(2007) 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 château lay peaceful and quiet as midnight came and went. The smell of impending rain laced the air as the clouds gathered tighter overhead. No moon or starlight penetrated that cover. The two German sentries walking the château's perimeter carried flashlights, but they didn't use them, relying on the limited light from the château. One paused on his route to fish a smoke from his pocket. He lit it and took a puff before walking on, the cigarette dangling from his lips.
The first raindrops started and he paused again, tipping his head back to glare skyward. Drops struck his face, cold and hard, and he swore. In a minute it was raining steadily, the noise of it on the gravel walk an incessant patter. Of course. All day it had been threatening, and now on his shift, it finally rained. He tamped the cigarette out and tucked it away before the rain could soak it. He drew his coat tighter around him and walked on.
Inside the second basement prison, Caje had one ear to the door, listening. He glanced over his shoulder and frowned at Kirby, who paced restlessly, hands in his pockets and boots clomping on the wooden floor. Littlejohn sat against the far wall, legs drawn up and eyes shut, wounded arm held close against him. Caje wished he could do more for the big man, but the Germans were passing out neither doctors nor aspirin.
He pressed closer to the edge of the door again. Since Ashton's cry of pain and the heavy tromping of guards hauling the struggling man out of the basement about an hour ago, he had heard nothing from outside their room. No clink or rustle of rifle straps, not one boot shuffle as someone shifted weight, no scent of cigarette smoke.... No, Caje was positive -- there were no guards on duty in the basement corridor. If there was a guard, Caje guessed he would be up at the top of the stairs, in a position to watch the outside of the château as well as the inside.
Most of the soldiers had left, Littlejohn had reported. Caje was still trying to figure out the ramifications of that. Was the château that secure? Or were the soldiers needed elsewhere? And how many, exactly, remained?
He knew what Kirby thought -- that if the guards came back to their room for any reason, they should jump them. The door swung inward, giving the prisoners the advantage. But the only thing that made Kirby's plan remotely workable was if most of the soldiers had indeed departed. If that were true, then they stood a chance of escaping. The problem was, Caje could neither confirm or deny it by just listening at the keyhole.
"Caje," Kirby said. He had paused and was staring up at the barred window. "Lemme take another look outside."
"Nothing's changed," Caje said. Kirby was just impatient, edgy, looking for an outlet. Besides, they could hear the rain now, rattling like thrown pebbles against the glass. He wouldn't see anything in the darkness with that kind of weather anyway.
Then Caje shh'd him, listening intently. "Guards are coming," he whispered.
Kirby joined him quickly beside the door, and Littlejohn got to his feet. The three men exchanged a look.
"You sure?" Caje asked.
Kirby's face was grim. "We're not gonna get another chance."
A key turned in the lock, and the two men took up positions on either side. Littlejohn waited where he'd be in plain view of the entering guards, but still close enough to lend assistance if needed.
A voice growled something in German and a familiar American voice snapped, "Quit your shoving."
"Doc," Caje mouthed to Kirby. Kirby nodded once and pressed back against the wall, waiting. Caje was disappointed Doc had been caught, but it also reassured him that their escape plan just might work. The guards weren't coming to take one of them away, they were coming to add Doc to the cell. And that meant they'd be distracted by their new charge and easier to surprise.
The key turned in the lock, the door opened, and Doc was shoved in. Caje and Kirby sprang before Littlejohn even yanked Doc out of the way. There were only two guards, and neither got off a warning yell. Kirby flattened one with a left cross while Caje locked his arms around the other's neck, strangling him. As Caje and Kirby dragged them into the room, Littlejohn snatched up the straps of the two dropped rifles with his good hand.
Doc was still staring in surprise, unable to hide a smile. "Boy, am I glad to see you guys."
"You okay?" Caje asked.
"So far." Doc had been stripped of his gear, including the medical supplies, but appeared otherwise none the worse for wear. He was also soaking wet, his hair plastered to his head, and his jacket clinging to his shoulders and arms. He spotted Littlejohn's bloody arm and frowned. "Hey, let me have a look at that."
"Later," Kirby said. "Come on, Doc, he's okay. Let's get the sarge. We're getting outta here."
Saunders waited alone. Close to an hour had passed since they'd taken Ashton out. An hour with a man like Kurt, and the German captain smiling and watching and asking his inevitable questions. Were they the types to get right to business, or were they toying with the lieutenant?
And Ashton? Saunders didn't know. If he had given in, Saunders had expected him to be returned before now, but if he was resisting, how long could he last? Could he separate the past from the present long enough to realize he had a second chance?
