(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.
Author's note: "Finders, Keepers" is a sequel to "Hide and Seek."
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by White Queen
Kirby grumbled, "Either all these French towns are startin' to look alike, or we've been here before."
"We've been here before," Sgt. Saunders acknowledged. "Two weeks ago."
Once-proud houses and a few shops loomed above the soldiers passing through the dusky vacant streets. The locals had obviously returned to the village; someone had boarded up broken windows, cleared the rubble from the streets, and started repairing damaged buildings.
Lt. Hanley looked down a side street that branched off into the gathering darkness. He'd had his CP down there. At least, he thought that was the street. Kirby was right; all the towns they kept encountering across Normandy really were starting to look alike.
"Wonder where everybody is," Doc said, glancing around.
Kirby replied, "Probably hiding in their cellars, praying the Germans won't push us back this far."
Billy Nelson trotted back from his position as forward scout. "Looks clear," he reported, a little out of breath.
Hanley signaled for them to hold up a moment. "This seems like as good a place to spend the night as any. We'll find a spot on the edge of town -- maybe someone has an outbuilding they'll let us use. Littlejohn, the radio."
Littlejohn obligingly turned around so the lieutenant could use the radio strapped to his back. "I'll sure be glad to set this thing down for the night," he muttered.
While Hanley tried to reach Captain Jampel, Saunders told the squad, "Don't relax; keep your eyes open."
The squad members nodded, moving out in a loose ring and eyeing the surrounding buildings.
Hanley hung up the radio receiver. "We stay here," he announced, beckoning the men to gather around him. "At least until tomorrow morning. Company's not sure if the German advance will push this direction after all, but we're supposed to stick around and establish an OP. The rest of the platoon should meet us here in a few hours." He smiled. "Tonight, we can rest."
The squad murmured their approval. "It's about time," Kirby said.
"I remember there's a gristmill on the edge of town," Littlejohn offered. "Two stories, kind of up on a rise. Overlooks the river."
"Sounds like a possible OP." Hanley nodded. "Let's hope it's undamaged enough to use." Judging by the town's decrepit condition, the Germans had been fairly rough on their way through, doing a lot of unnecessary damage just to vent their rage and frustration at being pushed east.
Hanley glanced around the town warily. That hidden German airbase they'd destroyed a couple weeks earlier wasn't too far away. The Nazis would be eager to regain this area, try to salvage something from the wrecked air field. Or retaliate for its destruction. Maybe the village should hold off on its civic improvements for a while. No sense rebuilding what could just be torn down again.
The night grew steadily darker and, by the time they reached the river, the mill loomed over them like a big black monster squatting on the riverbank, a hulking dragon waiting to devour them. The creaking of the water wheel sounded alien and eerie. Just beyond the mill, a wooden bridge carried the road across the water and on into the dusk. Two tall leafless trees stood beside the bridge on the opposite bank, lonely sentinels watching over the crossing.
"Let's check it out," Hanley told Saunders, trying to ignore a rush of apprehension. Although the town was only a few hundred yards behind them, he felt exposed and alone out here in the open. Vulnerable, somehow. He would feel better when they had cleared the mill and established themselves inside.
Saunders nodded. "Caje, Nelson, inside. The rest of you fan out and check out here."
Hanley followed the three men into the mill. He always felt better with walls around him. He and Billy Nelson checked through the musty lower floor while Caje and Saunders climbed some shaky wooden stairs that creaked beneath their combined weight.
Hanley switched on his flashlight and shone it around the vacant room. Two huge round millstones lay motionless in the gloom, unconnected from the waterwheel that had once powered them. Chaff and spilled grain littered the rough floorboards, crunching and rustling under their boots.
"Clear," Saunders called down, his voice echoing off the bare wooden walls.
"Clear down here too," Hanley answered. "We can stay in here, plenty of room to sleep." Then he realized he could hear raised voices outside, too far away for him to make out any words. Not Kirby and Littlejohn checking around the mill, but something farther away. "Saunders!" Hanley called up the stairs. "You hear that? What's going on?"
"Better come up for a look," the sergeant replied.
Hanley waited for Caje to descend the narrow stairs, then made his way up into the loft. Sacks of grain stood in orderly rows along the walls, leaving two paths to the twin windows flanking the stairwell. Saunders leaned against the wall near one of the windows, looking into the distance.
"I sent Caje for the others," Saunders said, not turning to look at the lieutenant. "Kirby'll stand first watch outside, with Littlejohn up here." He scratched his back with one hand. Hanley had noticed the sergeant doing that a lot since he'd returned to the platoon. He knew those wounds hadn't completely healed, no matter how much Saunders might insist that he was all right.
Hanley walked closer and looked out the window. "Well, looks like we found the missing townspeople." Across the river, coming down the deeply rutted road to the river, moved what could only be called a mob. Seventy or eighty people jostled together, shouting and shaking their fists; this was probably the entire adult population of the village. Some carried torches that flickered and sputtered in the night, as if their flames embodied the cries emanating from the crowd. Saunders and Hanley didn't have to understand French to recognize the anger carried in those words.
"I wonder what's got them so upset." Hanley squinted as he tried to see the mob better in the semi-darkness.
Saunders lifted a pair of binoculars from around his neck and trained them on the advancing crowd. "Maybe they found some stray Germans," he suggested.
"Probably." Hanley began turning away, but stopped when Saunders drew a quick breath, almost a gasp. "What?" Hanley asked.
"Look at the guy in the middle." Saunders handed over the binoculars.
Hanley focused on the mob, searching for what had provoked such a reaction from the sergeant. "Wait... that looks like...." He adjusted the binoculars, trying for a sharper focus. For a moment there, he thought he had glimpsed broad shoulders, a debonair mustache, a handsome face. "It looks like Marc d'Yae." The Resistance fighter's face brought back memories of darkness, mud, and explosions, as well as a twinge of the irritation d'Yae always seemed to provoke in Hanley.
"It is Marc d'Yae."
Hanley finally got the binoculars focused. "He's a prisoner." D'Yae's hands were tied and two men held his arms, shoving him forward. He lowered the binoculars and frowned. "You don't suppose...."
Saunders took the glasses and looked again at the approaching mob. They had nearly reached the pair of trees on the other side of the wooden bridge. Suddenly, he made an odd noise in the back of his throat, a sort of ragged groan. He shoved the binoculars inside his jacket and ran to the stairs, unslinging his Thompson from its usual spot over one shoulder. "Caje!" he hollered as he raced down the stairs. "Caje, you're on me. Outside! Now!"
Hanley rushed to the stairs and peered down. "What is it?" he called. "What did you see?"
"They've got a rope!" Saunders yelled back as he yanked open the mill door and disappeared into the night.
"Come back here!" bellowed Hanley, picking his way down the rickety stairs. "It's a civilian matter -- we can't interfere!"
But Saunders and Caje were long gone. Doc stood up, moving away from the little fire he'd been building on one of the grindstones. "What's goin' on?" he asked.
"You remember that Frenchman that helped me and Corporal Lovelace bring in Saunders a couple weeks ago?" Hanley settled his helmet on his head and checked his rifle to make sure he had a full magazine with a round chambered.
"Yeah," Doc nodded. "De-something."
"D'Yae. Looks like he's gotten himself invited to a hanging. As the guest of honor." Hanley headed out the door, intent on catching up with Saunders before the sergeant tried to take on that whole mob with only Caje to back him up.
The sergeant had a head start, but he still hadn't recovered his strength -- he'd only just returned to active duty a few days before. Hanley overtook Saunders and Caje at the bridge. "Just where do you think you're going?" Hanley demanded, trying not to sound out of breath.
"To stop them from lynching d'Yae."
"It's a civilian affair, Sergeant! None of our concern."
"We don't know that."
"That mob looks angry enough to lynch you too if you try to interfere."
"Sir," Saunders protested, scowling at Hanley, "that is Marc d'Yae over there. Two weeks ago he helped you find me, and you're just going to let them hang him?"
"We don't know that's what they're going to do."
Saunders gave Hanley a look that clearly meant, Don't expect me to believe that.
"Fine." Hanley gave Saunders his best exasperated glare. "I'll go find out what's going on myself. Caje, follow me. I may need an interpreter." He stalked across the wooden bridge, followed by Caje. The still-scowling Saunders brought up the rear.
The mob had halted below the two skeletal trees and seemed to be debating which one had a branch best suited to their purposes. In the waning evening light, their torches danced and wavered, casting an orange glow on the faces of the men and women gathered there. Angry faces, distorted by hatred and vengeance into something ghoulish and demonic. Several of them gestured to the tree nearest to the bridge, while others seemed to favor the other tree, pointing to its sturdy lowest limb. The man carrying the rope stood between them, looking from one tree to the other, waiting for the others to make up their minds.
Lt. Hanley strode up to the milling crowd and demanded, "What's going on here?" He spoke as authoritatively as possible, projecting his voice so it could be heard over the frenzied cries.
The people turned to glare at the interlopers as Caje translated Hanley's words. They murmured and gestured, obviously angered that some American soldier dared to interfere with their attempt to carry out justice. Several of them pushed their way to the front of the group, brandishing clubs and a few ancient firearms in Hanley's direction.
"What's going on?" Hanley said even louder than before to show he would not allow a few indigenous persons with farm implements to intimidate him.
