(2006) 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.

 

"The Reckoning"

 Part Two

by Thompson Girl

 

  

The corporal driving their truck must have been convinced the road was mined and that he alone knew the safest route.  At least, Littlejohn could think of no other good reason to account for the erratic ride.  No pleasant, lulling rhythm to dose by this trip, no.  They swerved and bounced around unseen obstacles with such frequency that even Doc was muttering under his breath.  Littlejohn had finally settled for tightly closing his eyes and wrapping his fingers around the nearest support rib to brace himself.  It was better than squinting out the back at the dirt road unwinding behind them.  It was a good time to be an officer, he thought, and ride in a cab sporting at least some semblance of cushioning in its bench seat.

"Just whose side is the driver on anyway?" Kirby complained.  He nearly had to shout to make himself heard.

At least Kirby was grumbling about someone other than Lt. Ashton, Littlejohn thought, and that was a welcome change.

Then, brakes locked and tires skidding, the truck jolted to a halt, and the five men in the back grabbed for support.  The engine noise dwindled to a rumbling idle.

"We done?" Kirby said.  "'Cause I want out of this thing."

The corporal turned in the front seat and called cheerfully through the cab's rear window, "End of the line."

Well, at least the miserable ride hadn't dampened the driver's spirits any, Littlejohn thought.

"Everybody out," Saunders said.

The reason for the driver's final sudden braking was obvious as soon as they had grabbed their gear and jumped down from the hooded truck bed.  Four more feet and the truck's front end would have plunged into a ragged crater blown out of the center of the road.

Littlejohn looked around at the devastation.  A German convoy had been caught and bombed here.  What the Krauts hadn't immediately salvaged had been left behind, and that was quite a bit.  Trucks and jeeps blown on their sides and burned out, shattered artillery pieces, one lone tank, upended, its gun muzzle pointing skyward.  Fires had left blackened scorched earth between the craters and the debris, burned a nearby field and a stand of trees until only charred trunks remained.  The stench of death and smoke hung in the air and, with the dark and overcast sky pressing down from above, it seemed an inauspicious way to start to their mission.

The truck passenger door shut with a bang as Ashton joined them.  The driver shouted something probably meant to sound encouraging, but his words were lost as he revved the truck engine and ground the gear shift into reverse.  Kirby winced at the noise as the mud-caked vehicle pulled a three-point turn and headed for home. 

When the growl of the truck engine had faded away, an eerie dead silence engulfed them.  No one said a word.  Saunders gestured them ahead, and, single file, they picked their way through the bombed wreckage until the road ran undamaged again, and the smell of grass replaced the foul odors.  The muggy air hung with the scent of impending rain.  Tall trees lined the right side of the dirt road, and to the left ran a border fence; open pastureland stretched beyond.

At Saunders' signal, the squad left the road, moving out of the open and in among the trees.  He hunkered down and pulled the map from an inner pocket.  Spreading it across his knee, he asked, "Lieutenant?"

Ashton knelt and looked at the map.  Contours and simple road lines conjured images in his head of woods and farmland, pictures of a past he thought he had purged from his memories.  He shook his head and forced himself to focus as Saunders traced a path from their position to the farmhouse.

It was a good route, a safe one, but it would also take longer to reach the farmhouse than Ashton wanted.  He chewed at his lip a moment, knowing he was letting impatience and fear guide him, not intelligence, but time... time was his enemy.  The less time he spent out here....  It was worth the risk.  He drew his finger across a section of the map and said, "I suggest we cut across this draw here instead of swinging south."

Saunders said, "That puts us pretty close to that Kraut OP, if Captain Hansen's intelligence reports are correct."

Ashton knew it was as near to an objection as Saunders would go, just as he knew the sergeant was right.  Even still....  He said, "Yes, and we want to avoid a fight at all costs, but this route will save us a good hour of trudging through these woods here."

Quietly, almost to himself, Kirby muttered, "Or get us killed."