A second chance at what? Saunders thought bitterly. To die bit by bit all over again? Did a second chance matter? He had no idea what the man had endured the first time he'd been interrogated... two weeks, Ashton had said. He had no right to ask Ashton to go through that again. And yet he had asked. Not asked. Demanded. Ashton had been called in from London specifically because the information he carried was important enough that the partisans wouldn't trust hearing it from anyone they didn't know. Any information that important was worth fighting for. He held onto that thought as he ran a hand through his hair and blew out a breath.
The locked door shook violently, and Saunders bolted to his feet.
"Sarge?" Kirby's voice whispered.
Saunders couldn't help grinning. "Yeah."
"Stand clear, will ya?"
The door shuddered as Kirby kicked once, twice. Saunders winced at the noise. On the third kick, the wood splintered and the door flew open, the lock torn free. Kirby rushed in, tossing Saunders a stolen German rifle. Saunders checked it over swiftly. He could see Littlejohn and Doc waiting in the hall beyond. Kirby held the second stolen rifle, Littlejohn clutched a German bayonet in his good hand.
Kirby looked around the empty room, then asked grimly, "So that was the lieutenant they took away?"
Saunders nodded once.
"Caje went up the stairway to take a look," Kirby added. "But Doc says when he was brought in, there were almost no sentries outside."
Saunders looked over at the medic. "You see a German captain when you were brought in?"
Doc shook his head.
Still with Ashton, then, Saunders thought. And not about to concern himself with another unimportant prisoner like Doc until Ashton gave him what he wanted. "Let's go," he said and followed Kirby out into the corridor.
Caje padded back down the basement steps, cat-footed even in his boots, and reported, "Two guards outside the front doors. No one inside that I can see at all." Like Littlejohn, he held only a confiscated bayonet. He had been hoping that there was a guard on station at the top of the stairs; it would have given the Americans more weapons.
Softly, Saunders said, "They'll have a radio. We've got to knock that out. Then we find the lieutenant."
Kirby said, "There's two floors. He could be anywhere." His tone was flat, matter-of-fact, leaving Saunders unsure if the B.A.R. man was objecting to the proposed search or merely stating facts.
"We'll just have to search them both," Saunders said. The château hadn't looked that big from the front drive. It wouldn't take them long, particularly if the building was as deserted as it seemed. And, more importantly, if their luck held.
They crept single-file up the basement stairway to the entrance hall, Caje leading. The rain had indeed arrived and arrived in force. Saunders could hear it hammering on the château's front steps. The two outside guards were visible through the glass in the doors, watching out, not in. They were sheltered under the front balcony's overhang. With the rain pounding in their ears, they probably would never hear the Americans sneaking up from inside to take them out, but Saunders didn't want to disturb the château's appearance just yet in case there were more sentries outside to be alerted. Most likely, any other guards were taking shelter themselves, but he wasn't taking any chances on underestimating the efficiency of the German army.
The grand carpeted staircase lead up to the second floor, its heavy wooden banister curving left and right and extending along the balcony to each side. Saunders studied the layout a moment, then whispered, "Downstairs first. Kirby, Doc -- left. Caje and I'll take the right. Littlejohn -- you can cover the front door from right here." Saunders held out the rifle. He didn't particularly want to search the downstairs with just a bayonet, but Littlejohn might need the rifle far more than he did. "Can you handle it with your wounded arm?"
Littlejohn gave him a lopsided grin and traded his bayonet for the rifle. "No problem, Sarge."
Saunders grinned back. He glanced at each of the men. "Okay, find Ashton, destroy the radio, and let's get out of here. Shoot if you have to."
But ten minutes later, the two sets of searchers reconvened at Littlejohn's post empty-handed and even edgier. Valuable time was slipping away from them, and each moment they stayed in the château brought discovery of their escape that much closer to a reality. No one knew that more than Saunders, but he wasn't going to leave Ashton. Not unless he had no choice.
He jerked his thumb toward the upstairs.
One at a time, they eased out of the basement stairwell. Caje went first. Kirby, Doc, then Littlejohn went next, creeping up the big stairway to the upstairs balcony. Saunders waited until last, his gaze locked on the two outdoor guards. But they never turned, never did anything beyond stamp their feet and stare out at the gloomy wet night. He heard their voices, muffled by the closed door, probably complaining about the weather. At least the squad's luck was still holding. He quickly followed the others, taking the steps two at a time.
At the top of the staircase, Kirby looked left, then right. It was exactly the same setup as the ground floor, the two hallways on either side mirror images, both with closed doors spaced at regular intervals, both turning corners to angle out of his sight toward the back of the chateau. The hallways ran an inner rectangular perimeter through the château. There were clean squares on the walls where pictures had once hung, and he could see the occasional rubbing left waist high against the wall where decorative tables had probably stood. The mounted light sconces were almost absurdly ornate in that desolate stripped building.