An older man moved forward then, leaning heavily on a stout cane. The crowd stepped aside deferentially to let him pass. The man's thick white hair and luxurious mustache, plus a fine dark suit, gave him an air of authority and eminence. "I will tell you what is happening," he said, in heavily-accented English. "We are going to rid ourselves of a collaborator." He motioned for the people to bring their prisoner forward. When they heard the word collaborator, the crowd shouted and shook their fists and weapons in the air.
Two burly men, one with a beard and the other with a menacing goatee, pushed the prisoner along in front of them, each keeping a tight grip on one of the captive's arms.
It was indeed Marc d'Yae. Hands tied in front of him, he wore black pants and a turtleneck, the same kind of clothing as when Hanley and Saunders had last encountered him. But his dark hair was snarled now, falling over his forehead in matted waves. A bruise along his right cheek and a split lip testified that the crowd's handling had been none too gentle. His eyes were wide, and his breathing came in rough gasps.
"You? A collaborator?" Hanley asked, looking d'Yae up and down. Not that Hanley was very surprised -- hadn't he suspected this suave Frenchman of ulterior motives right from the start? Well, d'Yae didn't look so debonair now. So he'd been up to no good all along. Oh sure, he'd blown up that hidden air field all right. Hanley had walked through the remains a few days after the explosion. But what if the Germans had actually helped d'Yae blow it up? Supposing the airbase hadn't worked out as planned, and they'd used its destruction to get d'Yae in good with Allied Intelligence?
D'Yae looked up at Hanley, his wide eyes pleading. "Lieutenant," he managed to croak between gasps for air, "I swear--" His voice sounded rough, raw, as if he already had the noose around his neck.
"Silence!" roared the older Frenchman. The crowd behind him howled their approval. Several of them pushed toward Marc d'Yae, and one woman rushed forward and spat in his face. Marc turned his head away and tried to raise his hands to wipe his face, but his guards held his arms at his sides.
The white-haired Frenchman said something to the woman, and she retreated back into the jeering mob, melting into it until she was just another irate citizen. Then the older man turned back to the Americans. "We captured him tonight on the way back from a meeting with the Bosche. He has been feeding them information for who knows how long, helping them capture true Resistance fighters, even betraying his own family members to them."
Hanley remembered the story that Lovelace had told him, of how Marc d'Yae's brother had died at the hands of the Germans. How much of that had been true, and how much was just a line d'Yae had fed to Lovelace, who in turn had fed it to Hanley? Had d'Yae actually sold out his own brother? What kind of a man would do that? You couldn't even call that person a man -- he was a cockroach or a spider. Something to be squashed.
"Do you have proof of any of this?" Hanley asked.
"I told you -- we caught him coming from a meeting with the Germans! If you wish to stop us from carrying out justice, Lieutenant, I believe you will think twice after I tell you this: thanks to information this traitor fed the Germans, one of your own American intelligence men was captured. By now he is undoubtedly dead."
Hanley's eyebrows shot up. "Intelligence? Not Corporal Moseby Lovelace?" he asked sternly. If d'Yae had been working with Lovelace two weeks ago, he might still have been now. And if that snake had sold out Lovelace....
The older Frenchman turned to d'Yae. "Well?" he demanded.
"Yes," d'Yae acknowledged. "It was Lovelace. When they caught him, I tried--"
The Frenchman slapped him hard across the cheek. "Silence, traitor!" The crowd surged forward, screeching epithets. Hanley raised his weapon instinctively, and Caje and Saunders did the same, the three Americans drawing closer together, readying themselves in case the crowd turned its fury on them instead.
Tears filled d'Yae's eyes at the force of the blow. "Father! I--"
The words so shocked Hanley that he actually took a step back, away from the older Frenchman and the vindictive mob. This man was Marc d'Yae's father? Leading a mob bent on lynching... his own son?
"I said silence!" The elder d'Yae slapped Marc again. "No one here wants to hear your lies, least of all me!"
"I'd like to hear him out," Sgt. Saunders said, his voice quiet but forceful. He stepped in front of Hanley and Caje, his Thompson held at an angle that made it obvious he was ready to use it if someone made the wrong move. "Seems to me the accused man has a right to speak in his own defense." He gazed steadily at the elder d'Yae, not exactly threatening him, but more as if daring this man to let his son speak.
The crowd hushed a little, their cries for retribution receding into displeased mutterings as they retreated a step or two from the Thompson-wielding sergeant.
"Saunders," Hanley warned softly, hoping to pull the noncom aside to reason with him. "This isn't a military matter. We found out why they're bent on hanging him, so let's go." Somehow, he wouldn't be particularly sorry to wake up in a world that was minus one Marc d'Yae. The more collaborators the French caught and dealt with, the fewer he had to worry about. Besides, the three American soldiers were drastically outnumbered.
"What about Lovelace? Doesn't him getting captured make it our concern?"
Hanley sighed. He had to admit that was true. "Fine." He turned back to Marc d'Yae. "You get your say. Did you collaborate with the Germans?"
D'Yae looked at Saunders, not Hanley. "Yes."
His father let out a shriek of triumph. "You see!" He turned to the mob and said something in French. They howled in reply, shaking fists and clubs in the air, pressing forward again. Someone threw a small object at Marc d'Yae, a stone or chunk of wood; it glanced off the side of his head, and he reeled sideways. The two men holding his arms struggled to keep him upright.
A man rushed out of the crowd, babbled something at the two men holding d'Yae, and gestured to the tree nearest the bridge. D'Yae's guards looked at each other, nodded, and started dragging Marc that way.
Saunders headed them off, Thompson pointed at their midsections. When they paused, he asked, "Why did you collaborate?" He held Marc d'Yae's gaze now, focusing on him as if they were the only people there. Caje moved to the sergeant's side, leveling his rifle toward the rest of the mob. Their cries subsided into muted muttering again.
Marc d'Yae answered, "Because the SS are holding my youngest brother Jean prisoner. They said they would kill him unless I helped them."
"Liar!" The elder d'Yae lunged forward, intending to strike his son again, but Saunders caught him by the shoulder and hauled him away. "He lies!" the elder d'Yae insisted, stumbling. When they saw the American sergeant handling their leader in this less-than-polite fashion the crowd grew noisy again. One of them hurled a heavy glass bottle toward the Americans, and Caje stepped quickly to one side to avoid the missile. The bottle hit the hard-packed dirt with a dull thud, and Caje kicked it away.
Monsieur d'Yae caught his balance with his cane and added, "Jean is dead. I saw him shot two days ago! It is just a Nazi trick -- they have hidden his body to torment me."
Hanley raised his own rifle and stepped next to Caje. The situation was getting out of hand, and he needed to get his men back across that bridge and into the mill before they got themselves in serious trouble. He opened his mouth to tell Saunders and Caje to retreat, but before he could give the order, Marc d'Yae spoke again.
"Jean is not dead." D'Yae's voice broke as he tried to make himself heard over the roar of the crowd. "He is only wounded. I have seen him twice."
"What about Lovelace?" Saunders asked, still holding the elder d'Yae's shoulder. He had maneuvered the old man between him and the crowd, giving him the ability to use his Thompson on either the elder d'Yae or the front ranks of the mob if it became necessary.
Marc said, "I do not believe he is dead either, not yet. But time is short,."
"I have heard enough." Monsieur d'Yae yanked his arm from Saunders's grasp and turned to Hanley. "Now, if you will remove yourselves from our path, we have an execution to carry out." He repeated his words in French.
The mob surged forward again, so suddenly that Hanley and Caje were taken off guard. A blond young Frenchman grabbed the barrel of Hanley's carbine and tried to rip it from his grasp. Hanley pulled back and found himself filled with a desire to pull the trigger and send his tug-of-war opponent on a trip to perdition. The people sucked d'Yae back into their midst like he was prey for a swarm of starving jackals.
A staccato spurt of gunfire roared through the darkness. The bullets kicked up little eruptions of dirt in front of the mob, convincing them to pause in their pursuit of vengeance. Saunders stood between them and the trees, the menace in his eyes showing that he would not hesitate to bring his line of fire up a little higher. Caje and Hanley used the momentary lull to pull themselves away from the grasping hands of the crowd and hurried to stand on either side of Saunders.
"Bring Marc d'Yae forward," Saunders commanded. Caje translated the sergeant's words and the crowd reluctantly allowed d'Yae's two guards to drag him back to the front.
Hanley watched the scene with a growing feeling of uselessness. What was he doing there, anyway? Saunders was pleading for d'Yae's life and all Hanley could do was stand behind him, give him the support of one more firearm. He might as well have been Littlejohn or Nelson, or any other random soldier just doing as he was told. Where did Saunders learn to do that, to keep nudging Hanley along until he agreed with the noncom, let the sergeant do whatever he wanted? Would Saunders be able to work the same spell on Monsieur d'Yae, convince him not to lynch his son?
"Let him go," Saunders ordered.
The two burly French guards needed no translation this time -- they dropped their hands and backed away to rejoin the others. D'Yae shook his head to stop his hair from falling in his eyes, and his face formed a mask of indifference, as if he'd shaken off all fear as well. But Hanley noticed his eyes remained wide. Hands still tied in front of him, d'Yae stepped away from the mob to stand near Saunders.
Saunders asked him, "Do you know where they're holding your brother and Corporal Lovelace?"
Hanley demanded, "You're sure they're alive?"
D'Yae nodded. "They were but a few hours ago."
Saunders kept his eyes on the restless mob. "Any chance we could get in there and rescue them?"
"I was hoping to make such an attempt tonight."