Caje exchanged a glance with Littlejohn, who shook his head once and rolled his eyes skyward. 

Saunders waited, but Ashton either hadn't heard Kirby or, more likely, had chosen to ignore his remark.  Saunders followed suit, nodded to Ashton, then put away the map.  This part was straightforward enough.  Reach the farmhouse rendezvous in one piece without alerting the Germans.  He pushed himself back to his feet and unslung his Thompson. "All right.  Caje, take the point.  The rest of you -- don't bunch up, but stay in sight of each other."

The squad headed out:  Caje, then Littlejohn, Ashton, Saunders, Doc -- and Kirby still lurking deliberately in the rear.  Let him, Saunders thought, sourly.  Kirby had been grouchy since he had woken up that morning, an unusual mood for Kirby after twenty-four hours off-duty.  No grins, no wise-cracks, none of the usual complaints -- just a lot of no-account muttering and a steady glare directed at Lt. Ashton whenever the lieutenant wasn't looking.  At least, whatever had passed between the two, it appeared only Kirby was holding a grudge, and that suited Saunders fine.  He knew how to handle Kirby, but Ashton was still an unknown.

Well, mostly an unknown.  Saunders recalled Hanley's obvious worry, the things Hanley had clearly wanted to say and hadn't, and he smiled to himself.  He didn't need words to know what had been going through Hanley's mind; he'd seen it all himself -- Ashton was wound a little too tightly, and while still in a relatively safe setting, no less.  He knew Hanley had been extrapolating that same tension out to the field, where it could jeopardize the squad when they were behind enemy lines. 

But Saunders shrugged it off.  Just because Ashton had his own personal demons to fight didn't mean they would interfere when it came down to it.

Only time would tell that.

 

***

 

The dirt road they still paralleled grew so heavily rutted it was little more than a series of deep trenches.  If the earlier portions had been as churned up as this was, no wonder the ride had been so miserable, Saunders thought.  Tanks, armored cars, trucks, and jeeps:  their overlapping tracks were frozen solid in the dried earth.  If it rained later that day, those ridges would melt, fill in the furrows, and turn the road into an ugly morass of mud.

But all those vehicles were long gone now, and only once did they hear the sputter of an approaching engine.  The men scattered, taking cover in the trees, and watched a German motorcycle and sidecar speed by.  Saunders caught a flash of the driver hunched over the handlebars of his bike as he navigated the uneven road, the officer in the sidecar hanging on with both gloved hands.  Then they were gone, with barely a swirl of dust from the hard-baked road to mark their passage.

Two hours passed, and when the road curved the wrong direction, they abandoned it for the woods.  Saunders called a halt and sent Littlejohn scouting ahead.  He watched the remaining squad members pick out resting spots under nearby trees, before he dropped down himself.  Pulling off his helmet, he scratched at his head, then closed his eyes briefly, and tipped his head back against the tree he had chosen.

It looked unlikely the sun would make an appearance that day.  The clouds were knit tightly above, and the filtered glow of daylight gave a strange gold-tinted cast to the woods.  The rain that had seemed so imminent earlier seemed also to have retreated, and they were left with nothing but overcast skies and humidity.

Saunders thought he wouldn't mind if the rain held off until nightfall.  If anything went wrong at the farmhouse, inclement weather would provide better cover for their retreat than a nice bright moonlit night. 

Part of him wondered why he was assuming there would be trouble.  The Resistance would have chosen a meeting spot as safe as any could be out here.  His squad was small and mobile and more than ready for anything they ran into.  And yet, tension still stalked the squad like a seventh member.  Mostly it ran straight between Kirby and Ashton, but their friction was affecting the others, affecting him, and he didn't like it.

Ashton came up and dropped into a crouch beside him.  Softly, he asked, "Can we push any faster?"

