Alternate Universe - World War II
DISCLAIMER: Not mine, never were, never will be.
NOTE: This fic is set in Europe in 1940. The Snow Goose is not mine, it comes from the short story The Snow Goose - A Story of Dunkirk by Paul Gallico which appeared in the Sunday Evening Post in 1940 and was first published in 1941. French translations by Nin. Betaed by the very patient and knowledgeable Kerry.
SIZE: Approx. 310K
Sergeant Tanner placed his rifle on the ground and scanned the horizon, or what he could see of it through the opening he'd made in the roof of the house his unit had commandeered as a forward position. He knew the Germans were out there somewhere, and they were coming toward them.
"See anything Tanner?" Second Lieutenant Giles asked, as he climbed up into the attic.
"Not so far. They have to come through here though, sir."
Giles, a tall, angular young man, who looked a lot older than his twenty years, came to stand beside him. "You sure?"
"Yebo, sorry I mean ya sir, see to your left is the wood, it's mostly brambles and scrub in there, no quick way though. On the other side the fields are newly ploughed, second crop of something I guess. Ploughed ground is hell to cross at anytime, takes time and there's no cover there. This is the obvious place for them to come through. They have to cross the canal behind us, and this is the only crossing around here, so they are gonna take the quickest route to it."
Giles smiled. It had been hard to get Sergeant Vincent 'Vin' Tanner to stop using Zulu words. Getting him to use the King's English and not some bastardised Afrikaans version had proved near impossible. At least it was now confined to the word 'yes'; most of the time.
"Right across those fields," he agreed.
They were the rear guard, or at least part of it, not that there was much left. The British Expeditionary force was in full retreat as the German war machine swept across northern Europe, carrying all before it. Unlike Vin, Giles wasn't regular army. Ever since their mission to France had gone to hell, he'd been relying on Tanner and his tracking and hunting skills. There had been seventy of them, a week ago - now there were twenty-three. Of those, two were too badly wounded to be of much use and another nine were walking wounded. The light company of the Wessex Rangers had been split in two. One half, under Captain Illingworth, had gone ahead to reconnoitre. The remaining two platoons, commanded by the experienced Lieutenant Embury had stayed behind. Illingworth and his men had disappeared. Embury's command came under sustained attack, the lieutenant and his sergeant being some of the first casualties. With Giles now in command, they had been forced to pull back. For three days they had been fighting and marching, trying desperately to get enough time and distance between them and the Germans to rest up and prepare some kind of defensive position. Finally they had found the lock keeper's cottage with its small collection of low outbuildings surrounded by a sturdy wall.
Some of the men were stationed behind the wall, some in the roof of the cottage, where they had removed some of the tiles to give them firing holes. Here they set up the Bren guns. Young private Collingwood had managed to contact HQ on the radio; not that it was much help. Their orders were to hold on as long as they could, to delay the Germans in any way possible. There was no word on Illingworth and his men. In their last communication, four days ago, they reported engaging the enemy in a small wood. After that, no one had been able to raise them on the radio and there had been no sightings of them.
Giles looked at Vin. "Tell me the truth Tanner, how long can we hold them here?"
Vin continued to scan the countryside for any movement. "Half a day, maybe, if they don't have a tank or artillery."
The lieutenant sighed. "That's what I thought ,too. It's not gonna hold them up much is it?"
Vin shook his head. "We'll take a good few with us," he added grimly. "Guess that's something."
Finally Vin took his eyes off the land, and glanced at his officer. Giles might only have been in the army six months or so, but he wasn't a complete novice. He'd been in the cadet corp at his public school, less than eighteen months ago. He'd told Vin once that he had been studying the history of architecture when the war broke out, and had given up his studies to fight.
"Or?" Vin asked.
"We take out the bridge and disable the lock gates. They'll have to either bring up bridging equipment or find another crossing."
Vin went back to watching. "Can't be that far to the next bridge."
"According to the map it's about four miles, but that one's in a town. Last I heard it was being held by a whole battalion of Frenchies."
Vin nodded, knowing the French troops would put up a good show and hold out as long as they could/ After all, they were defending 'their town', 'their people', not like the British who were mostly just doing what they were told and hoping to God they'd get to go home soon. "We've got no explosives, how are you gonna blow up a bridge and the gates?" Vin asked, returning to the matter at hand.
"We've got grenades. If I can get them to all go off together, that should be enough to blow the bridge or at the very least make it too weak to get a tank over it. The lock gates are easy; all I have to do is jam them. We open the gate and shove that old tractor and anything else we can find into the gap."
"Then I reckon that's what you should do, sir. But you better do it fast, because we've got company."
Giles turned around and followed Vin's gaze, but saw nothing. "Where?" he asked, field glasses at the ready.
"On the horizon, ten o'clock, by the hedge."
The glasses came up and Giles scanned the horizon. "Got them."
"Go, sir. Me and the boys 'll hold them off as long as we can."