Saunders glanced at Hanley. "Well? How about it? If we can find and rescue Lovelace and the boy--" He looked back at the French crowd, still keeping his Thompson leveled at them.
"And risk the Krauts capturing more Americans?" Hanley replied. "What if he's just leading us into a trap?"
"What if he's not?" Saunders stepped sideways, closer to Hanley, and lowered his voice. "Look, I'll go with d'Yae alone, just a quick in-and-out. If it looks too risky, I'll call it off. You don't have to jeopardize the rest of the men; they can stay here with you at the OP." He kept his eyes on the crowd the whole time, never lowering his Thompson even a fraction of an inch.
Hanley shook his head. "No good, Sergeant."
Saunders frowned. "Sir--"
"In case you're forgetting, you're still not fully recovered. You stay here, in charge of the OP until we get back."
"I'm fine," Saunders insisted.
Hanley waved aside the sergeant's protestation. "You're not fine. I'll go with him. I'll take Kirby with me; if d'Yae tries anything funny, we'll just turn him around and bring him back here." It sounded simple, but Hanley had a hunch it would be anything but.
Saunders raised his eyebrows, but said nothing.
Hanley tried logic. "We're expecting the rest of the platoon to arrive tonight, and I need someone here to fill them in on the situation."
"Caje can do that."
So much for logic. "You're not going," Hanley reiterated. "That's final." He wasn't going to risk Saunders having to spend more time in the evac hospital because he reopened those wounds. Best to just go himself. Hanley raised his voice and announced, "Monsieur d'Yae, I've decided to take your son and see if he's telling the truth. If we can rescue our soldier and your other boy, we will. And if it turns out your son here is lying, we'll hand him over to you again in the morning." That wasn't strictly military policy, but if he didn't promise that, Hanley knew he didn't have the slightest chance of getting away from that mob tonight, at least not without resorting to violence. And shooting the locals was definitely against Army regulations.
"No." The elder d'Yae glared at Hanley. "I cannot take the chance of his escaping. If you believe his lies, then get him to tell where they are supposedly holding their prisoners. But we will keep him in our custody."
Hanley was about to agree when Saunders spoke. "No," the sergeant said. He took a step forward, closer to Marc d'Yae. And closer to the mob. "He goes with us. You can release him to us peacefully, or you can try to stop him from leaving." He swiveled from side to side slowly as he spoke, pointing his Thompson along the front line of the crowd. "Either way, he leaves with us." He stopped moving, his weapon leveled at Marc's father.
"Why do you insist on believing him?" the elder d'Yae demanded. "He collaborates with your enemies. Our enemies. And yet you wish to follow him on a useless hunt for men who are already dead?"
"Monsieur d'Yae," Saunders said, looking steadily at the angry white-haired Frenchman, "if there's a chance your son Jean is alive, just one chance, don't you want to take it?" He lowered his Thompson a few inches, so that it no longer pointed directly at the old man's chest. "You already lost one son. If there's a way we can save your youngest but you prevent us.... " He left the thought hanging, letting Marc's father finish it for himself.
The elder d'Yae turned to the crowd and conferred with them in French.
Hanley glanced at Marc d'Yae. His eyes were closed, his face raised to the dark sky. His lips moved a little, Hanley assumed in prayer. Well, he probably needed all the help he could get.
Finally, the mob's roar subsided and Marc's father turned back to the Americans. "We will give you until dawn," said the old Frenchman. "I will stay here with your other men and wait for your return. But if you do not return, I will not be responsible for the consequences." He looked pointedly at the twisted branches of the trees above them, then at Caje, then across the river to the gristmill where the rest of the squad waited.
Hanley opened his mouth to protest but, once again, Saunders spoke before he could.
"Fair enough." Saunders hooked the strap of his Thompson over one shoulder, where he could swing it into action in a second if he needed, then began untying d'Yae's hands. He said something to d'Yae, but his words were too soft for Hanley to catch. Or maybe that was just because the crowd had resumed their angry muttering, complaining to each other in French about the disruption of their quest for vengeance.
"Okay." Hanley nodded at the elder d'Yae. "Tell your people to go home. We'll be back by morning." If they ever got back at all.
Monsieur d'Yae turned to the crowd once more, speaking to them in French and gesturing toward the empty town. The men and women grumbled and glared, shook their heads and made wild gestures. Several of them began pushing toward Marc d'Yae again, but Saunders had his Thompson unslung and ready for business before they could take more than a step. Caje came forward, saying something to the mob that sounded conciliatory and cautionary at the same time, as if apologizing for the fact that if they didn't back off, he'd shoot them without hesitation.
Gradually a few people broke away from the group, first two, then three or four. They headed across the bridge and into the town, looking over their shoulders as they went, still hurling insults and threats.
"Wait," Marc said. "Arrêtez!" His voice grew stronger, more like the cool and confident d'Yae Hanley remembered meeting before.
Several of the townspeople paused and turned toward him, their faces full of loathing.
Marc said something in French, and one of them threw the coil of rope on the ground, the rope they'd meant to use for d'Yae's execution. The man said something nasty and spat on the ground at Marc's feet before walking away.
"A memento of the occasion?" Hanley asked, raising his eyebrows.
"It is my rope," Marc replied, slipping it over his head and under one arm so that it crossed his chest like a diplomat's sash. "They took it when they caught me. We will need it tonight."
"Caje," Saunders said, "take Monsieur d'Yae back to the mill with you and send Kirby out here. I'll be there in a minute."
Saunders lowered his voice. "And keep an eye on him." He jerked his head toward Marc's father. "I don't trust him not to try to cause trouble."
"You got it." Caje turned to the elder d'Yae and said something to him in French, keeping his tone firm, yet respectful. The two of them moved toward the bridge.
"I'll bring Jean back to you, Father," Marc said, his voice steady but his expression troubled.
The elder d'Yae wheeled and glared at him. "I am no longer your father. I have no sons anymore, thanks to you." He too spat on the ground at Marc's feet, then turned and headed across the bridge, following Caje toward the mill.
Hanley moved over to stand next to Saunders. "You sure this is a good idea?" he muttered, keeping his voice low.
"Trying to rescue Lovelace and some innocent kid from the SS? You bet I'm sure." Saunders nodded in the direction of Marc d'Yae. "Besides, he no more sold them out willingly than I did."
Hanley frowned. "You're taking a lot on faith, Sergeant!" he snapped.
Saunders looked up at the lieutenant, trying to meet his gaze despite the darkness. "I have brothers too," he said. Then he stepped away toward d'Yae. "About ready?" he asked kindly.
Still frowning, Hanley walked back toward the bridge, not wanting to spend any more time with d'Yae than was absolutely necessary. He leaned on the sturdy wooden railing and looked down at the water. No matter how certain Saunders was, Hanley still thought d'Yae was guilty. After all, d'Yae had actually admitted to collaborating, albeit while protesting that his intentions had been honorable. Something about the whole situation felt wrong, off-kilter. Hanley still had too many unanswered questions. But he'd go along with this crazy plan... for now.
Behind him, Saunders and d'Yae were talking in hushed voices. Probably trading stories about brothers that got into trouble.
Clouds lumbered across the night sky, blotting out the stars for long stretches of time; only the tiniest sliver of moon peeped intermittently down at the three men creeping through the Normandy countryside. Kirby quickly lost all sense of direction as Marc d'Yae led the way south through a dense patch of woods. He remembered these wooded hills all too well -- it was here that they'd lost the Sarge. Abandoned him, really. Sure, Saunders had told them to pull back, had drawn the Krauts' fire so the squad could escape. But they should have found a way to circle back, bring him home with them. They'd just assumed that if he was able to, he would have followed them. Since he didn't, they'd figured he was dead. Sure, they'd all been wounded. But that was no excuse. The truth was, they'd been scared by the sudden ferocity of the attack, the unusual savagery of their opponents; when Saunders told them to head for the river, they hadn't looked back. They had just run. It was the lieutenant and this d'Yae guy who went out, found Saunders alive, and brought him back. Them and an S2 corporal named Lovelace.
Kirby was a little fuzzy about where they were going tonight, and about what they planned to do when they got there. He knew it had something to do with d'Yae's brother and that Lovelace guy and a bunch of SS. When Kirby had reached the bridge, Saunders hadn't had time to tell him much, other than to stick with the lieutenant and everything would be fine. Yeah, sure it would be fine. If they ever got where they were going. They'd already marched all day, and now he had to go out again while Caje and Littlejohn and the others got to stay in a nice cozy mill. Of all the lousy luck.
Eventually, the trees thinned as the ground grew flatter. D'Yae signaled a halt, and Hanley took the opportunity to whisper, "Where exactly are we heading?"
Kirby nodded, eager to know as well. If he had to go tramping around in the middle of the night, getting scratched by branches and running through heaven-only-knew what kinds of vegetation, he could at least know where they were going.
"In a few minutes, we will come across the road that leads south," d'Yae whispered back. "You have seen the road on maps, have you not?"
Hanley nodded. "It joins your village with the next one."
Kirby frowned. "Then why didn't we just take the road out of town?" Why struggle through all that underbrush when they could have walked on a nice road?
"Because if someone tried to follow us, I did not want them to know where we were heading," d'Yae explained.
"You think your father--" Hanley couldn't seem to complete the sentence.