There's that need for speed again, Saunders thought, curiously.  He checked his wristwatch -- there was still plenty of time before the rendezvous, and haste this far behind enemy lines might make them careless.  He said, "Not safely." 

"I'd like to get there before dark, if we can."

Saunders pulled out his nearly-empty pack of cigarettes and glanced at Ashton.  "Expecting trouble?" he asked.

The lieutenant hesitated, then answered, "No, just cautious." 

Saunders shook a couple of cigarettes partway out of the pack, held it out.

Ashton gave him a nod of thanks and accepted one.  He had chain-smoked the last of his own the previous night, and there hadn't been time that morning to obtain a new pack.  He was grateful to the sergeant for sharing.  He pivoted on his heels and sat down beside Saunders, leaning over to light his cigarette from Saunders' lighter.  He took a deep drag, eyes closed, and, as he breathed out the smoke, his shoulders relaxed a little.  He went on, "I've worked with Sebastien and Jerome -- the two men we're meeting -- and they're smart and careful.  But the Resistance have had a run of bad luck lately.  Krauts keep turning up at the meets.  They've lost a lot of good men."  He smiled ruefully.  "You know what they say... there's bad luck and there's bad luck."

"Spies," Saunders said.

Ashton nodded.  "Eddie's been convinced of it for awhile now -- but the Resistance haven't been able to turn up any traitors on their side.  They've turned the accusations our direction."

Eddie... Saunders remembered Capt. Hansen's aide saying Ashton and Hansen went way back.  He thought about Ashton's words, then, after a moment, he said, "That's why you're here, isn't it?  Because the partisans trust you?"

"Yeah.  Trust," Ashton murmured, the last word laced with bitterness.  "Now there's a word for you."  He looked away and smoked in silence.

Saunders said nothing, just smoked his own cigarette and thought of all the ways a man could say so much with so few words, and still say nothing at all.

Littlejohn trotted back up.  "All clear, Sarge," he said.

Nodding, Saunders gestured him to take a seat and rest, delaying a couple minutes longer to give Ashton time to finish his cigarette.

 

***

 

The heavy grey sky pressed down.  No lengthening shadows marked the late afternoon; it was the type of weather that passed dark day into darker night swiftly and unremarkably.  The forest had given way to hilly fields.  Caje was leading the way again, staying inside the strip of woods that bordered each fenced pasture.  Cows lowed to each other, and the harsh jangle of brass bells drifted across the open land to his left.

Caje watched the fields carefully.  The freely roaming cows were a good sign -- it meant the pastures here weren't mined, at least, and he filed the information away.

He glanced behind him, picking out the squad's positions.  Kirby was following Ashton, which made Caje smile and shake his head.  He'd heard the story, told by the aggrieved party and therefore prone to exaggerated inaccuracies.  Littlejohn's calm amusement had told him all he needed to know:  Kirby had walked headfirst into the lieutenant's trap.  He had nobody but himself to blame.  Besides, Lt. Ashton was right... Kirby should have learned a little French by now.  He never even asked Caje to teach him a few basics, just inquired after a word now and again, though Caje cringed at the thought of how Kirby would mangle an actual sentence.  Bonjour, bien, merci, and mademoiselle were bad enough.

No, Ashton was all right.  Nervous and scared, but then he'd clearly been out of the field for awhile.  Caje understood that all too well.  Time away from the front did a man no favors sometimes, and Ashton had just forgotten how to block it out.  But that's what the squad was along for, to keep him safe while he found his footing again.  He just needed time, that was all.

Caje paused and closed his eyes a moment to listen to the afternoon.  Voices, footsteps... human noises always traveled farther than people liked to think.  Sometimes, it was their sounds that gave away an approaching patrol before he made visual contact.  Sometimes, it was a man carelessly smoking a cigarette -- that smell also carried farther than one would have guessed. 