There were no tanks, so far. Having been given command of the defence, while Giles and two men worked on the bridge and lock, Vin had made sure the men knew to make every shot count. So they waited, and waited and waited. Then, when Vin reckoned ninety percent of the Germans were in range, he gave the order for the Bren guns to open up. It was as spectacular as it was gruesome. The front rank of the advancing enemy troops were cut down, then the second. Even the third rank didn't get back fast enough. They lost almost half. But back up they did, retreating back to the last hedge they had negotiated and disappearing behind it.
The British troops cheered, until Vin shouted at them to stop and keep to their posts.
"Jerry doesn't give up that easy. He'll be back, so be ready," he warned them.
Sure enough, an hour later there was more movement. The British troops began firing again, the heavy Bren guns filling the small attic with noise and the acrid smell of cordite.
"Stop!" Nash shouted. He wasn't able to shoot, his right hand having been injured by shrapnel two days previous, so he was using the field glasses to spot targets.
"What?" Vin asked.
"They're using civilians as shields."
Vin picked up his own glasses and looked. Sure enough, the front line of the German troops were advancing, each one holding a terrified French civilian in front of him. "Bastards!" he cursed.
"Fucking cowards," someone else added.
"I'm not shooting at women and kids, Sarge, I just can't," Randle called out.
Vin said nothing; he just pulled the rifle all the way into his shoulder and targeted the head of the first German he saw. He slipped into the familiar routine. Pull back the stock, line up the target, take a deep breath, hold it, make final adjustments, squeeze the trigger, breathe out. The German's head snapped back, a fountain of red clearly visible as he fell. The elderly man he'd been holding ducked, but was unharmed. Vin didn't stop to see what happened then (Nash would do that) or acknowledge the plaudits of the other men, he just moved to the next target, and the next and the next. Some of the Germans began to fire back at the house, but they were too low and too far away to get even close to the men in the roof.
"Use your rifles, fire at them," Vin called to his men, between shots.
"We're not that accurate," Randle, a good shot in his own right, pointed out.
"They don't know that, just keep their heads down. Buy Mr. Giles some more time."
Heavy Bren guns abandoned, the men began to fire close to, but not at the enemy and their innocent shields, all the time Vin was picking them off, one by one. It worked; it worked so well the Germans stopped advancing and actually fell back some way. This time the British didn't celebrate, this time they stayed focused.
"What do you reckon they're up to this time?" Nash asked Vin.
"Waiting for help. Get downstairs, see how Mr. Giles is doing."
Only minutes later, Nash was back with orders that the wounded and walking wounded should get across the bridge, it was almost time to leave. Less then fifteen minutes later Vin himself was downstairs.
"We have to go!" he called as he ran toward Giles.
"I'm almost done, about ten minutes."
"Man, you gotta make it faster. Jerry's got a tank and he knows where to point it!"
Just then, a distant boom announced the arrival of the tank as a shell whistled overhead to land in a field on the far side of the canal.
"Not very good shots, are they?"
"They'll get better. Hurry man," Vin urged.
"Get every one across, only..."
Vin frowned. Corporal Gillespie was one of their two seriously wounded men. "We can't just..."
"We already have to carry Jones. Another stretcher case will just slow us up. He's dying, we both know that."
Gillespie had been hit in the stomach; the ragged wound was festering, despite their best efforts to keep it clean, he was burning with fever and no longer conscious. Just then, another boom was followed by the crashing explosion as part of the enclosing wall was demolished, along with some of the outbuildings.
"We don't have time for this, Sargeant, leave him," Giles ordered firmly. Then his eyes softened. "The poor man will never know."
Gillespie was one of Embury's men, and convincing them to leave him hadn't been easy, but as the shells began to demolish more of the house around them, there was little dissent. They made it over the canal only minutes before the roof of the house was hit, causing it to crash down into the rest of the house. The grenades had been lashed together with string, soaked in some brandy the lieutenant had found in the cellar, then the pins were pulled, so that now only the string was keeping them from blowing. The whole lot was slung under the bridge with another alcohol soaked string running from it. When the string was lit the flames would run down, burn off the string, the grenade's handles would snap open and seconds later, hopefully, the bridge would come down. The lieutenant was very hopeful, since the bridge didn't look to be in very good repair anyway. The lock gates were open and a tractor, along with several other, mostly unidentified, bits of rusty machinery, blocked them from closing.
The men, four of them carrying the unfortunate Jones, who had a broken leg, on a makeshift stretcher, headed down the road, toward some woods which would give them some cover from air strikes. Vin waited while Giles lit the fuse.
"You think it will work?" he asked.
"No idea." Giles flicked his lighter on, lit the string and stepped back. "It's in God's hands now. Shall we leave?"
The two of them sprinted to join the others; they were some fifty yards down the road when there were two almost simultaneous explosions. Turning they saw first the bridge then the roof of the house demolished.
"With any luck, they'll think they did it," Giles observed.
