended if he was going to stop Norman. Saunders crawled back toward the corner walls, searching for his dropped Thompson. His hand closed on it, and then he was up and running. The two figures had disappeared from in front of the barn. The barn doors were still ominously closed, and he saw two fallen helmets and a rifle lying nearby.
He shouted as he ran, "Kirby, Littlejohn! Get out here! Carson! Scott!"
Someone was yelling back at him from inside the barn, but he couldn't make out the words until he was drawing up at the closed doors of the barn and his hand was reaching for the big handle. It was Kirby shouting over and over at him: "Don't touch the door, Sarge! Don't touch the door!"
Saunders yanked his hand back and pivoted, shifting his momentum at the last moment to keep from slamming into the doors.
"It's booby-trapped!" Kirby was saying. "Whole thing's wired to go if you touch it--"
Saunders cut him off. "Find another way out! Bust down a wall, jump out of the loft -- something. Norman's got Billy."
That was met with dead silence from the other side, then he heard Littlejohn and Kirby's muffled voices conferring.
"Hurry up!" Saunders said and looked toward the farmhouse side door which hung ajar. He ran to the doorway, paused to the side of it. He knew the farmhouse layout. The side door opened onto a spacious kitchen. Two doorways, both opposite where he was going to enter, led deeper into the house. One led down a short hallway to the cellar door; the other into the ruined living room. That was the way Norman would have come, Saunders guessed. He would have crossed through the rubble after his attack on Saunders and Johnson and surprised Carson and Scott from within the house. There'd been no sounds from within the farmhouse since he had begun calling them.
He took a breath, shouldered open the door, swinging his weapon to cover one open doorway, then the other. Nothing shot at him, and he stepped swiftly into the kitchen.
He was too late for Carson. Norman appeared to be getting hasty. He'd simply shot his sergeant in the head. Scott lay face down in front of the stove, groaning, and Saunders dropped on one knee to turn him over. He'd been shot in the left thigh. "Cellar," Scott said between clenched teeth. "He's got Billy."
Saunders left him and moved to the left-hand doorway. The short hallway was windowless, dark but empty. He stepped up to the cellar door and toed it open carefully. The top of the narrow descending stairwell lay in near perfect blackness. Six steps led down to a small landing, where the stairway continued out of sight to the right. Shadows swung crazily up and down the walls below, as if Norman had just lit a lantern, and it was still swinging from its hook. Saunders eased into the stairwell, moved quietly down the steps. The cellar smelled stale and unpleasant. He could see the tops of the dusty, empty shelves, and he could hear movement down below, furtive and hurried. Each step down exposed more of the room to his view until, on the bottom step, where he was still hidden in darkness, he could just see past the landing to where Norman waited below.
He'd hoped to catch Norman unprepared and exposed, but he was too late.
The underground room was fifteen by twenty, thick support posts rising from the hard earth floor at regular intervals. Billy was propped up in a sitting position against one of them, unconscious, bleeding from one temple, his jacket and shirt hanging open. Norman was crouched carefully behind both him and the beam, offering Saunders no target without going through Billy. Norman's left hand was knotted in Billy's hair, holding Billy's head upright and back against the wood of the support post. His right hand held a bayonet to Billy's throat.
Norman said, "Come on in, Sarge. I've been waiting for you."
Saunders took the last step out of the black stairwell and up to the edge of small landing. The lantern had slowed its swaying, and the light shone steady down below.
"All alone again," Norman said. "All those men of yours, they count for nothing in the end." Saunders saw a flash of teeth, half of a smile twisted with ugly anticipation. "You all think you're so safe in daylight. When the sun comes up, everything's all better and you relax. But here I am, exactly where I want to be."
"Let him go," Saunders said softly.
Norman laughed, a sound more chilling because of its sheer cheerfulness. "Are you kidding?"
"There's no way out of this cellar, Norman, except past me. It's the end of the line."
"Nah, I have insurance." He tugged Billy's head up a little higher. "See?"
"Touch him and you die."
Norman swiftly shifted the blade's location, drew it sharply across Billy's right upper arm and had the bayonet back at Billy's throat a half second later. Saunders flinched as badly as if it had been his own arm. Billy gave a half-conscious moan.
"What's that you were saying, Sarge?" Norman asked. "Want to see me touch him again?"
Saunders clenched his teeth in a grimace of loathing and said nothing, knowing he was trapped, knowing he was impotent to give his rage outlet, helpless to free Billy without getting him maimed or killed.