Kirby wondered if, like him, the lieutenant still couldn't quite fathom a father who would try to hang his own son. Kirby had watched from outside the mill as the swirling mass of people pressed toward the trees, heard their angry voices echo across the river. Saunders, Caje, and Hanley had looked almost helpless against such a large group, and for a while Kirby had thought he would need to lead the rest of the squad to their defense. But he shouldn't have doubted Saunders. The sergeant had talked the old man and the mob into agreeing to release d'Yae for a little while, or so Caje told him when he and the old Frenchman came up to the mill. Caje had explained the situation briefly, how the old man was Marc d'Yae's father and wanted to hang him for collaborating with the Krauts. And that Saunders wanted Kirby down by the bridge. That was about all the info they'd had time to exchange.
Kirby glanced over at Hanley and thought he saw doubt flickering in the lieutenant's expression. In fact, Hanley had been terse and almost impolite to d'Yae the whole way. Did he suspect Marc d'Yae deserved to be hanged as a traitor? If he did, why were they following him out into the darkness to take on a bunch of Krauts?
"Would your father--" Hanley tried again, but still couldn't manage to finish the thought.
"Not him. But some of the others, perhaps. My brother Luc died a hero; everyone in the town mourned him. They believe now that I betrayed him, so...." D'Yae shrugged and left his own sentence unfinished.
Hanley nodded but said nothing.
D'Yae continued, "To answer your question more fully, Lieutenant, we are making our way to an abandoned inn. It is just a few kilometers down this road; once it was a pleasant place to pause as you traveled between villages. But when the war came, the owners fled. Now the SS use it."
Hanley shook his head. "I know about that inn. In fact, First Platoon checked that place out on their way through here. It was clean, empty."
Kirby watched the way Hanley scrutinized d'Yae. Did he think d'Yae was leading them into some pre-arranged trap, bringing more goodies to his SS pals? Was that why the SS had just let d'Yae leave instead of killing him and his brother as soon as they'd gotten their hands on that S2 man, Lovelace? It didn't sound like the SS, allowing someone like d'Yae to just walk away.
"It looked clean, of course. The SS are clever," d'Yae answered.
Of course, maybe Lovelace really was still alive. Maybe they could rescue him, and d'Yae's brother too. Saunders had seemed very friendly toward this Frenchman, even shook his hand as the trio left the riverbanks. Wished him good luck and everything.
Hanley asked, "So you think that inn is where they're holding Lovelace and your brother?"
"I know it is."
"I was there today. I saw them." D'Yae turned away and looked off through the trees.
"Both of them?" Hanley persisted.
"Yes, both of them!" Marc d'Yae whirled back around. "I was there when they brought Lovelace in. After I told them where he would be, they would not let me leave until they captured him. They knew I would warn him. They knew they could not trust me." His voice turned from angry to bitter. "No one trusts me now." He looked away for a moment or two.
No one said anything, and Kirby shifted uneasily in the silence. When d'Yae spoke again, his voice was flat and emotionless. "Here is the plan: they are holding Jean on the top floor. Lovelace is in the next room. When we have immobilized the sentries, I will climb up to Jean's window. You stay outside, and I will lower Jean to you." He patted the rope coiled across his torso. "Then I will go to the next room for Lovelace and do the same. When they are safe below, I will climb down, and we can leave."
Kirby shook his head. "You're gonna climb up the side of the building?" What was this guy, a spider?
"I have climbed such structures many times." Marc shrugged. "The outer walls are field stones -- it is only three stories. This will be the least of our problems."
"How many sentries are there?" Hanley asked.
Marc looked up at the sky. "We are wasting time. We must go." He turned and walked away without answering Hanley's question. Kirby frowned. Something about this whole deal smelled bad, like stale beer on the alley pavement behind a bar. This had started to feel like a trap -- and Kirby thought he oughta know, he'd walked into enough of them.
They passed out of the trees and into a vast open area, probably a meadow, although Kirby couldn't really tell, it was so dark. He knew the darkness was their ally, that it would help them sneak up on the Krauts, but that didn't make him like it. He liked to be able to see more than a few feet to either side of him. If the Germans couldn't see them, that meant they couldn't see the Germans either.
At least d'Yae led them onto the road a few minutes later. Now they could walk faster, without worrying about tripping over obstacles hidden in the unkempt grass and weeds. They'd be able to make much better time now, get this crazy patrol, or whatever it was, over with as soon as possible.
When a slight breeze kicked up from the south, Kirby zipped up his field jacket. It might be only mid-September, but the nights could get very cool very fast. When he glanced at his watch, he was surprised that they'd been out for less than two hours. It had already seemed like an eternity. But that was probably just because he'd been looking forward to spending the whole night in one location, getting more than a couple consecutive hours of rest. And now, instead of sleeping in that nice ramshackle mill, he was out wandering around with the lieutenant in the middle of a very dark French night, their guide a man who'd been accused of collaborating. Kirby gripped his B.A.R. a little tighter and sighed. It was going to be a long night.
Finally, the three men reached a small orchard, a dozen trees scattered in a field. D'Yae lead them off the road and in among the gnarled old apple trees. He crouched down and motioned for them to drop beside him. "We are very near now," he whispered. "Soon we will reach their sentries."
"How many?" Hanley asked again.
"Not many," d'Yae answered.
"Four," said a new voice behind them, a high nasal voice with a German accent and a perpetual sneer. "Four sentries patrol at all times. There is tonight myself also and my four companions." His English was not the best, and he halted after every few words, as if trying to remember what to say next.
Kirby froze as he heard the bolts on four German rifles drawn back, the clicks coming from all around them. His finger had found the trigger of his B.A.R. without him even having to think about it. So it was a trap.
Hanley glared at d'Yae. "I should've known. Climb up a three-story building? Right."
D'Yae stood up. "I am sorry," he said, looking down at Hanley and Kirby still crouching in the long grass.
Hanley snarled up at him, "Sure you're sorry."
"Drop the weapons!" commanded the nasal voice behind them. "Put your hands behind your heads. Stand up!"
Kirby looked at Hanley, who nodded, looking angrier than Kirby could ever remember seeing him. They did as the Kraut ordered and, once on his feet, Kirby turned around to look at the man with the nasal voice. He was tall, nearly Hanley's height, and very thin. His cheekbones jutted out, forming stark hollows on his cheeks, reminding Kirby of his skinny old-maid Aunt Eunice. Those evil little lightning bolts, insignia of the fearful Nazi SS, gleamed on his collar.
The Kraut said something in German, gesturing toward Hanley and Kirby with his Luger. Two soldiers rose from their hiding places in the tall weeds that filled the orchard. They frisked Hanley and Kirby a little more roughly than might have been necessary. Kirby struggled with the urge to lash out at the soldier searching him. It would be so satisfying just to kick the Kraut or land one solid punch on his chin. It would be even more gratifying to get a chance at d'Yae. The rat had this planned all along. Kirby decided if he ever got his hands around that French weasel's neck, it would take several strong men to pry him loose. Saunders should never have trusted d'Yae, never sent Kirby and Hanley on this stupid mission. Never stopped the French mob from hanging d'Yae like he deserved. How could Saunders have been so wrong?
Marc d'Yae started to move off into the darkness, but the thin German called out, "Herr d'Yae, where are you going?"
"To see my brother."
The German smiled, his lips stretching awkwardly as if unused to the expression. "You and he will be our guests tonight."
D'Yae shrugged. "If you insist."
D'Yae nodded, then walked off toward the inn, which was but a vague shape in the darkness.
When the Krauts had finished taking away their rifles, grenades, bayonets, ammo, and a map they found inside Hanley's jacket, they shoved the Americans toward the inn, which Kirby could now see ahead of them. With no lights showing, it sure looked as deserted like Hanley'd said it was supposed to be.
As they neared the three-story building, Mauser barrels poking their backs whenever they slowed the merest bit, Kirby could see the inn's outer walls were covered with field stones just as d'Yae had said. The building was topped with some sort of slate or tile roof. It looked sturdy, dependable, but uninteresting. There was no imagination put into the solid lines of the walls and roof, only practicality. The Germans prodded them forward until they reached the front door, where the thin officer curtly ordered, "Halt."
Lt. Hanley looked above the door, and Kirby followed suit. He could make out two windows, one on each side of the entrance. And in each window lurked the faint gleam of a gun barrel.
"Was ist das Stichwort?" called a deep voice from one of the windows.
"Verwirrung," replied the officer.
"Sie haben recht."
The front door swung in, and the soldiers shoved the two Americans into a huge three-story room which had probably been very cheerful and welcoming back when the building had been a roadside inn instead of an SS outpost. An empty concierge's desk and an impressive stone fireplace occupied the wall to the left. To the right was a door leading to what had probably been the dining area.
An open flight of stairs a few feet beyond the front door led up to two railed balconies over their heads, one above the other. As they stepped inside, Kirby looked around, getting a feel for the layout. He could see that the balconies ran in a squared horseshoe shape starting against the outer wall they had just entered and running above the other three walls of the main room. Numbered doors led away from the open hallways above him; all stood ajar. At the two ends of the horseshoes were the windows he'd seen from outside. At each window on the second floor stood a guard armed with a German light machine gun.
The door to their right opened, and another SS officer stepped into the foyer, closing the door behind him. He too was blond and, although the hair at his temples was turning grey, he could be only a year or two older than Lt. Hanley. He was not tall, at least not compared to the lanky German who had captured them. Yet his every movement declared that he was in command of this outpost and, should the war continue, intended to command larger and more important positions in the future.