They marched on for the best part of two days without further incident. What communication they had with HQ was patchy at best. All they knew was they were to head to a place called Dunkirk. On the evening of the second day their luck ran out. In need of food, water and somewhere to spend the night, they approached what looked like a peaceful farm. Chickens were in the yard; a woman was hanging out washing. Little did they know a whole squad of SS troops were in the house holding her husband and daughter hostage. It wasn't a bloody affair; Giles was no fool. His men were tired, short of ammunition, may of them wounded. When faced with twice as many, fresh, highly-trained, probably fanatical Nazi troops, he surrendered.
While the terrified owners looked on, they were herded into the barn, all but Giles and the helpless Jones, whose stretcher was placed on the ground just beside the barn door. It was possible for some of the men, including Vin, to get a view of what was happening outside through the cracks and knotholes in the wood. The SS officer with the most braid - presumably the commander - was speaking to one of his subordinates. Giles stood a little way off to one side; there were at least ten more Germans in the immediate vicinity and others over by the house and road.
The German officer started speaking to Giles in German.
"Look, I don't speak German, parlez vous Français?"
The German just looked at him.
"My men are thirsty and hungry, some of them are wounded, they need medical attention," Giles persisted, pointing at Jones.
The German turned away from him.
"You are obliged under the Geneva conventions to provide us with food and water, as well as medical care. I demand you provide for my men."
Cha! Don't demand, he won't like that, Vin said to himself, as a deep feeling of foreboding descended on him.
The two German officers were talking to each other, the more junior laughed at something then turned and walked toward the barn, toward Jones. As Vin and the others watched, he drew his revolver, levelled it, and fired. The whole thing took no more than a few seconds.
The men weren't able to see what had actually happened.
"Fuck!" Randle exclaimed.
"Do you reckon he's... did that Jerry just...?" Nash stammered.
"Ya, he's dead," Vin told him coldly.
Outside, Giles had recovered the power of speech and was protesting. Shut up, shut up, shut up, Vin implored silently.
The more senior officer just looked at Giles as if he was a particularly boring tax clerk. Then, he removed his gun from its holster, raised it and placed the end of the barrel between Giles' eyes. The young lieutenant stopped speaking. As Vin watched he could see his lips moving, though no sound was coming from them. 'Please' he said. 'Please'.
Vin closed his eyes and turned away. When the shot came he felt physically sick. He walked away from the doors, wondering if he'd done enough, seen enough in his twenty-one years and knowing he hadn't. The barn doors opened, a dozen SS troopers stood there.
"Sechs!" one of them shouted, holding up six fingers.
The British troops backed up. By now Vin was at the back of the throng, being pushed back by the press of men.
"Sechs!" the man shouted again.
"No way I'm volunteering to go first," someone muttered, in a small voice full of fear.
The Germans didn't mind, outside the barn or inside it made no difference to them. They just lifted their guns and opened fire.
Buck watched Chris hand over the despatches to the French commander. He had come to the conclusion that French was an unnecessarily long-winded language. Everything seemed to take longer. All Chris had to do was hand over the papers. What was taking so long? They were in Lille; they didn't want to be in Lille, Lille was about to be overrun by a lot of Germans he didn't want to meet. True, the French were putting up one hell of a resistance. You had to admire their bravery, but it was a delaying action, nothing more.
"Come on, come on," Buck muttered impatiently.
Finally Chris stepped back, saluted the French officers and turned away.
"About time," Buck greeted him. "Why couldn't your mother have been plain old American instead of Canadian?"
Chris just rolled his eyes and headed for the door.
"No, really, I mean it," Buck continued as he followed him. "I mean, having you around to order a nice meal and get a good price for wine is one thing, but if it means we keep getting sent up to where the fighting is, that's a different story. A man could get hurt around here!" As if to emphasise the point, the Germans dropped another shell, so close the ground shook beneath them.
"Le Ferme, Buck."
"Now see, you think I don't know what that means, but I ain't that dumb, I know what it means."
"Really, so why don't you do it?"
Buck opened his mouth, then closed it.
They headed back to where they'd left their motorbikes. The quickest way out of town and back to the coast was the main road, but it was clogged with civilian refugees. With the bikes they could move faster than by car or truck, but progress was still slow and all the time the guns were getting closer. It was clear that the brave city of Lille and its defenders were about to be cut off, and if they didn't get out, they would be as well. It was a hot day; the sun was relentless and water scarce, adding to the collective misery. Then out of the sun came the planes. Buck thought they were ME110's, but in all honestly he hadn't been paying much attention in aircraft recognition, As far as he was concerned, if it shot at him it was bad, end of story. They swooped in low and strafing the road, killing and injuring indiscriminately. Everyone who could dropped what they were carrying or pushing, exited their vehicles and ran for the fields of corn on either side of the road. A woman ahead of Buck and Chris was trying to carry a baby and lead two small children. Without speaking or asking her, each man snatched up a child and ran either side of the terrified woman. They all lay in the corn, panting, children crying beside them. Suddenly there was an unholy screaming as Stuka's replaced the drone of the fighters. Diving out of the sun first one, then two, then three, dropped their bombs on the road. Two hit, the third went wide, exploding in the field on the far side of the road among the people sheltering there. It was carnage.