"So, you just drop your gun over the edge of that landing there," Norman went on, then his tone hardened: "Or I will hurt him again."
Saunders said, "Without a hostage, you don't walk out of here."
"You'd be surprised how much damage I can do and still keep him walking. You want to watch that?" Norman asked calmly. "Drop the gun."
Saunders dropped it. The Thompson clattered loudly on the hard-packed dirt floor six feet below.
"Now grip the railing in front of you," Norman said. "I want to see the whites of your knuckles, Sarge."
Saunders put his hands around the top railing. The worn wood was cool and smooth beneath his sweating palms.
Norman eased out a little from his hiding spot. "You know where you went wrong, Sarge?" He shook his head and clicked his tongue, scoldingly. "You assume I want the same thing everyone else wants. You assume I want to get out of this cellar alive. But you should know by now that you can rely only on facts. Assumptions will just get you killed." He laughed and it was no longer cheerful; it was ugly, harsh, and full of feral excitement. "You never should have dropped your gun, Sarge. You should have just shot the kid then shot me because I'm going to kill him anyway. Right here. Right now. I've just been waiting for you to share it with." And he cut Billy across the upper chest, just below the left collarbone. Not deep, not fast.
Saunders thought the railing would break beneath the grip he had on it.
Norman said, "Only blood speaks the real truth. All red and running free, carrying your life story with it." He looked up at Saunders with a crooked grin that looked more like the grimace of a skull's head than a human smile. "How much can you stomach, Sarge? Sooner or later you'll snap, and you'll come at me without your gun because you won't care anymore. And then it will just be me with my knife and you with your hate."
A breeze of displaced air behind him stirred the hairs on the back of Saunders' neck, and he was so focused on Norman that he started visibly at the unexpectedness of it.
Norman's smile twisted contemptuously, and Saunders knew the man had seen him jump and had assumed it was in reaction to Norman himself. Assumptions will kill you, all right, he thought and had to stop himself from smiling grimly. Just keep your gaze on me, bastard, not the darkness behind me.
His eyes never left Norman's face, but Norman no longer had his sole attention. Saunders listened to the pained shallow breathing behind him, the boots fighting to tread as quietly as possible on the stairs.
"I'd wager with you on how long you can just stand there," Norman said. "Except you have nothing to wager with."
Below, Billy groaned, pushed feebly at the hand gripping him. Norman looked down with an expression almost like amusement and swatted Billy's hand away.
From behind Saunders, came the merest whisper of a voice: "Sarge." He heard it, heard the warning in Scott's voice, and he understood. He dropped flat on the landing. The rifle report cracked through the room, and Saunders was swinging immediately beneath the stairway side railing, jumping to the cellar floor to snatch for his Thompson.
He straightened slowly, realizing the need for haste was over. Scott had not missed. Norman lay pitched on his back in the shadows. Saunders walked over, kicked the bayonet out of his dead hand anyway. He looked up and saw Scott leaning precariously in the stairwell above the landing, just starting to lower his rifle.
Saunders set down his Thompson and knelt by Billy. Neither cut Norman had inflicted was deep, but the wound on his head still oozed steadily.
"Is he all right?" Scott asked.
Scott said, "I thought I wouldn't be in time. I couldn't move, Sarge."
"But you did."
Scott sat down heavily on the bottom step of the stairwell, his wounded leg giving out.
Saunders shifted Billy away from the support post and eased him down onto his back. The movement roused him, and Billy's eyelids fluttered open. "Sarge?"
Saunders said, "Just hang on. I've got to go get Doc."
"He's gone." At Billy's look, he added quickly, "Dead."
Billy closed his eyes, his body relaxing back into unconsciousness. Saunders stood and started for the stairway, then glanced back at the dead man lying behind Billy and grimaced. An overwhelming reluctance to leave Billy alone with the murderer, even with him dead, filled him, and he returned to Billy's side. He wanted Billy to awake outside, into morning sunlight and clear air, and to some outlandish story from Kirby on how he and Littlejohn and Doc and Caje had gotten out of the barn. If they had gotten out of the barn. Saunders glanced up at the still silent farmhouse above him, starting to wonder if he wouldn't have to rescue them too. It might almost be worth it, just to watch Billy not let them live that down.
Smiling, crouching, he lifted Billy in his arms, then headed for the staircase and escape from the dusty death-filled cellar.