Satisfied they were still alone, he started walking again until the woods gave way onto open land.  He pulled up in the lee of the last tree.  Directly ahead, the ground sloped uphill to a low grassy ridge that ran north-south.  Over the summit, Caje could just see the tops of trees where the woods picked up again on the other side.  To the right, a shallow overgrown ravine cut diagonally around the bottom of the hill, angling away from Caje's position into the opposite line of trees.

It was quiet; just the barest breath of wind stirred the deep grasses carpeting the hillside.  He pushed off from the tree and angled left up the hill for what looked like a good vantage point over both the hilltop and whatever terrain lay beyond.

The rest of the squad emerged from the woods behind him.  At a hand signal from Saunders, they spread out, keeping twenty feet between each man as they climbed.  Ashton was closest to Caje, ascending the hill in fast strides, the others strung out beyond him.  Caje glanced past him and watched Saunders head to the far right to skirt along the edge of the gully. 

Nearby movement caught Caje's eye, and his gaze snapped from Saunders back to Ashton, just in time to see a German soldier crest the hill directly in front of the lieutenant. 

Ashton and the German stared at each other in frozen surprise from a distance of barely six feet.  Even as Caje was raising his rifle, both men snapped out of it, jerking up their weapons simultaneously.  Ashton opened up with his Thompson first, and the German pitched backwards with a scream.  From the other side of the hill, German voices shouted immediately in alarm. 

From behind him, he heard Saunders yelling, "Pull back, pull back!  Caje!"

Out of the corner of his eye, Caje saw Ashton spinning and pelting downhill after Kirby and Littlejohn.  Caje did not follow immediately, instead dropping flat and crawling forward just far enough to get a peek over the summit without exposing himself.  If he didn't grab a headcount of what they were facing now, they wouldn't get another chance until the German patrol engaged them. 

The other side of the ridge sloped downhill until the ground leveled out again and the woods began.  Caje saw that the rest of the German patrol was not as close as they sounded from their shouts.  Except for their own man on point, the others were still back inside the tree line.  He counted only four men approaching on the run.  One in the back had a radio, and Caje cursed before he saw Saunders signaling urgently to him.

Caje scrambled backwards until he could stand up safely, then he took off down the incline in long bounding strides.  Saunders had already pulled everyone off the hill, heading not back the way they had originally come, but into the more immediate cover of the overgrown ravine.  The rest of the squad was already there.  Only Saunders crouched out in the open, Thompson ready to cover Caje if needed.

At the last minute, Caje slowed his headlong rush, then jumped into the gully, pulling back immediately against the side where the others waited, their weapons ready.  Saunders followed, and they waited, hidden in the gully.

Over the sound of their own harsh breathing, they could still hear the Germans shouting, but no shots had been fired their direction yet.  The Germans came over the top of the hill, stopping by the body of the man Ashton had killed.  For a long moment, they stood there, silhouetted against the stormy sky, perfect targets, but none of the Americans moved.  One soldier dropped down to check the condition of the downed man, then he shook his head at his companions.  Another of the Germans ranted a moment, then gestured toward the woods the American squad had come from.  Two of the men took off immediately, hurrying down the hill and into the woods.  The other two headed out of sight, back the way they had come.

As the German voices faded away, Caje half-turned and glanced at the rest of squad.  Doc, Kirby, and Littlejohn were to his right, Ashton and Saunders to his left.  He found his gaze lingering on Ashton.  Contrary to what Caje was expecting, there was neither fear nor worry on Ashton's face.  Instead, Ashton was staring after the German patrol with an expression of deep hatred.  The muzzle of his Thompson rested on the lip of the gully, his finger tense around the trigger, as if he were still fighting the urge to send a deadly spray of bullets after the vanished patrol.

Saunders said softly, "Lieutenant?"

His voice was enough to jar Ashton out of it.  He blinked, then turned toward the sergeant, the angry grimace on his face easing.  "I'm all right," Ashton murmured, but he was holding his Thompson a little too tightly, his hands shaking ever so slightly.