As soon as it was clear the planes had gone, Chris and Buck helped the woman to her feet. Chris was speaking to her, while Buck was already heading toward the road. He had no idea what he was going to do, what there was he could do, but he knew he had to help in some way. Chris was back beside him as he climbed up on to the road and looked across the field. A huge dark crater marred the even green of the crop. Bodies were everywhere, people were crying, screaming, calling for help.
"We have to help," Buck said softly.
"I don't know, but somehow."
They did help; they put strong backs to work carrying people back the road, to whatever could still carry them. They did what they could to stem blood flow with bandages made from anything that they could find; but in the end, it wasn't their job, these weren't their people.
"We have to go," Chris finally told this friend.
He knew Buck would hate this, Wilmington had always had a heart as big as an ox. He hurt when others hurt and found it hard to turn his back on anyone who needed help. It had made him a good cop and a friend like no other, but in war that big heart of his caused him great pain.
Buck looked at him, his uniform stained with the blood of others.
"It's no good Buck, we have to get back, we can't help them anymore."
"Don't make me order you, Sergeant."
They had been friends for a dozen or more years, the fact that Chris was a Captain and Buck only a Sergeant was rarely acknowledged when they were in private. In public, Chris giving Buck orders was almost like a game they played.
Buck looked over at his friend, the hurt in his eyes clear to see.
"There is nothing we can do here that others can't do as well. Come on, if we get captured we're no use to anyone, are we?"
Buck looked around him, the people were doing their best to get going again. For a moment Chris thought his friend was going to protest, but then he nodded once and turned away. Where their bikes had been, there was only a crater and a few scraps of mangled blackened metal, so they walked. They travelled on in silence for some time. Chris knew that when Buck was ready he'd talk, and what they had just seen and done would not be spoken of again, that was Buck's way.
What water they had been carrying was all gone, so the priority was to find more. The trouble was, when they reached a farm with a well, there was already a huge queue of people waiting to fill any container they could find. The Germans could overrun them at any time, but they waited in line like the others. Chris might have considered 'pulling rank' and going to the front, but he knew Buck would never countenance taking the place of thirsty woman and children, so they waited for an hour and a half.
"I've been asking about," Chris returned to Buck in the line. "We need to get off this road - right?"
There's a canal just head, we can follow the tow path west..."
"Thought we were heading north?"
"We are, after few miles it intercepts another canal and that goes north. The Jerrys aren't going to be putting tanks on a tow path, that's for sure."
"We'll be just as dead if a bullet hits us, but you're right."
Travelling at night might have kept them safer from the enemy, but with no flashlights - they had been on the bikes - tired and hungry as they were, walking on a tow path was just too dangerous/ They needed a place to hide up until morning. So, as dusk fell, they turned away from the canal and took a chance, as they sprinted across an open field toward some woods. They needed cover. The Germans were close, the guns were louder, and they could now not only see the smoke, but smell it as well. They planned to get deep into the wood, too deep for troops to march safely through. At least the weather was dry and warm. In the gathering gloom they found a dense bramble patch with that looked like a biggish tree in the center. Chris was about to think about trying to cut a way in, when Buck found a kind of tunnel. By lying on their bellies and wiggling, they just made it, though not with out a few scratches and snagged uniforms.
"Guess we know who made the tunnel," Buck announced, pointing at the badger set.
"They aren't going to like us bedding down with them," Chris said hesitantly
Buck tried not to laugh. "They're badgers Chris, not wolves. We don't bother them, they won't bother us - okay?"
Chris just nodded, but he was sure he'd read someplace that the badger has the most powerful bite - pound for pound - of any mammal, and he wasn't keen to test this theory.
They were able to make hollows under the brambles - as far from the badgers as possible - where they could sleep undetected, they hoped. And just for once they were grateful their uniforms were made of wool, at least it gave them some protection from the thorns. They lay there and listened all night. They heard the battle such as it was, they even heard the distant rumble of tanks with their distinctive squeak and rattle. Sometime in the small hours things grew quiet and both fell asleep for a time.
When they awoke everything was quiet. It was a warm, early summer's day, and if it hadn't been for the distant boom of the artillery some miles in front of them, it would have been perfect. The whole wood was carpeted with bluebells, birds sung and shafts of sunlight cut through the trees like ribbons of gold. Then they came across a patch of bluebells trampled to the ground, flattened by jackboots.
It took a few moments for Buck to realise they had both come to a standstill and were staring in silence at the destroyed flowers.
"Damn, I'm hungry," Buck announced.
"Yeah. Let's see if Jerry left anything."