With Doc close behind him, he twisted the handle of the first doorway on the left, careful to make a minimum of noise. It was locked. He pressed his ear to the door a moment. The room was quiet, and he hurried on. Whatever room they had Ashton in was not going to be silent.
Saunders positioned Littlejohn behind the banister. It was a better post than the basement stairwell. From here he could cover the front doors and the upstairs.
"It's too quiet," Littlejohn said. "I don't like it."
"Better than having this place crawling with Krauts," Caje murmured.
Saunders touched Littlejohn reassuringly on the shoulder, then led Caje down the right-hand corridor.
Two doors down they found the radio room. They heard the scuffle of boots inside, and the sound of a man humming a tune to himself as if to help pass the time.
Saunders toed the door open a crack, wary of letting in a tell-tale breeze that might alert the man on duty. He saw what once must have been a corner bedroom, with a table set up against the far wall, near the curtained window. An electric light burned overhead and Saunders saw the radio man sitting with his back to the door, scratching out doodles in a notebook as he hummed. Whatever this château was, it was clearly not a main center of activity. The equipment on the table was sparse, just a radio transmitter and receiver sitting amid a collection of pencils, radio handbooks, and a pad of message forms. An open doorway to the left led to somewhere similarly lighted, but from his limited vantage, Saunders could not make out what was in there.
Saunders pulled back and gestured to Caje.
Caje took a look for himself, then nodded. He pushed open the door and had crossed to the German's side before the German had registered the sound of the door opening. His right hand closed over the man's mouth as he knifed the radio operator in the throat. The man struggled briefly, then went limp. Caje left him slumped forward in the chair and was just looking over the equipment when a second German came through the open doorway to the left.
The man was young. His eyes widened, taking in his dead comrade and the American standing over him. But the German was smarter than Saunders gave him credit for, and instead of trying to jump Caje, he retreated into the other room, shouting at the top of his lungs. Caje snatched up the radioman's rifle that was propped against the table nearby. He ran after the yelling German, and the single gunshot echoed through the château.
An ominous silence fell.
Caje quickly checked the side room. There were no other soldiers lurking. He looked around the room and spotted another rifle resting against a wall. He grabbed it and when he returned to the front radio room, it was just in time to see Saunders smashing the transmitter against the wall.
At the sound of the gunshot Kirby and Doc whipped around to look back the way they had come. Kirby knew neither Sarge nor Caje had been carrying a rifle, and he was debating turning to help them, when, from around the corner of their own corridor, he heard German voices raised in alarm, then approaching footsteps.
"Get back, Doc," Kirby hissed, taking aim.
Doc pressed back against the wall behind him just as the two soldiers rounded the corner and Kirby shot them.
Seconds later, Littlejohn opened fire from the grand staircase. That would be the outdoor sentries coming inside to see what the shooting was all about, Kirby thought.
Saunders and Caje came pounding back to help Littlejohn, each now armed with their own rifle. The sergeant said urgently, "Caje -- we need a back door!"
"Right," Caje said and took off back down the right-hand hall.
Saunders dropped down beside Littlejohn and joined in holding off the outside guards now trying to come in the front door. He glanced up, saw Kirby and Doc looking back at him, not moving, and shouted, "Hurry up!"
Kirby hurried, but as he reached the corner, he bent and unsheathed one of the dead German's bayonets. He stuck it through his own belt. Wouldn't hurt to have something extra. Then he and Doc stepped over the two dead men and peered around the corner. The château's side corridor had doors only against the inner wall. The outer wall had regularly spaced curtained windows. At least that narrowed the searching options. And with the gunfire continuing from behind them, their need for stealth had vanished as well. No more trying door handles and listening at keyholes, Kirby just kicked in the first door.
Dark and empty.
But, then, from ahead came a man's voice. The second door down hung ajar as if the two German soldiers Kirby had just killed had come from there. Or as if he was expected. Kirby tensed, approaching it with rifle held ready, then kicked the door wide open.
It was a large room, well-appointed. Where the rest of the château appeared stripped clean, the furnishings had been left intact here. It was like stepping back in time -- the antique settee and sideboard off to the left, the over-sized ornate bureau against the left-hand wall, several paintings that had been hanging for more years than Kirby had been alive. The opulently plush carpet. There was even a glass decanter of brandy resting on a silver tray on top of the sidebar. He almost expected Marie Antoinette to waltz forward with her powdered wig and two-ton dress.
Except, tied to a chair in the center of the room, his back to Kirby, was Ashton, and just beyond him stood the German captain. There was no one else in the room. Ashton looked unconscious, head lolled forward, only remaining upright because he was bound to the chair. Kirby took one look at Ashton and hoped he was unconscious. He had been stripped down to his undershirt and trousers, his boots and socks removed. He was a bloody mess.