Kirby and Littlejohn were still keeping watch over the lip of the ravine, weapons ready.  Kirby muttered to Littlejohn, "Avoid a fight, huh? Somebody shoulda reminded the lieutenant."

Saunders snapped, "Kirby!"

Kirby glanced away.

Ashton said nothing, just forced himself to lower his weapon.  Slowly, he wiped his right palm against his thigh.

Saunders asked, "Caje, did you see how many Krauts?"

"Just those four," Caje said.  "But one had a radio."

Saunders nodded grimly.  "All right, let's go.  Straight down this ravine until we're clear of this area, then we detour south.  Maybe they won't pursue."

Kirby said, "You can bet they'll call it in, though."

No one argued with him, and Littlejohn added matter-of-factly, "They can bring a whole platoon down on us before we get a mile."

Sharply, Saunders said, "Well, maybe we'll get lucky."  He turned to Ashton again, said quietly, "But we just lost your lead time, Lieutenant.  No way we can get to that farmhouse before dark now."

Caje could see Ashton wanted to say something, but he finally just nodded and slung his Thompson over his shoulder. 

Saunders looked intently at Kirby a moment, but Kirby was keeping his mouth shut.

"Move out," Saunders said.  "Kirby, bring up the rear."

 

***

 

Twilight had settled in around them by the time they reached the farmhouse.  Sunset had brought nothing but relief to Saunders.  It was much easier to hide in the dark, and sound always seemed to carry better at night.  But the darker the evening grew, the more Saunders watched Ashton stiffen up.  Or maybe it wasn't the darkness at all, just the approach of the critical part of the mission.

They had encountered no other patrols since the one they had exchanged fire with.  Littlejohn had hung back, checking for pursuit, but, for whatever reason, the Germans had not followed them.  A lucky break, Saunders thought.  Now, if only the rest of the night would cooperate.

Sitting in a weed-filled drainage ditch, Ashton, Saunders, and Doc studied the dark farmhouse. 

The farmhouse provided a good setup -- for whoever was in the farmhouse.  It sat alone atop a low rise, two-storied, with the upper floor sporting windows that had a clear view out over the surrounding open land -- fields on one side, a vineyard on the other.  Saunders didn't like it at all.  The only cover on the approach was through the rows of untended grapes that contoured the west side of the hill directly in front of them.  To the south and north, beyond the empty fields, lay more dark woods.  Nothing stirred; everything looked quiet, peaceful.  If the two partisans were waiting inside the farmhouse, nothing gave them away.

Automatically, Ashton tried to check his wristwatch again, but without a torch, the face was too dark to read.  He dropped his sleeve back down with a grimace, then said, quietly, "They should be here by now."

Saunders said, "These two men you're meeting... you said they were good.  They'll be here."  He knew the lieutenant needed the reassurance, even if they weren't the words he wanted to hear.  No, what Ashton really wanted to hear was:  no one's coming to meet you; let's get out of here and go home.  And Saunders wasn't sure it wouldn't come to that yet.  Ashton's earlier admission hung in his memory, of meetings gone bad, and traitors selling out the Resistance to the Germans.  If the two Resistance men suspected anything, they would pull out, the information Ashton was supposed to relay would go unheard, and Ashton would get his wish granted, at least for now.

Ashton made no response, just stared at the house across the vineyards as if he could see right through its walls.  Even in the waning twilight, Saunders could see his clenched jaw, his lips clamped down in a thin line.  If the terrain hadn't forced them to stay low to avoid breaking cover, Saunders thought Ashton would have been pacing anxiously.

Finally, Ashton said, "Sergeant, when we get the signal from the partisans, you and I will go in alone.  The rest of the squad can give us cover."

"Yes, sir," Saunders said.  The temperature had dropped only slightly with nightfall, and his gaze turned skyward again, to the grey bellies of the storm clouds.  Would it rain? he wondered, or would the clouds just keep drifting endlessly by.  He never looked forward to getting soaked, but the rain offered other compensations that outweighed personal comfort.