Staying in the woods they continued to head east. Sometime later emerged on a lane that wasn't much more than a track, probably too narrow and winding for a tank. They turned left and walked down the lane for about a mile when they came upon a crossroads with a wider road and another small lane. There was a simple signpost, the first one they'd seen. Somehow, the local authorities had missed this one, having been systematically removing them to confuse the enemy.
"You got any idea were we are?" Buck asked as Chris studied his rather rudimentary army issue map.
Shaking his head, Chris put the map back into his pocket.
"Probably why they didn't bother to take the stupid thing down, doesn't help anyone," Buck commented, mostly to himself.
"We'll just have to ask someone," he told Buck as he picked up his rifle.
"Well let's try down here, there's no way a tank's been down there lately." Buck pointed to the even narrower lane opposite the one they'd just walked down.
Chris shrugged an okay; it was at least heading in the right direction. Moving alternately, they covered each other as they worked their way down the lane. After a while the ground began to drop even more steeply and the wood on both sides began to thin out. Eventually the wood came to an end and the lane continued between hedge bounded fields, toward a gate in front of a collection of farm buildings. The gate stood open and there was no sign of anyone. To one side, what had probably been a barn was now a smouldering ruin.
"What do you reckon?" Buck asked
Chris still had his field glasses to his eyes. "The land behind the house rises and it's covered in crops, I can't see any sign of anyone marching across it."
"Guess one of us should take a closer look."
"You stay, I'll look."
Buck watched Chris get closer to the buildings, his gun at his shoulder, ready, waiting for anything. Chris crept along the hedge line until he was at the gate. He looked back at Buck, who gave him thumbs up. Then he peeked around the gatepost. Outside the house he could clearly see the bodies of three civilians. The Nazis were ruthless, but even they didn't make camp with dead bodies lying around in this kind of weather. He turned back to the wood and waved Buck to him.
"Oh man!" Buck breathed when he reached him and saw the bodies. "Bastards!"
"Yeah, cover me, just in case."
Buck nodded and lifted his gun to his shoulder again. He watched Chris cross the open farmyard and check on the bodies before he moved into the house.
"Bonjour? Il y a quelqu'un?" he called as he entered.
Buck held his breath, half expecting this enquiry to be met by a hail of bullets, but there was just silence. Chris emerged a few minutes later, gun held at his side and waved. Knowing it was all clear Buck stood up and jogged over to him. The farmer and his family lay where they had been shot. The man a little in front of the woman, the teenage girl half under her mother. Neither man said anything; they just split up to check out the rest of the farm. While Chris moved toward the well house, Buck crossed to the burnt out barn. While the roof and doors were all but gone, no more than charred timbers, the brick walls were still standing. What caught his eye first was the body lying a little way in front of the barn doors. His stomach gave an involuntary lurch as when he saw that it was dressed in khaki. The British Lieutenant was on his back, a single, obscenely neat hole between his eyes. Buck didn't need to look to know the hole on the other side of his head wasn't so neat. Looking around he was further sickened to see a man on a stretcher, his left leg splinted, he too had been shot in the head, thought nowhere near as neatly.
He stood and looked at the barn. Why was it burnt? Why were these men shot? Why shoot the farmer and his family? Without his conscious command, his legs seemed to take him, step by step toward the gaping, blackened opening that had once been the doors. He didn't want to look inside. He already knew what he'd find, but he couldn't help it, his body seemed to have its own agenda.
Chris swore under his breath as he spotted the body of a dog to the side of the well house. Their real reason for coming to the farm was the urgent need for food and water. Pulling out his canteen, Chris pushed open the well house door. There were a couple of stone steps down to a flagstone floor. At the back of the small room stood a low wall. Above this was a beam, which had once held a simple winding gear, but from which now hung a block and tackle. A bucket was attached to the rope that ran over the block. Beside the well stood a couple of tall enamelled jugs. As his eyes became accustomed to the dim light, he noticed a dark mass in one corner of the room. Something about it spelled danger, and he instantly pulled his gun up. He was about to investigate further when Buck shouted his name. There was a quality in his voice that Chris had heard only once before and it sent shiver down his spine. Turning away from whatever it was in the darkness, he sprinted across the yard.
Buck was standing a little way back from the barn.
"What?" Chris asked as he ran up. Then he saw the two bodies. Tragic as it was, these deaths weren't enough to put that tone in Buck's voice or the look in his eyes.
Buck nodded toward the barn. Chris took a step toward it, but Buck's arm shot out across his chest, stopping him.
"You don't want to go in there," he instructed softly.
"So tell me what's in there - now."
"Men, don't know how many, they're all piled up at the back, looks like they were trying to get away."
Chris pushed Buck's arm down. "Brits?"
"Maybe twenty of them. This guy must be their officer." Buck tilted his head toward the body in the grass.
"And this poor guy couldn't stand." Chris looked at the man on the stretcher. Then he moved again toward the barn.
"Don't Chris, you don't need to see that, not...not again."