Their thin captor snapped to a salute. His superior returned it, then looked his prisoners up and down. Kirby half expected to see him lick his lips in anticipation. "Very good work," he said, his English smoother and more precise than the thin man's. "Two prisoners, when we had only requested one." He turned toward the stairs and called out, "Monsieur d'Yae, please join us for a moment."
Marc d'Yae appeared in the doorway of one of the rooms on the third floor. "Mien Herr?" he called down. Kirby looked up, surprised. D'Yae sounded upset, maybe annoyed. Was he so important to the SS that he could allow himself to be annoyed by their request for his presence?
"Come -- I wish to congratulate you on your success." The officer motioned for d'Yae to descend.
D'Yae did not reply, but began slowly descending the two flights of stairs.
The SS officer looked Hanley up and down, squinting a little as he did so. He flicked his gaze toward Kirby for only an instant, barely acknowledging the private's existence. Then he returned to scrutinizing the lieutenant, obviously considering just how to approach this prisoner. "Good evening," he said, making a little formal bow. "I am Obersturmführer Erhard. If I am not mistaken, we have much to talk about."
Kirby glanced at Hanley and saw, to his surprise, a small smirk playing around the lieutenant's mouth. "I'm sorry to disappoint you," Hanley answered, his own voice as formal as his adversary's. "But I'm afraid any discussion we have is doomed to be a bit one-sided."
Erhard nodded. "I do not imagine that inflicting any... discomfort on you would bring me the results I desire. But--" he paused and glanced at d'Yae, who stood at the foot of the stairs now, "I have found my past guests to be more than willing to reveal their secrets if they must witness someone else experiencing unpleasantness." Erhard gestured slightly toward Kirby.
Hanley said nothing. He didn't even look at Kirby. He just kept coolly eyeing Obersturmführer Erhard.
Kirby gave Erhard what he hoped was a deadly glare.
The SS officer frowned, deep wrinkles forming across his high forehead. He'd obviously expected more of a reaction from Hanley. "Well," he said at last, "perhaps you have no regard for this private. But you came here for a reason, did you not? Perhaps in hopes of rescuing the American corporal?" He stepped back into the side room and swung the door wide open.
Kirby couldn't help looking into the room behind Erhard, even though he knew that's exactly what the SS man wanted him to do. As soon as he looked, he wished he hadn't; it was like looking at a portrait of his own doom. There, ropes binding his arms and torso to the back of the chair that held him, was Cpl. Moseby Lovelace. He was slumped over, head lolling to one side, and probably would have toppled from the chair if he hadn't been tied to it so securely. And he was very still -- either unconscious or dead, Kirby figured. Even though he was a good thirty feet away, Kirby could see the swollen bruises mottling what had once been a cheerful, boyish face. Lovelace was barely recognizable; Kirby had only met the corporal briefly a couple weeks earlier; he probably would not have been able to identify this battered soldier if he hadn't already known who was being held prisoner at the inn.
Beside Kirby, Hanley was unable to suppress a shudder.
"Ah," said Obersturmführer Erhard, triumph gilding his words, "you know him, then? You would be sad to learn that, if he lives, he will never regain the full use of his left hand. I am afraid even after we broke each finger, one by one, he refused to talk."
Something welled up inside Kirby. It wasn't rage or fear, or even disgust. It was a dark combination of the three emotions, and it rose like bile in his throat. "Why you--" he cried, lunging toward the officer.
A rifle butt, swung expertly by the SS soldier standing next to Kirby, connected solidly with the private's skull, and the world disappeared with a sharp flash.
Hanley watched Kirby drop to the floor, then returned his gaze to Obersturmführer Erhard. He tried to keep his face from betraying any emotion, but he knew he'd involuntarily winced when the Mauser crashed into Kirby's head, just as he'd shuddered when he saw what they'd done to Lovelace. He'd have to control himself better from here on out; if the SS men knew he could be affected by pain inflicted on the other two Americans, none of them stood much chance of getting out alive.
Erhard was watching Hanley closely, but addressed d'Yae. "Ahh, the sentimental Americans. See how easy it is to subdue them, Herr d'Yae? Threaten one of them and the others become so cooperative." He looked toward Marc at last and sneered. "Very like the French, are they not?"
"I did what you wanted." D'Yae's voice shook slightly. "You have captured the Americans. Now let me take my brother home."
The SS officer shook his head. "It is not so simple. I think you have much more to share with us. And until you do so, we must keep your brother."
Hanley kept his face impassive, but he was starting to wonder exactly what d'Yae's relationship with the SS was. This didn't sound like a conversation held by best buddies. Then again, Erhard didn't look like a man who had friends. He probably addressed other Germans this way too.
"He is only a boy," d'Yae protested, his voice more controlled now. "Let him go -- he has nothing to do with this. I told you before: he was not involved with the Resistance."
"Only a boy?" scoffed Erhard. "He is seventeen, yes? We have younger soldiers than that in the front ranks of the German army."
"Then I am glad Jean is not German."
Obersturmführer Erhard's face turned pink. "Es ist genug!" he shouted. A guard shoved Hanley toward the stairs without warning. Other soldiers grabbed Kirby's arms and dragged him across the floor behind Hanley. Up on the stairs a German gestured with his rifle toward Marc d'Yae. The Frenchman moved to one side while the guards forced Hanley to climb the steps. As he passed d'Yae, Hanley wanted very badly to lurch sideways and attack the double-crosser, but there were too many guards around and he knew his revenge would be short-lived. So he continued up the staircase, biding his time for now.
When Kirby regained consciousness, he wished he hadn't. His head pulsated, pain radiating from the bruise on his temple. When he opened his eyes, he panicked -- he could see nothing. A vast, black emptiness surrounded him. Had the blow from the Kraut's Mauser blinded him? Frantic, he sat up from his prone position on what felt like a narrow bed. Sitting up made him nauseated and he moaned.
"Kirby! You awake?" came Hanley's voice through the void.
"No," Kirby muttered. He put out his hands, trying to find out what his dark, blank surroundings at least felt like.
"How's your head?"
"I think Erhard used it for a bowling ball." Kirby tried to keep his voice normal. Pretty tough, considering he was on the verge of panicking. He touched his head gingerly, felt a little clotted blood below the bruise. Slowly he brought his hand around in front of his face. Nothing. He might as well have had his eyes closed.
"I don't think it bled much, but I didn't get a chance to really look at it. If only that lousy German hadn't taken my lighter...."
Hope returned to Kirby, slowly pushing the panic away -- if Hanley wanted his lighter, that meant it was just dark in here. He hadn't been blinded after all! "Yeah, it sure is dark," he said warily, hoping Hanley would agree.
"Yeah," Hanley answered. He would never know how happy that one little word made Kirby.
Now that he knew he probably hadn't been blinded, Kirby swung his legs over the side of the bed and felt his feet connect with the floor below. Time to start escaping. "Where are we?" he asked.
"Top floor," Hanley answered. "In a room with a window, two cots, and a guard outside the door."
"Lot of good it does us, three stories above the ground." Hanley gave a short, bitter laugh. "It was my first thought, too, but the shutters are nailed closed." The anger had returned to his voice, but Kirby realized now that it was not directed at him.
Kirby nodded, then realized that was silly since Hanley couldn't see him. So he said, "Oh."
"We never should have come out here," Hanley continued. "What was I thinking? The two of us and that traitor against a whole SS outpost?" Hanley gave another little laugh. This one ended with a sort of odd choking sound. "I should have let them hang d'Yae. Whey did I let Saunders talk me out of it?"
Kirby felt fairly certain the lieutenant didn't expect a response. He squirmed, not wanting to be privy to an officer's self-recriminations. Officers weren't supposed to have doubts, to second-guess themselves. They were supposed to make you believe they were always right. Even if you thought they were dead wrong. Kirby grimaced. This time, they might both wind up being dead and wrong.
So Kirby asked, "How are we gonna get out of here?" He hoped he could divert Hanley's thoughts, forestall any more little speeches about making wrong decisions.
"I don't know," Hanley answered. "We'll just have to see what happens in the morning." He gave one last hoarse laugh. "Maybe d'Yae will change sides again." He added, more to himself, "Or maybe I'll find a way to make him pay for all this."
They couldn't wait until morning, and Kirby knew it. He figured the lieutenant did too. With the Germans pushing steadily toward them, morning might find their position far behind enemy lines, lines that had shifted past them in the night. But Kirby said nothing. If the lieutenant wanted to sit there plotting revenge against d'Yae, then it was up to Kirby to find a way out. It was pretty hard to get revenge when you were a prisoner.
Hours later, Kirby had concocted a dozen escape plans and rejected every one. He finally fell asleep, too weary to form another coherent thought. Hanley hadn't said a word for hours. Kirby wasn't sure if that meant the lieutenant was asleep or simply occupied with his angry thoughts.
The sound of gunfire shattered the early morning stillness. It sounded close, practically right outside the window. Kirby was on his feet and groping for his B.A.R. in an instant. A second or two later, he remembered he was a prisoner and unarmed.
"Kirby!" hissed Hanley. "Wake up!" His voice came from a different place than it had before and, although Kirby knew he couldn't see the lieutenant, he turned his face toward where he thought the voice had come from.
"I'm awake," Kirby whispered back.
"Come over here," Hanley whispered. "And be quiet!"