Kirby's mind flashed to another room not that long ago in another French village, to another American bound and beaten to death -- Eddie Kopachek. The resentment he'd held toward Ashton suddenly felt petty and irrelevant. First Eddie, now the lieutenant... they were both Americans, damn it.
The rage that had been simmering boiled up into fury, and he raised his gaze to the German captain. Von Reisl's own jacket was gone, the sleeves of his once-white shirt rolled up. The captain clearly liked to do his own dirty work; that was Ashton's blood spattering him, Kirby thought. Another American beaten.... Unbidden, Colonel Bruener's words came back to him: In war, there's no such thing as murder. As if such lies condoned their behavior.
Harshly, Kirby ordered, "Get your hands up." Over his shoulder, he called, "Doc!"
The captain moved slowly to comply as Kirby came forward. While Kirby kept his rifle trained on Von Reisl, his gaze darted around the rest of the room, resting particularly on the two closed side doors on opposite walls, the giant bureau, and the two large wardrobes set against the back wall -- all potential hiding places for other Krauts.
Kirby slipped the stolen bayonet from his belt and tossed it handle-first to Doc. "Cut him loose, Doc." His voice was still hoarse, the anger raw and fresh. To Von Reisl, he said, "Get back." He punctuated the order with a jab from his rifle, pushing the officer farther away from his victim.
Doc hurried to Ashton while the captain, hands raised only minimally in the air and an inscrutable smirk curling up his lips, backed away.
"Lieutenant, lieutenant," Doc said, softly. He lifted Ashton's head, and his lips compressed into a thin line as he took in the livid bruising and swelling, the blood that ran freely into his eyes.
Kirby circled the room cautiously, heading to check out the closed side door on the right.
Von Reisl said, "My men won't--"
"Shut up," Kirby snarled. He should have just shot him, it was safer that way, but he couldn't do it. There was no murder in war. But if Von Reisl wanted to give him a reason....
Kirby was almost to the door, when he heard Doc shout, "Look out!"
The left side door flew open, and a single soldier burst in, rifle raised. Kirby shot him, but as he did, the captain pulled a Luger from his waistband at the small of his back and dove for cover behind the bureau.
Kirby quickly shifted his aim, tracking the captain. But the right-hand door directly behind him flung open, catching him squarely on the shoulder. It knocked him sideways, and his shot went wild.
Kirby caught his balance and was whirling toward the new danger, when he felt the rifle plucked from his grip as easily if he hadn't been holding onto it at all. A fist caught him on the jaw and sent him sprawling on the carpet. He shook his head to clear his vision and looked up to see Kurt towering over him. The German sergeant was stripped down to his undershirt, and he was more blood-stained than the captain. Kirby understood then: this was Ashton's torturer, the captain a mere observer next to the brutal force this big man could employ.
Kurt dropped Kirby's rifle onto the floor and kicked it away with the side of his boot. A smile twisted his lips with sadistic pleasure, and Kirby felt his anger turn cold with fear. He was aware of Doc nearby, trying to cut Ashton free, of the German captain hiding behind the bureau with his Luger. More distantly, he heard sporadic gunfire and knew Littlejohn and Saunders were holding the fort at the balcony rail -- buying them all precious time. Time he was wasting contemplating the big grinning man before him.
The grin was for him, in anticipation of fighting him, of taking him apart with his bare hands. It was the kind of look a starving dog would have eyeing an unguarded roast, only a hundred times colder. Kirby saw the massive bare arms, the muscles rippling as the Kraut stared down at him. And he knew, grimly, in a flash, that he was fighting for his life. And just as certainly, he knew he would lose this fight.
But not without giving a good accounting for himself first.
Almost before the thought had finished, he lashed out with a boot at the man's knee. Kurt sidestepped, turning the kick into only a glancing blow. But the motion distracted the big man, and that was all Kirby cared about. He rolled, scrambling for the discarded rifle. Kurt jumped forward and his kick at Kirby's side did not miss. The B.A.R. man gasped, the pain overwhelming. Kurt's hands closed on his left arm and the back of his jacket, and Kirby felt himself hauled to his feet. He threw a punch at the man's jaw with his free right arm, swinging with all his might. It was like hitting a phone pole. Kurt merely grunted. Kirby swung again, even though his hand felt broken, but Kurt was ready and blocked it with a raised arm. The German soldier's own punch sent Kirby careening face-first into the wall.
He clung there a moment, dazed, knowing he had to move and move fast, but too stunned to get his muscles working. Kurt closed on him again, swung him around. Kirby tried to block the blow he knew was coming, but he was slow. Kurt's fist sank hard into his stomach and, as he doubled over, the following uppercut caught him in the jaw. Kirby slammed backwards into the wall again, this time sliding almost in slow-motion to the floor.