A burnt out building, bodies inside, blackened, charred, twisted by the heat into obscene positions, their flesh burnt back so that they seemed to be grinning, a hideous mocking smile of agony. He'd seen that. It was seared into his memory, never to be forgotten, burnt so deep and so hot, the memory of it had driven him to the edge. Could have driven him over, if one Buck Wilmington hadn't been there to keep him safe and pull him back from the precipice, when he was ready to take the hand of friendship that had always been there. Buck had tried to stop him looking that day too; he hadn't listened that time.
"Please Chris, don't," Buck pleaded. "I'll bury them."
Chris finally nodded. With that Buck took a step forward. "Stop," Chris commanded.
Frowning, Buck turned back. "Stop?"
"You can't bury them."
It was clear Buck didn't understand.
"We don't have the time. You reckon there's twenty or so of them?"
"We came here for food and water. We have to get back to the coast, or had you forgotten?"
"I'm not dumb, I know, but we..."
"Yes we can. We'll bury these two, the civilians as well, make some marker for them. But those poor guys." He shook his head. "There just isn't time. I'm sorry Pal, this is war."
"God damn it! I know that. That doesn't mean we have to behave like the ones that did this. That's why we're here isn't it?"
"Yes, I guess so." Chris pulled his hand through his close cropped blond hair. "Look at it this way, they're already cremated, it's not like we're leaving them to rot. You can't save everyone."
"Don't you think I know that!"
"I know. We'll make a note of the location, I'll write a report, when all this calms down someone will come back and identify them and bury them properly."
"Who? In case you haven't noticed, we're losing."
"The Germans obey the Geneva Conventions same as us," Chris countered.
"Oh really? Does this look like they give a rat's ass about any damn conventions?" Buck accused.
"Don't do this Buck. You know as well as I do you can't judge everyone by one incident. And we'll be back, we'll win - in the end, or don't you believe that?"
Buck bristled. It went against everything he believed to just abandon these men, but he had no answer to Chris' logic. Nothing was said, but after a few moments Buck turned away from the barn.
"Come on, let's get a drink, then we can find some food and some tools - okay?"
This time they both headed for the well house. Chris told Buck that he'd seen something inside so he held back while Chris investigated. He stood in the doorway for a few moments, letting his eyes get accustomed to the dim light, before he stepped down to investigate. Seconds later he called out.
"Buck, get in here!"
Buck found Chris kneeling beside something.
"What you got?"
"Looks like someone made it out of the barn."
With the door open Buck could see the dark mass was a man. His uniform down one side was blackened; blood covered his face and was matted in his hair.
"Is he alive?" he asked.
"Well, he's breathing."
With infinite care they lifted the man out of the dark well-house and carried him into the farmhouse Chris had scouted just a few minutes earlier, though it seemed like a lifetime to both men. There was a big central kitchen - come - living area, to one side a door lead to a very neat looking living room, which was no doubt only used on special occasions, and to the other, another door led into a bedroom, most likely that of the farmer and his wife. A steep, narrow set of stairs in the kitchen led up to the attic were there were two more bedrooms. They placed the man on the bed in the ground floor bedroom.
"I'll get some water," Buck said as he turned to go.
Chris just nodded, as he started to see what could be done for the young man. He did look ridiculously young as he lay there, yet he was a sergeant, just like Buck. His hair appeared to be a dark blond colour, though it was hard to tell under all the soot, grime and blood. The blood clearly came from the wicked looking wound on the side of his head, a ragged gash that ran backwards from just above his left ear. Chris carefully pulled out the man's ID tags and tried to read them.
"What's it say?" Buck asked as he returned, pouring water from a jug into the shallow china basin on the wash stand.
"Tanner, V J, Wessex Rangers."
"That makes sense, the other two are Wessex boys as well."
Chris turned his head at a sudden ripping sound. Buck was in the process of tearing a large white bed sheet into strips. "Found it on the line, reckon it would make good bandages. Just how burnt is he?"
Chris turned his attention back to his patient; he hadn't even tried to look under the uniform. It turned out Tanner had been lucky. His uniform was badly scorched, but under it he was relatively unscathed. He had some nasty looking burns on his shoulder and on one hip, but other than that and a few superficial scalds, he'd escaped the fire unharmed. The head injury was a different matter. From the look of the wound and its position, it looked to be a bullet crease. Chris and Buck had both seen men with bad head injuries get up, walk about and seem to be okay, only to pass out later and never come to again. Clearly, Tanner had been in the barn during the massacre but survived and had got himself to the well, before he collapsed. They stripped off his uniform, cleaned his wounds as best they could and bandaged his head.
Buck found the kitchen had been stripped of most of the easily consumed food, but for once the Germans hadn't been that thorough. He eventually found cheeses in the cellar, though since he didn't find even one bottle of wine he guessed the Germans had been down there. In addition there were links of home made cured sausage hanging in the chimney. These, along with some apples, made a very welcome breakfast, though Chris had to admit it he was so hungry he'd have eaten anything. They left Tanner on the bed while they wrapped the bodies in drapes and rugs then lowered them into the shallow graves they had dug.