Kirby thought of several very sarcastic things to say, such as, "Can you give me directions?" But he managed to keep them all to himself as he shuffled across the room, hoping he didn't trip over some unknown object. He listened to the gunfire outside and recognized the familiar stuttering bursts of a Thompson submachine gun. "That sounds like Sarge," he whispered.
"Quiet," Hanley insisted, his voice right next to Kirby. "We're right next to the door."
Kirby felt a hand on his shoulder, a strong hand that pulled him sideways until his back was against a wall.
"Stay here," Hanley said. "I'm going to the other side of the door. When I tell you, you call out to the guard. Tell him you're sick. I'll throw this blanket over his head and pull him into the room."
It was as good as any of the plans Kirby had concocted during that seemingly endless night. "Right." He didn't hear Hanley move away, but that was probably because the gunfire was louder now and coming from two different directions. Some of it sounded like it might even be inside the inn.
"Now!" Hanley whispered loudly.
If the lieutenant wanted someone to pretend to be sick, he'd certainly picked the perfect guy for the job. Kirby let out his best agonized moan, then followed it with: "Ow! Ow! Oh, my stomach! Somebody, help me! I'm gonna die! Lieutenant! Guard? Oh, ohhhhh, it hurts." He planned to follow it with another practiced groan and then perhaps a whimpering wail, but there was a scuffling noise outside the room, a key rattled in the lock, and the door swung slowly inward toward Kirby, shedding weak light into the room. So he went back to pleading: "Please help me! My stomach feels like it's on fire!"
"Was ist los?" The guard sounded impatient. In his line of work, he probably had to listen to a lot of hurt soldiers giving far more realistic performances. Well, Kirby'd given it his best shot. "Was ist los?" the guard repeated as he took a step into the room.
Lt. Hanley sprang out from the shadows on the other side of the door and whipped his thin blanket over the German's head. The guard gave a startled cry as Hanley hauled him into the room. Kirby reached around the door and pulled the key out of the lock, then slammed the door shut.
The room descended into darkness again. Kirby could hear Hanley and the Kraut struggling somewhere across the room. Muffled thumps and curses filled the darkness, but Kirby didn't dare join the fracas for fear of tearing into the wrong person. He felt helpless simply standing there with his hands clenched uselessly at his side; he had just decided to try to locate the skirmishers in the vast black void when he heard something heavy thud on the floor. Then Hanley hissed, "Okay."
Kirby hadn't been aware he'd been holding his breath, but now he let it out with a quick, "Whew." He could hear Hanley's boots approaching on the wooden floor.
"Here," Hanley whispered, much nearer now. "Hold out your hands."
Kirby did and felt his fingers closing around the stock and barrel of a rifle. He ran his hands over the weapon, making sure he wouldn't be pointing the wrong end when they opened the door. Something sticky and slimy covered the end of the stock, and Kirby figured they wouldn't have to worry about the German anymore.
"I've got his pistol," Hanley said, still keeping his voice low but no longer whispering. "Let's go."
Kirby opened the door a crack and let the lieutenant peek out. Then Hanley swung the door wide, shouted, "Hey!" and fired three times out into the hall. Something crashed to the floor outside, and Hanley gestured for Kirby to follow him out of the room.
Although the light out in the hallway was fairly dim, it still dazzled Kirby for a moment or two. Once his eyes adjusted, he noted the body of the soldier Hanley had just killed lying face down a few yards away, motionless.
From the two stories below came the noise of a small pitched battle, with hoarse cries punctuating the gunfire. Hanley told Kirby, "We'll flush out this floor before we go any lower. I'll guard the stairs while you check the rooms."
Kirby might have known he'd get stuck with the dirty work. But by now he knew when and where griping was appropriate, so he just nodded once and got started. He'd flushed enough houses by now to have a system down: kick or shove the door open, duck back along the wall outside the door where he had some cover, wait to see if someone inside fired. If no one shot at him, he'd whip around with his weapon aimed and ready. If the room was clear, he'd move on to the next and start the process all over again.
There were eight rooms on the top floor of the inn: two along each of the shorter ends of the horseshoe-shaped balcony, and four on the long middle part. Hanley and Kirby had been held in the first room on the right short section of the balcony, so Kirby checked the room beside theirs first. It was empty, so he moved on to the rooms on the longer middle wall. The first two there were empty as well, which he'd expected, since their doors were already ajar. But then he came to a door that was closed, probably locked. The dead Kraut lay near this door; either he'd been guarding it or staying inside it.
Kirby tightened his grip on the German rifle and took a deep breath. He stepped back to get up a little speed, then charged the door. It yielded to the impact of his entire body hurling against it, and he stumbled into the room, ready to shoot anything that moved.
The room held two beds, a table, and two occupants: a man lying in a bed across the room and an SS soldier standing over him holding a Luger. When Kirby smashed through the door, the soldier whirled, but Kirby fired first, sending two rounds into the soldier's chest. The German staggered and fell sideways, his Luger clattering onto the polished wooden floor. Kirby strode in and kicked the Luger away from the guard, and only when he'd made sure the guard was dead did he look at the person lying on the bed.
It was a young man that Kirby realized had to be Marc d'Yae's younger brother. The same dark hair and eyes, same strong chin. But this boy looked innocent and naïve, not crafty like Marc. The room was dim, the only light coming from a guttering oil lamp on a table near the bed. It took a minute for Kirby to realize the younger d'Yae's shoulder was swathed in a bulky white bandage.
So it was true. The Germans had captured Jean d'Yae, just as Marc said. They were holding him prisoner; that guard had been about to finish the boy off. Kirby began to wonder if maybe Marc d'Yae had been telling a little truth after all -- maybe he'd only betrayed them, betrayed Lovelace, in an effort to help his brother. But now was no time to think through all that -- there was still far too much fighting going on all around the inn.
"You are American?" Jean asked weakly, trying to sit up.
Kirby nodded. "Yeah." Poor kid looked scared almost out of his mind. "Do you know where they're keeping Corporal Lovelace?" Kirby lowered the Mauser.
"The first American? He was in the next room."
"I did not hear them bring him back up tonight, after they took him downstairs... but I may have been asleep."
"Thanks." Kirby turned to go.
"Thank you," d'Yae's younger brother called after him. "Do you know if Marc has returned?"
Kirby looked back. "No." He wanted to add that he didn't care, but instead he asked, "Returned from where?"
"From outside." The young man pointed a trembling finger to the window beside him. It stood wide open, the shutters looking as if they'd been pried open.
Kirby knew he didn't have time to wonder where the traitor had gone or why he'd left by the window. "I don't know," he said and went back out to the hallway.
"Trouble?" Hanley asked, taking a moment from watching the stairway to glance Kirby's way.
"A Kraut about to execute d'Yae's brother."
Anger tinged Hanley's voice as he replied, "What about d'Yae?"
"The boy says he climbed out the window."
"It's three stories down."
"So maybe he could've climbed up it after all," Kirby said as he checked the Mauser to see how many rounds he had left. "Anyway, the boy also says Lovelace was in the next room, but he doesn't know if they brought him back after--" He knew he didn't have to finish the sentence. If Lovelace was dead, then that was just one more charge chalked up against good ol' Marc d'Yae.
Kirby looked at the closed door next to the one he'd just crashed through and wondered how big the bruise on his shoulder would be tomorrow. Just as he was about to charge the door, it began to open slowly. Kirby jumped sideways, against the wall, and pulled the butt of the Mauser tight against his shoulder. He kept noticing how light this rifle was compared to the heft of his B.A.R. It felt like a toy.
A soldier stepped into the doorway and Kirby almost fired, but caught himself just in time: this was no German uniform in his sights. Framed in the door stood an American soldier, his face so bruised and bloodied that it could hardly be called a face. In his right hand he clutched a piece of wood which, until very recently, had evidently been the leg of a bed. He carried his left arm close to his chest, the hand tucked inside his bloodstained shirt. When he saw Kirby and Hanley, the soldier lowered the makeshift club. "Hey there, Lieutenant," he said, his voice sounding hoarse and unnatural.
"Lovelace?" Hanley called from where he crouched at the head of the stairs.
Moseby Lovelace slumped against the door frame suddenly, but tried to smile as he said, "Sure 'nuff." As Kirby rushed to his side, Lovelace slid slowly to the floor.
Hanley checked down the stairs to make sure no one was approaching, then ran to help Kirby. "His bed's busted," Kirby informed him after a quick glance in Lovelace's room. "But there's an extra one in young d'Yae's room."
"We'll take him there," Hanley said. Together, they lifted Lovelace as gently as they could and carried him into the next room.
"What's going on?" Lovelace mumbled as they lifted him onto the extra bed. Its thin blankets were tossed to one side, as if someone had already occupied the cot that night.
"You need to stay here," Hanley said. "Guard this boy; make sure he doesn't go anywhere."
"Jean?" Lovelace sounded puzzled. "But he's Marc d'Yae's brother. Why would I want to stop him?"
Hanley picked up the Luger Kirby had kicked away from the dead Kraut. "Keep him safe, then," he said impatiently. He handed the Luger to Lovelace. "We'll be back." Then he turned back to Kirby and pointed at the dead German. "Let's clean the place up a little," he said. The two of them dragged the body out and closed the door behind them.
"Guess he still trusts d'Yae," Kirby said as they dropped this dead guard next to the other one in the hall.
Hanley didn't reply but returned to his station at the head of the stairs. "Check the rest of the rooms," he ordered. But just as Kirby headed for the two rooms on the short left arm of the balcony, the sound of firing hushed, then stopped altogether. Boots thudded on the wooden stairs below; several people were heading up to the second story.