Behind them, Doc frantically sawed through the last of the ropes tying Ashton to the chair. When he looked past Ashton's shoulder, he saw Von Reisl crouched beside the bureau, the pistol still in his hand, but held loosely. The German captain's eyes were locked on Kurt and Kirby, a smile broad on his face. He looked to be enjoying the fight as much as Kurt, and he was clearly not interested in ending the confrontation prematurely.
But as the ropes securing Ashton parted and the lieutenant collapsed forward, Von Reisl's gaze snapped toward them, drawn by the new movement. The captain's eyes narrowed, and he quickly aimed his Luger directly at Ashton.
Doc dropped the bayonet and hauled Ashton off the chair just as a bullet shattered one of the chair's back slats. Ashton groaned as he hit the floor. Doc kicked the chair hard toward the captain, hoping to hit him or at least distract and throw off his aim long enough to drag Ashton to the relative cover of the settee nearby.
Kirby knew he had blanked out for a few moments. He was half-sitting on the floor, back against the wall, hardly aware of how he'd got there. His jaw felt busted, his stomach a raw mass of pain. He had a nasty feeling the German sergeant wasn't even hitting him full strength, wanting to prolong the fight as long as possible. Enjoying himself. Kirby blinked eyes that didn't want to focus and desperately looked around.
The rifle was on the floor not two feet from him. Kurt had probably left it there deliberately, to taunt him with it, but Kirby didn't care. He couldn't beat the man barehanded, and any further punches he caught were going to leave him permanently incapacitated. Without something to even the odds, he was dead.
He twisted and dove for the rifle.
He was so sure he wouldn't reach it that when his hand slapped against the barrel he almost didn't close his bruised fingers around it. His surprise vanished in elation, and he snatched the rifle up. A second later, he ducked instinctively, sensing more than seeing the movement to his left. He narrowly avoided the boot scything toward his head. Kirby rolled away and staggered to his feet, trying to raise the rifle.
But Kurt lashed out with a leg, tangling Kirby and spilling him back on the carpet. The air whooshed out of lungs as he hit hard, and he fought to hang onto the weapon. He was trying to turn it when Kurt landed on top of him. Kirby threshed wildly trying to throw off his attacker before he could land a punch, but that wasn't Kurt's objective. Instead, Kurt's hands closed around the rifle, and he pressed the length of it down toward Kirby's throat.
Kirby desperately pushed back, his arm muscles quivering. The German sergeant's teeth were bared in a grimace but Kirby barely noticed the feral delight on his opponent's face as he steadily lost ground. His world contracted to the struggle to keep the rifle away from himself.
Meanwhile, Doc kicked his heels into the plush carpet and dragged Ashton's dead weight to cover behind the couch. Another bullet from the German captain passed through the settee inches above Doc's head. The medic looked around frantically. The front doorway was wide open behind him -- but he knew he'd never reach the hallway's safety, even without the injured Ashton. And worse -- his eyes fell on the German sergeant, arm and neck muscles bulging as he slowly overpowered Kirby and brought the rifle that much closer to strangling the B.A.R. man. Doc watched helplessly -- he could do nothing to help Kirby either. Not without being shot down by Von Reisl.
"Doc!" Caje said.
Doc whipped around, saw Caje just stepping into the front doorway, and shouted, "Look out!"
Caje spotted the half-hidden German captain taking aim at him at the same time he heard Doc's warning. He dove back into the hallway as Von Reisl fired twice at him. Caje swore to himself. He should have gotten here sooner; they should have known there would be more soldiers guarding the lieutenant.
He heard Doc's voice shouting urgently at him, "Caje, help Kirby!"
Caje risked another peek into the room, taking in the layout, and yanking back just as another bullet splintered the doorjamb. Doc was pinned down, and Caje knew he himself wouldn't have time to line up a shot at Kirby's attacker without giving Von Reisl a clear shot back at him. He had to get rid of the captain first. The captain was only partially behind the bureau, clearly counting on his superior field of view of the Americans' positions to give him the advantage.
The room was perfectly visualized in Caje's head. He knew exactly where to aim. As long as the German captain didn't change position....
Caje dropped to one knee to appear where hopefully Von Reisl wouldn't be expecting him. All he needed was a couple of seconds. He took a steadying breath, then swung just far enough around the corner, low down, and loosed two shots at the German captain's last position from memory.
But Von Reisl had indeed moved, shifting himself farther back behind the bureau, and Caje's shots that should have taken him cleanly, hit nothing. Caje bit back another curse and swiftly shifted aim to the right, toward the German sergeant. His angle was lousy, but at least he might be able to wing the man.