A rustle through the weeds to their right alerted them to Caje's return.  He appeared like a wraith out of the twilight and slid quietly into the drainage ditch beside them.  "Nothing moving out there," he reported.  "Looks clear."

Saunders asked, "How close did you get?"

Caje said, "Edge of the woods."

Footsteps approached from the left, and Kirby and Littlejohn scrambled in to join them.

Saunders asked, "Well?"

Kirby was frowning and shaking his head.  "Cover's lousy that side of the farm.  Nothing but wide open ground between the woods and the house."

Ashton asked, "And the house?"

Littlejohn said, "Looked quiet."

To Ashton, Saunders said, "How long you want to wait?"

"Until we get the signal.  We're going to need--"

"Sir!" Caje interrupted, and everyone's gaze turned to the house.

A single candle flame appeared in one of the farmhouse's downstairs windows, waved twice, then flickered out.

Softly, barely breathing, Ashton said, "Bingo.  Looks like they're right on time after all."  He smiled briefly, with satisfaction he did not feel and, for the first time, he was glad of the deepening twilight.  The others would not be able to see how he had broken out in a sweat at the signal.  He was surprised they couldn't hear the sudden pounding of his heart in the silence.  It pulsed in his own ears, thudded loudly against his chest.  At least it was almost over now, he thought.  In and out, that's what Eddie had said about the job, in his smoothly comforting voice.  Ashton found his own voice again, forced it to sound steady.  "Okay then, let's get this over with.  Saunders?"

Saunders looked at Caje, Kirby, and Littlejohn.  "Get back to your positions and keep a sharp lookout.  Doc, you stay put right here."

Saunders waited a moment as Ashton got up and moved slightly away from them, then continued, more softly, to the squad, "If anything goes wrong while we're in there, get out of here and make your way back to our lines."  He handed his map to Caje, who tucked it away in his jacket.

Kirby said, "Sarge, don't you think we should--"

"Just do as you're told," Saunders said.

"Yeah, but that lieutenant's trigger-happy, and I'd feel a lot better if we--"

"Kirby!"  

Kirby fell into sullen silence.

Saunders said harshly, "Now get back to your positions."

The three men took off, Littlejohn and Kirby to the left, Caje to the right.

Saunders glanced right and located Ashton.  The lieutenant crouched ten feet away, pressing sideways against the side of the ditch, just his helmet and eyes exposed.  He was staring across the vineyard at the farmhouse with a sort of dread fascination. 

Doc nodded and settled down to keep watch. 

For not the first time, Saunders wondered how Doc handled the waiting, the incessant waiting that stretched perception of time into something no clock ever adequately reflected.  Like Lt. Hanley, and Capt. Hansen back in Alsorne.  All of them waiting.  At least Hanley and Hansen had other responsibilities, other tasks to occupy them and keep their minds off this mission.  Not like Doc, who had to sit and wait and do nothing.

At least Ashton got to move, take his fate in his own hands.  But, Saunders thought as he shifted his gaze back to the lieutenant, Ashton thought too much.  Like now, while he stared at the farmhouse as if it were about to explode.  He should have been listening to the night, planning the best way to get into the farmhouse, and the best way to retreat again with the most cover.  But that distant lost look on his face said he was thinking about everything but.

Ashton abruptly noticed Saunders was ready to go and seemed to snap out of it.  Saunders would have preferred to lead, but he followed after the lieutenant as they left the cover of the ditch and ran at a crouch for the closest row of grapes.  The soft earth was beautiful, quiet ground -- Saunders' boots hardly made any noise, and he could focus his hearing up ahead of him.  He was careful of his footing, though; the old clods of plowed-up dirt were easy to trip over in the dark.  The weeds growing prolifically among the rows caught around his pant legs and boots. 