Then Kirby and Hanley heard the familiar voice of Sgt. Saunders yelling, "You men check this floor too. Caje, Billy, follow me up to the top."
Hanley stood up at the head of the stairs and called down, "We've almost cleared the top floor, Sergeant!"
Saunders appeared at the foot of the stairs leading up from the second floor. "You okay, Lieutenant?" he asked. "Kirby too?"
"We're fine," Hanley replied, starting down the steps. "No thanks to your friend d'Yae," he added, sounding angry again.
"Is it clear up there?"
"Kirby's checked all but two rooms," Hanley said.
Kirby followed Hanley down the stairs and saw Billy and Caje looking up at him from beside Saunders, and Littlejohn far below on the main floor. He felt like a little kid would feel on Christmas morning if he got every single thing he ever wished for.
"What about Lovelace and Marc's brother?" Saunders asked.
Kirby answered, "They're both wounded."
Saunders nodded. "I'll send Doc up when it's clear." He turned to Caje and Billy and said, "Go check those last two rooms."
As Caje and Billy passed Kirby on the stairs, Billy gave him a huge grin. Caje pointed to the bruise Kirby'd gotten from that Kraut's Mauser earlier, and said, "That's what happens when you hang out with officers, Kirby."
Kirby nodded. "I won't forget it," he deadpanned back.
Lt. Hanley had folded his arms and was giving Saunders a look that Kirby was very glad was not directed at him. "Not that I'm not happy to see you," Hanley said, "but what are you doing here?"
Saunders shrugged and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. "Thought you'd rather not spend any more time with the SS than you had to."
Hanley looked over the balcony railing. "You seem to have a few more men in your squad than usual," he commented.
Kirby looked too and saw most of the platoon's second squad down below, clearing the room of the bodies of dead Krauts.
"Well, it's like this," Saunders said, getting that deceptive drawl that Kirby knew no one should ever trust. "Company said they heard some of your platoon was getting kind of rusty, so they suggested I take them out for some exercise." He lit a cigarette and offered it to Hanley.
"Company gave you permission for this little... jaunt?" Hanley asked, accepting the peace offering.
"When they heard the SS were holding a lieutenant and a member of S2 in an outpost in the middle of our territory, you bet they did." Saunders shook out another cigarette for himself, then offered the pack to Kirby.
Kirby pulled out a cigarette and tried to pretend like he wasn't intensely interested in what his two superiors were saying.
Caje appeared at the head of the stairs and called down, "All clear, Sarge!"
"Okay," Saunders acknowledged, then turned and yelled down to the ground floor, "Doc!"
Doc came out from under the balcony and looked up. "Just a couple scratches down here," he reported. "Only we lost Jamison and Dimmsdale from Second Squad outside."
"Lovelace and d'Yae's brother need you upstairs," Saunders said.
"Right." Doc slung his medic's kit over his shoulder and headed up the stairs toward them.
"Second door from the right at the top," Kirby told him as Doc passed them on the landing.
Doc paused to ask, "Your head okay?"
Kirby nodded. "For now. They need you worse."
"See me later," Doc told him, then headed up to the third floor.
"Did you see any sign of d'Yae on your way here?" Hanley asked Saunders.
"Who do you think took out the sentries and let us get close to this place?" the sergeant answered.
Kirby pulled in a little too much smoke from his cigarette and coughed. "You're kidding," he managed to gasp out. "But he's a traitor! He sold us out to the SS!"
"No, he didn't," Saunders said.
"You weren't here," Hanley reminded the sergeant. "He most certainly did."
"Not really," Saunders insisted. "That was all in the plan."
Hanley stubbed out his cigarette on the balcony and folded his arms again. "The plan?" he asked, his voice cool.
"We couldn't wait for the platoon to catch up to reinforce us," Saunders explained. "I knew we had to get him away from that lynch mob and quick. So he and I agreed that you and Kirby would go with him to make it look like a rescue. He'd have to hand you over to the SS since there was no way the three of you could handle this whole outpost on your own. As soon as platoon caught up, I'd lead a couple squads out here. D'Yae would climb down from the room where they held him, take out the guards, and lead us back here."
"And I wasn't informed of this plan because--?" Hanley tapped his fingers on his arms impatiently.
"I was afraid Kirby wouldn't be able to keep up the charade," Saunders answered.
Kirby was about to protest when he noticed that Saunders was giving him that look that said, Shut up now and I'll explain later. So he settled for just glaring at Saunders, although he suddenly had an idea it wasn't him that Saunders was afraid would give away the plan.
"So where's d'Yae now?" Hanley asked. He still sounded slightly angry, but a lot of plain, ordinary tiredness was taking over.
"I left him with the SS leader downstairs."
"You're that certain d'Yae's not a traitor?"
"Lieutenant, that SS officer is the man that shot both of his brothers. You really think they're in there plotting to take this inn out of our hands?" Saunders inquired a little too politely. Kirby could see the sergeant was getting tired of Hanley's suspicious attitude, and he resolved not to let Saunders know how anxious he'd been to get his hands around d'Yae's throat. Besides, Kirby had a sudden image of his brother George lying in that bed upstairs instead, about to be shot in the head by an SS guard. He would do anything to stop that from happening. And Marc d'Yae had already seen one of his brothers killed.
"I'm not taking any chances." Hanley headed down the stairs. When Saunders followed him, so did Kirby. Maybe he'd been wrong to condemn d'Yae earlier. Maybe Saunders had been right all along. Much as Kirby hated to admit it, this wouldn't be the first time the Sarge had been right and he'd been wrong. And if Saunders had planned this with d'Yae, well, who was Kirby to argue with the Sarge? Okay, he was usually the one who argued with Saunders. What if the plan had gone wrong? What if Company had sent the squads on a different mission? What if the Krauts had moved their prisoners somewhere else? Or just shot them on sight? Kirby shook his head. It had been smart of Saunders not to tell him the plan beforehand -- he would never have gone along with it.
When they reached the ground floor, Hanley demanded, "Where are they?"
Saunders pointed to the room off to the left of the door. The room where they'd seen Lovelace's unconscious body slumped in a chair hours earlier. Hanley strode over to it and flung the door wide.
Crumpled on the floor against the far wall was Obersturmführer Erhard, his throat streaming blood. Above him stood Marc d'Yae, wiping a slender knife on his black pants. He was trembling, and he kept wiping the blade over and over and over, even though all traces of blood were long gone.
Saunders walked over to the Frenchman. "D'Yae?" he said, his voice quiet.
D'Yae did not respond, but kept staring down at the SS officer and mechanically wiping his knife.
"Marc," Saunders tried. He placed a hand on d'Yae's shoulder. "Let's go get your brother."
Marc looked over at him, his eyes vacant. At first he seemed to stare right through Saunders, but gradually he focused on the sergeant. "Oui," he said. "Mon frère." He passed by Hanley and Kirby as he left the room, never even acknowledging their presence, and walked slowly to the staircase with Saunders following close behind.
"Kirby," Saunders said quietly. "Which room is his brother in?"
"I'll show you." Kirby hurried ahead of them and led the way up the stairs, back to the third floor. "This one," he said, pausing in front of the doorway he'd crashed through.
Marc d'Yae stopped on the threshold and tried to speak, but couldn't seem to make a sound. He put his hand on the door frame as if to steady himself and took several deep breaths.
Jean d'Yae raised his good right hand and held it out to his brother. "Tu es retourné," he said weakly.
"Bien sûr," Marc managed to say. His voice sounded as if he was having a hard time forcing the words past some obstruction in his throat.
Kirby knew, watching Marc d'Yae's face as he gazed at his brother, that Saunders had been right. Right to trust Marc. Right to send them to rescue Jean and Lovelace. Kirby would have done everything Marc had done if it were George or Ruthie in danger, would have risked anything and anyone to rescue them.
Marc walked hesitantly to his brother's bed and sank to his knees beside it.
Saunders touched Kirby's arm. "Let's go," he said. They turned away from the reunited brothers and headed back down the stairs.
The sun peeked over the horizon in the northern part of France known as Normandy. It spread its rays over the land slowly, as if unwilling to shed light on a place where so much blood was spilled every day.
Lt. Hanley stood at a northeast-facing window in an empty room on the uppermost floor of the abandoned inn. He watched as the sun turned the apple orchard below into a gold-tinged fairy land, the light glinting off a thousand drops of dew lining every long blade of grass and every leaf. It looked so peaceful, like a pastoral painting; Hanley knew what really lay hidden in that orchard, not far from the charming rustic fence. They'd put all the dead SS soldiers in one mass grave there. But for the moment he could forget that and simply enjoy the serenity. When he heard footsteps behind him, he turned reluctantly, unwilling to lose the rare moment of peace and beauty.
It was Saunders. "Lieutenant," he said with a nod, entering the room. He was carrying the radio.
"Back already?" Hanley smiled. He'd known Saunders was coming -- he'd heard a motor a few minutes earlier and gone to one of the front windows, seen a jeep roaring down the road. He'd wondered why the sergeant had insisted on returning to the town early that morning but, when he saw who rode in the jeep beside Saunders, he'd understood.
"Yes, sir." Saunders set the radio on the floor. "We still hold the OP in town. No signs of other activity there yet. Of any kind."
Hanley nodded, understanding. No Germans in sight and no townspeople demanding blood yet, either.