Chris went back to check on Tanner while Buck headed out to climb the hill behind the house, hoping the view would give them some idea where they were and, more importantly, where the Germans were.
"Don't get spotted," Chris warned.
"You think? And there was me thinking I'd stand up there and whistle Dixie to them!"
"You know what I mean."
Buck shook his head. "I have done this before you know, once or twice."
Chris gave him a 'yeah, yeah' smile and waved him off. He wasn't even sure why he'd said it, Buck was right, he'd scouted more hilltops and look-outs than Chris cared to count.
Tanner was beginning to get restless, he felt warm and a sheen of perspiration had broken out on his forehead. He was muttering something, but Chris couldn't work it out. It sounded like no language he'd ever heard before. Filling a cup with some cool, freshly drawn water, he slipped his arm under Tanner's sweat-dampened neck.
"Come on, drink," he encouraged, as he held the cup to parched lips.
To his relief, his command was obeyed and Tanner managed to drink some water. To Chris' untrained eye, as he lay him back down, the young man looked more responsive. "Tanner, Sergeant Tanner, time to wake up." He gave Tanner's cheek a gentle pat. "Come on son, up and at 'm."
As he watched, Tanner's eyelids fluttered a few times then opened. He had bright blue eyes, eyes that were clearly having difficulty focusing.
"My name's Captain Larabee and you're safe." Then Chris added under his breath, "for the moment."
Tanner seemed to have focused because he tried to speak, but nothing came out but a rasping wheeze.
"Here, have some more water."
"Dank," Tanner rasped.
"I mean thanks." He drank some more then let his head rest back onto the pillow as Chris lowered him down.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Okay Vin, I'm Captain Chris Larabee, me and my sergeant found you, you're..."
Just then Chris noticed Vin's eyes seemed to glaze over, then close. "Come on wake up, no sleeping on duty." Chris shook him and tapped on his cheek, but it was no good, Vin was out again.
Unable to revive Tanner again, Chris spent some time locating boards and paint in the farm workshop, with which he made crude grave markers. Then he gathered all the supplies they could reasonably carry together and filled several empty wine bottles with water. Finally, he sat down beside the bed with his notebook and pencil and began to write a report on the their journey so far, and their discoveries at the farm. At the sound of heavy footsteps pounding across the yard, he dropped the half written report and grabbed his gun, just as Buck burst in through the door.
"Don't shoot, it's only me," he gasped, resting on the table, gulping in great mouthfuls of air.
"What's the big hurry?" Chris asked.
"We gotta get out of here. On the far side of the hill there's a canal, I swear this place is like Venice, with mud! Jerry's this side of it, our guys are on the far side, they're holding the bridge - for now. If we don't get through the line and over the bridge fast, we really will be cut off!"
"We'll never get Tanner over in broad daylight," Chris pointed out.
"I know that, besides it's gonna take us all day just to reach the front line, but on the far side of this hill there's more wood, if we can get into that unseen, we can creep right up to the bastards." Buck looked over to the bedroom door. "Did he wake up yet?"
"Briefly, his name's Vin, probably short for Vincent. We're gonna have to carry him, you know."
A full on Wilmington grin split Buck's handsome face. "Not necessarily."
"I am not leaving him here! God knows when someone will be by this way, and if it's the Nazis, who knows what they'd do to him, we..."
"Whoa, whoa there boy, no one's leaving the guy anyplace, I just may have found some alternative transport. Come out here."
Buck lead Chris up one side of the field for about twenty yards, to a second gate way. This lead into a steep field of grass, and in that field was a horse. From the look of things the mare wasn't that tall, perhaps no more than 15 hands, and as wide as she was tall.
"We catch her, rig up some saddle bags, she's already wearing a halter, then the sergeant can ride on her. If need be, we'll tie him on."
"We may have to. Okay you get her into the yard, I'll start getting Tanner dressed."
"No let me, I've had an idea." With that Buck was running back to the farm,
Chris shook his head, he really never had known were his friend got all his energy. Picking a big bunch of sweet clover he climbed over the gate and into the field. The horse, who was a deep liver chestnut colour, didn't prove difficult to catch. She was only too happy to amble over to Chris and be led back to the farm. The clover was just an added treat.
On reaching his destination and having located a rope, not that the horse seemed to have any desire to go anywhere, Chris tied her to a door handle in the yard and went back into the house. In the kitchen he found two sacks tied up and connected by a length of rope, ready to go over the horse's withers, there was also a pile of clean sheets an a quilted bedspread, no doubt to make Vin's ride more comfortable. But it was what he found in the bedroom that would haunt him for the rest of his life!