Kurt's grin was widening as he forced the rifle inch by inch closer to Kirby's throat, until Kirby felt the cold metal touch his skin, then press harder, cutting into his windpipe. He couldn't breathe. He drew on the last of his reserves to keep pushing even as the strength ebbed from his arms and stars sparkled in front of his eyes.
Then Caje fired, and Kurt cried out as the bullet caught him in the right shoulder. His right hand's grip on the rifle slipped, and Kirby abruptly found himself able to push the weapon away from his throat. He gulped for air and wrenched the rifle out of Kurt's good hand before the German sergeant could recover. Kirby swung the stock at the face above him. He was both at the wrong angle and too close to put deadly force into the blow, but it was enough to knock the German backwards. Kirby hit him again, then the man's weight was falling off him. He shoved with his remaining strength and scrambled free.
The wounded Kurt bellowed in anger and launched himself back at Kirby.
Desperately, Kirby jerked the rifle up and pulled the trigger until the weapon was empty. The shots caught Kurt pointblank in the chest, but his momentum carried him forward two more steps before he collapsed to his knees, then fell face-first onto the carpet.
Rubbing at his throat, still gasping for air, Kirby tried to regroup. Someone frantically called his name. "Kirby!"
There was more gunfire, and he fell flat to the floor, not sure in his haze where it was coming from. He lifted his head and saw Caje just outside the room, shooting through the doorway at the German captain, who was hidden behind the bureau. Doc was caught between them behind the settee, trying to protect Ashton.
Kirby took it all in, saw Von Reisl leveling his aim at Doc, saw that Caje was unable to get a clean shot. He quickly raised the rifle again and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened, and he remembered he had emptied the clip into Kurt. Without another thought, he dropped the rifle and flung himself on Von Reisl before the man could shoot at his squad mates again. The captain wasn't expecting attack from that direction, and Kirby caught him off guard. He grabbed the captain's gun arm by the wrist and slammed it repeatedly against the edge of the wardrobe until Von Reisl dropped the weapon with a yell of pain.
"Kirby! Get out of the way!"
It was Caje shouting at him, Kirby knew that, knew he was blocking Caje's aim, but he didn't care. Fury took over and he drew his arm back and hit the captain. The captain smacked into the wall and fell to the floor. Kirby was on him in an instant, punching him in the face over and over.
Doc took the opportunity to drag Ashton toward the hallway, even as Caje was trying to get a clean shot at the German captain around Kirby.
Kirby held the captain up by his shirt front a moment before he realized the man was limp and unconscious. He unceremoniously let go, then lurched to his feet, fighting back pain and nausea. Gingerly, he touched his jaw, then swiped the blood from his split lip with the back of his aching hand. His left eye was already swelling up. He looked around and grimly picked up Von Reisl's Luger.
He could hear gunfire, distant but steady, and he remembered Littlejohn and Saunders out on the balcony, fending off the outdoor sentries. Then Caje's voice jerked him out of his reverie, as the Cajun called urgently, "Kirby, let's go!"
Caje and Doc had Ashton on his feet, but without Doc's support, he would have fallen again. His upper body and face looked even more bloody and bruised than when he had been sitting down. Kirby rubbed at his jaw and throat again, knowing his own bruises were coming. "He okay?" he asked Doc.
Ashton spat out some blood and said, "I can walk."
Kirby grimaced. "Yeah, like hell you can." He shrugged off his jacket, and he and Doc helped Ashton into it. When Ashton started to fall, Doc threw an arm around him and pulled his arm over his shoulders. Kirby slipped Ashton's other arm over his own shoulders. Caje checked the hallway before he let Doc and Kirby follow with Ashton between them. They could still hear gunfire from the front of the château.
Above the grand staircase, Saunders surveyed the scene again. Only two Germans left of the five that had ultimately appeared at the front doors remained. But those two had shifted from the doors to one of the tall narrow windows that stood on either side of the doors. The windows were hung with lightweight filmy curtains that blew and caught the inside light. They made the view beyond the window even darker, and Saunders relied on trying to catch movement to see when the Germans popped up to shoot at them. The Germans had it much easier, staring from the darkness into a lighted room, but it had still come down to a stalemate.
He knew he and Littlejohn could retreat at any moment, but he wanted to keep the soldiers busy at the front of the château as long as possible. Give the others enough time to find Ashton. The gunfire from around the upstairs corner worried him, but he was trusting Caje would keep their options open.
Movement through the fluttering curtains caught his eye. It was one of the Germans, drawing his arm back, preparing to throw something. Stalemate over, Saunders thought. He shoved at Littlejohn. "Go!"
The grenade explosion shook the château, blowing out windows and knocking them into the wall. Dust and smoke poured around them. Coughing, wincing, Saunders gave Littlejohn a hand up, and they hurried down the hall. To his relief, directly ahead of them was the rest of the squad, and they had found Ashton.