"Thought you might want to check in," Saunders continued, nudging the radio with his foot.
"Yeah, thanks." Hanley gestured toward the window. "This inn commands a good view of the countryside. Should make a good secondary OP."
Marc d'Yae appeared in the room's doorway. "Saunders--" he began, then stopped, his voice faltering. Marc looked tired and older than he had the night before. But there was a sense of peace in the steady way he met the sergeant's gaze. Peace and possibly even a hint of hope.
"How is he?" Saunders asked.
"He is awake now. He wants to meet you."
Saunders nodded. "Okay." He followed Marc out of that room, through the hallway, and into the room where Hanley and Kirby had left Lovelace and Jean d'Yae during the fight only a few hours ago. Hanley trailed a discreet distance behind. When he reached the room, he realized Kirby was beside him, also peering at the room's occupants.
In a bed along the right wall lay Moseby Lovelace, sleeping peacefully. Doc had washed the blood from his face and bandaged his broken nose. At least he was recognizable again. But Doc had left his left hand alone; all five fingers were broken, and Doc hadn't wanted to splint them wrong and injure him more. Lovelace hadn't cried out once during Doc's bandaging efforts, just clamped his jaw shut and grimaced. Who knew what other injuries the Krauts had inflicted on him during their interrogation -- Doc had told Hanley he suspected that several of Lovalace's ribs were cracked, if not actually broken.
The other bed stood lengthwise opposite the doorway. Doc sat next to it, facing the door, his medic's bag open on the floor beside him. He looked up at Saunders and Hanley as they paused at the threshold. "I gave Lovelace another shot of morphine an' he's gone to sleep again."
"I radioed for an ambulance," Saunders told him.
"Good. The sooner it gets here, the better." Doc went back to re-checking the bandages on the bullet wound in Jean d'Yae's left shoulder.
Saunders looked down at the seventeen-year-old boy whose curly black hair lay loose around his once-handsome face. One of his eyes was swollen shut, ringed with purple and blue and yellow. But the other was open, focused on Saunders.
Jean tried to smile. His lips were puffy and cracked, but he managed a lopsided grin. "You are he," he said. "The one who helped Marc." He reached out his uninjured right arm to his brother, who knelt beside the bed opposite Doc, his back to the doorway.
Marc took Jean's hand in both of his and squeezed it gently.
"I'm one of them." Saunders nodded. "I'm the one your brother helped find in the woods a couple weeks ago."
"Yes. Sergeant Saunders." Jean slurred the 's's -- he was missing two teeth thanks to his Nazi captors.
"Thank you," Jean said. "Thank you for bringing my brother back." He smiled awkwardly again, then closed his one good eye in exhaustion.
Saunders looked down at Marc d'Yae. "There's someone here to see you," he said. He turned to Hanley, who still stood in the doorway. "Excuse me, sir."
Kirby shifted farther back into the hallway, but Hanley moved into the room to let Saunders pass, then turned to watch the sergeant walk to one of the other empty rooms there on the inn's upper floor. "All right, you can come out now," Saunders said to someone inside. His voice had lost the gentleness it had held when he spoke to Jean d'Yae. Now it sounded flat, as if Saunders had suddenly locked down all his emotions. He was good at that.
Monsieur d'Yae limped into the hallway, leaning heavily on his cane. He approached the sickroom slowly, perhaps reluctantly. Hanley was surprised the old man had the nerve to show up at all, considering his behavior the night before. Saunders must have been most persuasive again.
Hanley stepped to one side again so the elder d'Yae could have an unobstructed view of his sons. The old man's pace slowed even more. He was probably afraid of how Marc would react to him -- Hanley would have been, anyway. Yet, the old man didn't seem particularly apprehensive. He actually looked much as he had in the flickering light of the torches. A little less agitated, maybe, but still stubborn, still displeased.
Marc remained focused on Jean, not paying any attention to what was happening in the hallway behind him. Hanley wasn't sure if Marc knew his father was approaching and had chosen to ignore him, or if he was oblivious to the old man's presence.
Doc added a few finishing touches to Jean's shoulder bandage and stood up. "Think I'll step out an' stretch a bit before that ambulance gets here." He smiled at Marc. "Your brother'll be fine. Looks like those Germans dug the bullet out an' kept the wound clean."
Marc looked up then. "Thank you," he said. He seemed to sense movement out in the hallway and glanced over his shoulder to see who was approaching. When he saw his father, he stopped breathing for a moment. Hanley thought he looked like a rabbit who had just come face to face with the hounds hunting him.
Monsieur d'Yae stopped just outside the room, leaning on his stout cane. Doc and Hanley moved out the door past him to join Saunders and Kirby in the hall. No sense standing in the way of a family reunion.
"He is alive," Marc said, looking away from his father and back at Jean.
"Yes," the elder d'Yae said, his voice a little too loud. "No thanks to you."
Marc looked up again, half turning where he knelt. "I never--"
"I do not want to hear it." The elder d'Yae's voice grew harsh, reminding Hanley of the way he'd sounded the previous night under the two tall trees by the river. "First Luc, then Jean. I never want to hear it. Get out of my sight."
Hanley frowned. This was not what he'd expected. A few angry words from Marc about last night, a few tears of contrition from Monsieur d'Yae, maybe. Not the father dismissing the son outright.
"No!" Marc stood up but kept hold of his brother's hand. "I will not leave Jean."
"If you do not leave this instant," Marc's father growled, "I will kill you myself. I will execute you as the traitor I know you to be. Do not think I am unable to do so." He straightened, stepped into the room, and raised his cane menacingly.
Hanley wanted to intervene, to slap this stupid old man who could not bring himself to admit he'd been wrong. And to think Hanley had agreed with this fool last night, even wished he'd let the mob hang Marc d'Yae. Revolted, Hanley wanted to turn away, but morbid fascination kept him watching the family fireworks.
Jean opened his good eye and turned his head a bit so he could see his father and brother. He did not speak but simply watched and listened.
"But I told you the truth," Marc protested, sounding desperate. "I had no choice. And I found Jean again, and Corporal Lovelace. We rescued them! Does that prove nothing to you?"
"Yes, it proves exactly nothing. You knew where they were because you are responsible for their being here." Monsieur d'Yae shoved Marc to one side, forcing him to release Jean's hand. Marc lost his balance and slumped against the wall. While Marc straightened up, the elder d'Yae limped to the far side of the bed and lowered himself into the chair Doc had vacated. He locked eyes with Marc for a moment. "I never want to see you again. You are no longer my son." Then he took Jean's left hand in one of his own while he smoothed the black curls from Jean's forehead with the other.
Jean turned his head away from Marc. "Papa?" he mumbled.
Hanley watched Marc's face as Jean switched his attention to their father. D'Yae's expression was bleak, as if he was to be executed after all. He ran both hands over his hair, as if by controlling it, he could bring the rest of his world back under control.
"Oui," Louis said, then added a long string of French words. His tone had switched instantly from the angry snarl he'd directed toward Marc into the croon of a worried parent.
Jean shook his head weakly. "Non, non!" He looked back at Marc and held out his hand to his brother. Tears coursed down his cheeks, wetting his black hair spread across the pillow.
Marc took Jean's hand, squeezed it, then whispered, "Adieu, mon frère."
"A bientôt, j'espère," Jean said, weeping freely.
"Mais oui," Marc choked out. He released Jean's hand and turned away, pushed between Saunders and Hanley, and clattered down the stairs behind them.
Saunders tapped Hanley on the shoulder and motioned toward the other rooms lining the balcony. Hanley turned away from the room and found he was eager to leave the d'Yae family behind him. As he, Doc, Kirby, and Saunders walked down the hallway to the room that held his radio, Hanley forced himself to return to business. He glanced around the little inn, with its many upper-story windows facing three directions. It would definitely make a valuable OP.
Maybe Marc d'Yae had betrayed them to the SS. Maybe he had only done whatever he could in order to save his brother. Maybe it was Marc's fault his brother Luc was dead and Jean was wounded. Maybe it wasn't. Either way, Hanley wouldn't want to trade places with Marc d'Yae for anything, not even for a free ticket back to the States. But he glanced at Saunders and saw that the sergeant looked worried as he watched Marc run out the front door far below them. Hanley was glad they would never have to deal with the slippery Frenchman again, and the sooner the other d'Yaes were out of their new OP, the better.
Beside the lieutenant, Saunders muttered, "So much for my plan."
Hanley raised his eyebrows. "You saved Lovelace and young Jean in there."
"But I couldn't save Marc." The sergeant stopped by the railing and stood looking down at the door d'Yae had just exited.
"He's still alive," Hanley pointed out. He felt he ought to add, "No thanks to me," but he didn't. No sense piling his own guilty feelings on Saunders too.
"Maybe his father will cool off in a few days."
"Maybe." Saunders didn't sound convinced.
Hanley started walking again. "Time to go call Company," he reminded Saunders. It was time to stop worrying about others' problems and get back to their own. After a moment, Saunders followed him down the hallway. On the ground floor far below, Littlejohn had started a fire in the grand fireplace near the vacant concierge's desk. He and Billy Nelson were now wrangling about the best way to toast bread over an open fire.
Just before Hanley turned to enter the room that held the radio, he took one more look over the railing. Kirby stood by the main door, looking out into the daylight. Hanley had no way of knowing for sure, but he would have bet ten U.S. dollars that Kirby was watching Marc d'Yae fade into the distance.