In the increasing darkness, the rows of grapes resembled a series of chest-high walls, stepping up the low hill toward the farmhouse.  The plants were old and well-established, their vines thick and gnarled, and despite the lack of recent care, they were flourishing so well that there were no places to duck through.  The two men were forced to follow the row around to the right until it stopped and a clear avenue ran straight up to the house.  They took that, dashing from the edge of one row to the next, until Ashton reached the last row of vines and dropped into a crouch behind it.

Saunders stopped one row back, Thompson aimed at the house.  No sounds or movement had come from it, nothing beyond that initial flaring signal candle.  He strained his ears again, listening for anything tell-tale -- voices, metal bumping something, but the night remained still.  Probably, the partisans were simply being extra cautious until they knew for sure who was coming to meet them.  He would have done the same in their place.  Saunders exhaled softly.  Ashton's unease was contagious, that was all, and Saunders shrugged it off.

Ashton glanced back at him and gave him a nod.  Saunders acknowledged him, then prepared to move up and provide cover for the lieutenant.  Ashton took a breath, then ran for the side of the house.  Saunders moved forward at the same time, dropping down beside the last row of leafy vines.

It was forty feet of open ground, but nothing moved, and Ashton pulled up against the outer wall of the farmhouse.  They waited, poised like that a long moment, until Ashton finally signaled, and Saunders followed, joining him against the stone wall.  They listened a moment.  Inside the house, a male voice spoke suddenly, softly, in French.  Ashton nodded to Saunders, and they flanked the side door.  Saunders kicked it, not hard, but enough to get it open and leave himself clear to shoot if he had to.

A square of pale twilight fell through the open doorway, gave vague shape to the room and what looked like tall wing-backed chairs nearby.  But beyond that vague illumination, the rest of the room they cautiously entered seemed dark and ominous in contrast.  Saunders could not see the two Frenchmen as he followed Ashton inside, but the French voice was still murmuring softly off to the right.  Ashton headed that direction, then froze abruptly as two flashlights switched on, hitting him and Saunders directly in the face.

Blinded, Saunders still stepped immediately forward, swinging the Thompson around, until a man's voice called out harshly, warningly, "Do not move!" and he checked himself.

Ashton said, "Jerome?"

The voice laughed.  It was a cruel laugh, hard-edged, and without humor.  When the man spoke again, the voice clearly had a German accent.  "Both of you, drop your weapons."

Another flashlight turned on, aimed the other direction to illuminate what the darkness  had hidden -- German soldiers ranged around the farmhouse's main room, machine pistols and rifles at the ready, too many to resist, despite the overwhelming reckless urge to do something, anything, and to do it now.  Saunders forced himself to keep still.  Ashton's gaze darted around the room, desperate and unwilling to comprehend the sudden odds arrayed against them.

The voice ordered, "Drop your weapons now!"

Ashton gave a strangled, panicked cry and jerked up his Thompson. 

"No!"  Saunders reached for him, but a big broad-shouldered soldier was already jumping forward.  The butt of his rifle smashed Ashton on the back of the head, and Ashton collapsed heavily, his Thompson clattering loudly against the floor.  Saunders started to drop down beside him, but another soldier jabbed him hard in the ribs with his Schmeisser's muzzle to keep him from moving.  Grimacing, Saunders straightened and let go of his own Thompson.  As soon as it hit the floor, the soldier kicked both American weapons away, one after the other.  Slowly, Saunders brought his hands up to shoulder height.

The voice said, "That's better."  Then the speaker stepped forward into the light -- a German captain by his uniform.  "Your meeting will have to be with us, I'm afraid.  Your Resistance friends...."  He shrugged and glanced over his shoulder. 

Saunders followed his look to the corner where two men in civilian clothes lay face down.  Both men had been shot in the back.  Saunders turned his gaze back on the captain, not bothering to hide his hatred.

The German captain just smiled.

 

continue to Part 3

  

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