Both Kirby and Doc were keeping the lieutenant on his feet. Saunders grimly took in Ashton's appearance and asked, "Doc?"
Ashton answered before Doc could say anything. "I'll live."
The pain in the lieutenant's voice was undisguised, but when he raised his head and met Saunders' eyes, his gaze was steady. Saunders gave him a single nod -- he knew what Ashton was really trying to say, that he hadn't told the German captain anything.
Caje said, "There's a stairway down into a back courtyard. It was clear a moment ago."
Kirby said, "A vehicle sure wouldn't hurt."
Saunders shook his head. "We'd never make it back to our lines on the roads. We're going to have to do it the long way." He gestured them ahead, and they headed quickly down the hall. Caje and Littlejohn in the lead, Doc and Kirby supporting Ashton, and Saunders covering the rear. Two German soldiers came through the smoke down the hall and Saunders fired at them. They threw themselves back around the corner. He had to delay pursuit long enough for them to get Ashton out.
But he was running out of ammo for the stolen rifle. He ducked into the room the squad had been in. A sideboard along the wall to his left held a silver tray with a nearly full decanter of brandy and several upside down glasses. Saunders snatched up the heavy container and returned to the hall. He flung it hard at the wall.
The glass broke and the cognac splashed over the wall and the rug at his feet. He knelt quickly and pulled his lighter from his pocket, flicked it on, and lowered it toward the alcohol. The fumes caught with a whoomph and the wave of fire swept through the spilled alcohol. The rug burst into flame.
Saunders backed quickly away, loosed off a couple of shots toward the corner to keep the Germans in hiding, then ran after the others.
He came out on a small back landing. The cold rain pounded against him as he ran down the narrow outside stairway. He could just make out Caje and Littlejohn standing across the back gardens, making sure the way was clear. Kirby and Doc were hauling Ashton straight toward the dark woods.
Shots rang out from an upstairs window of the château. Caje and Littlejohn returned fire, and under their cover, Saunders ran for the safety of the woods.
Saunders crouched, watching and listening for any sign of pursuit. It was the third time he'd dropped back from the squad to check and this time, the tension began to ease from his shoulders. Two hours had passed since their escape, and the dark woods lay still behind them. He was convinced there was no pursuit from the soldiers left at the château.
Rain beat down incessantly, and he longed for his helmet. It would have been noisy, but at least it would have kept the water out of his eyes. He was thoroughly soaked, and he stretched as he rose to his feet, feeling his wet shirt pull tightly across his shoulders. He slung the stolen rifle over his shoulder, wishing again it was his Thompson, and hurried to catch the others.
Caje and Doc had rigged a stretcher out of their jackets and two sturdy branches for Ashton, to help make better time. They carried the lieutenant carefully through the woods, going far slower than Saunders would have liked, but the darkness and rain precluded speed. They had all fallen and stumbled with the lack of visibility. Kirby ranged somewhere ahead on point, Littlejohn walked nearby, silent and clutching his wounded arm. Saunders knew he was hurting more than he let on.
"Take five," Saunders said.
Caje and Doc set Ashton down gratefully and collapsed beside him to rest. Saunders dropped down near Doc, looked at Ashton. The lieutenant was unmoving and it was too dark to see anything anyway. Doc had used Saunders and Kirby's jackets to cover him and keep the rain off his face.
Doc said softly, "He needs a hospital, Sarge. That German sergeant roughed him up pretty bad. He's lost a lot of blood."
Saunders said nothing a long moment. The map was long gone, confiscated off Caje when they'd been captured. They were walking on memory and a sense of direction only. "We should be nearing our lines," he said. "And it should be dawn soon. We'll make better time then." If this rain will ever quit, he thought, squinting skyward. But it was the best he could offer the medic. He rubbed his sleeve over his eyes to wipe away the rain again and stood. "All right, let's get moving."
The rain finally stopped before dawn, and daybreak found them out of the forest and back in the hilly pastureland. The sky stayed overcast, but even without the sun's direct rays, it was warm enough that they slowly began to dry out.
If only the terrain would dry off too, Saunders thought. It was his and Kirby's turn carrying Ashton. Between their exhaustion, Ashton's weight, and the slickness of the wet grass, it was just as much a struggle to keep their footing steady as it had been during the downpour. They labored up a grassy slope toward where Caje waited, keeping watch. Caje signaled them to stop before they reached the top and gestured over the hill. "Road," he murmured.
"Well, hallelujah," Kirby said. "About time."
Saunders and Kirby lowered the stretcher down beside Doc and Littlejohn and came up beside Caje to take a look. A tree-lined broad dirt track wound along the bottom of the hill below them. Beyond the road stretched a broad field. To the left rose more grassy hills, which the road passed up and over. Nothing moved anywhere in their line of sight.
Kirby nodded toward the road and said, "It's going the direction we want, ain't it?" He paused. "Well, ain't it? I mean this isn't the way we came, but we're behind our own lines now, aren't we? And following that road sure beats what we've been walking through."
Saunders knew it. But he studied the area again, looking for danger. "Caje, check it out." He pointed toward where the road passed out of sight over the tops of the hills to their left.
With a nod, Caje took off.
Saunders studied the hilltop they sat on. It was exposed and not at all to his liking. He glanced down the hill toward the tree-lined road below. The trees would at least offer some concealment. They could wait for Caje's report there.
Returning to Doc and Littlejohn, he found Ashton awake. In daylight, the lacerations and heavy bruising looked even worse.
Saunders asked, "How you feeling?"
Ashton managed a slight smile. "Been better. Where are we?"
"We should be due east of Alsorne." He looked over at Kirby. "Come on. Let's get off this hill."
They picked up Ashton's stretcher again, crested the hill, and angled sideways to keep better footing on the slippery downhill slope. Littlejohn and Doc followed. Saunders led them across the muddy road. On the other side, a ditch ran between the row of trees and the pasture. It was no wetter than the rest of the grassy terrain, and the ditch provided better cover. They had just set Ashton down, when they heard vehicles coming down the road.
"Down!" Saunders hissed.
They crouched lower in the ditch, unslinging their stolen rifles. Kirby pulled the Luger from his waistband.
Littlejohn suddenly said, "Trucks! They're ours!" A broad smile broke out on his face.
Saunders stepped out onto the road. "It's a convoy."
The lead jeep pulled up beside them, steering as far off the road as it could to leave room for the trucks rumble by. A beefy staff sergeant, two privates, and Caje were riding in it. Caje jumped out of the jeep with a grin. "Hey, Sarge, look what I found."
The staff sergeant looked at the squad, his gaze lingering worriedly on Kirby's beat up face, and Ashton lying on his stretcher. "I'm Sergeant Holcombe. You guys okay?"
"Yeah," Saunders said. "Where you headed?"
"Lérion. Reinforcements for the--"
Ashton interrupted, "What did you say?"
Holcombe looked down at the lieutenant in surprise. Ashton was trying to pull himself upright. Doc quickly grabbed him, helped him reach the jeep. Ashton clutched at the hood of the vehicle to stay upright, teeth gritted, as Doc hovered anxiously next to him. But his gaze was clear and intent on the sergeant.
The staff sergeant repeated, "I said we're heading for Lérion...."
Ashton said fiercely, "You sure?"
Holcombe looked at Saunders in confusion, then back to Ashton. "Lieutenant?"
Ashton asked again, insistent, "Are you sure?"
Holcombe cocked his head slightly, eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "Yes, sir."
"Do you have a map?"
Holcombe nodded, fished it out. Saunders took it and unfolded it for Ashton to see. Saunders kept silent, watching the glittering intensity in the lieutenant's eyes with a slight frown of his own, wondering like the staff sergeant, just what was disturbing the lieutenant about the convoy's destination.
"Show me our positions," Ashton ordered.
Holcombe hesitated, then he leaned forward, and his fat finger poked at the map.
"You're sure?" Ashton asked again.
Holcombe nodded, still confused. "Already said that, sir."
Ashton stared at the map a long moment, jaw clenched. Convoy trucks continued to pass, tires splashing through mud puddles.
"And from Lérion to Toulin?"
Now the staff sergeant's face turned worried. "You know about the advance, sir?"
Ashton closed his eyes, then ignoring the anxious faces, he looked directly at Saunders. "We were sold out back there, all right. But it wasn't by the partisans. The German positions I was supposed to relay for them to target? They're not German positions. They're ours. American positions."
Saunders went deadly still, holding Ashton's gaze. Ashton nodded, confirming they were both thinking they same thing: their mission and the vital information had come from one and only one person. Saunders returned the nod, as the night's events suddenly slotted into new perspective.
Ashton grimaced in pain, but this time his reaction wasn't from his physical injuries. Saunders waited for the breakdown, for the lieutenant's moment of denial and refusal to let his world be overturned again so quickly, but Saunders didn't get it. Sure, Ashton's eyes were haunted with misery and hurt, but overriding them was something more important: angry determination.
Ashton broke their stare and slammed a fist against the hood of the jeep.
"What's going on, Sarge?" Caje asked.
No one answered him.
"You got a radio?" Saunders asked Holcombe.
"No!" Ashton cut him off. "No, we do this my way." He took a deep breath and looked back at Holcombe. "I'm sorry, Sergeant," he said, "but we're commandeering your jeep."
The staff sergeant's eyes widened in surprise.