It was true that the dead farmer and his wife had been robustly build, so any clothing of theirs would easily fit the rather slim Tanner. It was true that his own uniform was scorched, stained with blood (not all of it his) and dirty. It was true that he had open wounds - burns - on his shoulder and hip and that the coarse, dirty uniform would do them no good, so putting him in some of the farmer's clean clothing made sense. What didn't make sense was way Buck had placed what was clearly a woman's blouse on the bed and was now going through what seemed to be the poor dead woman's underwear draw.
"What the fuck!" Chris exclaimed as Buck triumphantly pulled out a pair of ivory coloured bloomers.
Buck just grinned at him. "Silk," he said by way of an explanation.
"These are silk, we put them on over the burns and they won't stick so bad, plus silk don't leave little bits of fluff behind like cotton or wool." Chris looked sceptical. "Oh come on, the poor guys been through enough, we've both seen and heard guys having bandages pulled off burns to know what that's like. I swear my mother always said, silk was best against raw skin. If I skinned my knee, she used to cut a bit out of this old gown she had and use it as a bandage."
Chris did know what torture even small burns could be. That was why they'd pulled all Tanner's clothes off and placed him on his side, then arranged the sheet over him so his shoulder and hip weren't touching it. He just didn't want to have to explain to the young man when he woke up again, why he was wearing woman's silk draws.
"Okay, let's do it," he finally relented.
"Trust me, he'll thank us - eventually."
With the silk on, they pulled on some of the other civilian clothing they had scrounged from the house. Vin came to for a moment, but he was clearly disorientated and lapsed back into unconsciousness after only a few minutes.
"He feels kinda warm," Buck commented.
"I know. Come on, let's get this show on the road."
Once dressed in their own civilian attire, Chris' much too big and Buck's too short, but in the hot weather it wasn't so noticeable, they put Vin up on the apparently ever-patient horse. Buck wanted to name her Marianne, after a particularly obliging French girl he'd once known. Chris said Marianne was too long and so they called her Annie. Vin lay over her broad back, like some cat lazing the branch of a tree. Buck threw one of the clean sheets over him and secured it under Annie's belly. Then they covered him in a dark green bedspread they'd found, which at least wasn't as visible as the white sheet. Chris had his service revolver tucked into the waistband of his trousers, under his shirts. Buck had the dead lieutenant's revolver similarly concealed. Their long rifles had been abandoned, there was just no way to carry a rife and conceal it. So with firing pins removed and stones forced down the barrel, they had buried them.
No one challenged their progress to or through the wood, indeed they didn't even see anyone, other than troops moving on distant roads. As dusk fell they were approaching the edge of the wood. The one thing they didn't need to do was disguise the noise they were making, the guns and vehicles were doing that for them.
The battle seemed to have stalled a mile or so from the bridge. Between the canal and the wood there was little cover. They would have to get past the German line and then, under the cover of total darkness negotiate their way to the water's edge and along the tow path to the bridge and just hope their own side didn't shoot them. They had a cover story if stopped, but prayed they wouldn't have to use it. After coaxing Vin to drink a little water, and consuming some of their cheese and sausage, they set out.
They had been travelling for no more than fifteen minutes when the sound they dreaded most stopped them in their tracks.
"Pardon?" Chris answered in French as he and Buck stood stock still.
There was another slightly longer command in German. Assuming, indeed hoping, it meant 'turn around' they did this very slowly.
The two German sentries said something else in German.
"Je suis desole, je ne parle pas allemand," Chris said, making sure he spoke slowly and clearly, hoping the Germans had at least been given some basic French phrases.
One of them said something to the other then shouted over his shoulder. A few moments later a third German arrived with a rather terrified looking civilian, a man of about fifty, with a small moustache and wearing what had once been a halfway decent suit. There was a brief conversation in German then the man turned to Chris and addressed him in French, asking who they were and where they were going.
Chris launched into their prepared story. His name was Christophe Labre, his young brother Vincent and their cousin had been travelling out of Lille when bombers attacked the road. Vincent had been hurt and they were taking him to their aunt, who was a nurse.
The man, who was clearly acting as a translator, turned to Buck and asked him if this aunt was his mother. Chris explained that 'David' was simple and didn't speak. Buck hadn't been to keen to act the simpleton, but it was the best way to explain his lack of French. True Buck could make himself understood in Spanish, but that was no easier to explain away and there was just no disguising his American accent. You didn't have to be Spanish to know that Buck was no Spaniard, no matter how well he spoke the language. Chris got the distinct feeling from the way the poor man was acting that the translator was acting under duress and that possibly one of the German's did speak French and he and Buck we being 'tested'. The man asked him if he was trying to cross the canal, and added that if he was could he take a message. Chris reiterated that, he was just trying to get his young brother to some help. The translator turned away from Chris and spoke to the Germans in their own language. He must have known Chris wasn't a native of France. He might be giving them away, or covering for them, there was just no way to know.
They were still speaking in German, when Vin began to moan. Chris turned away and pulled out one of the wine bottles filled with water and walked to Vin's side. He implored him to be silent, as he held the bottle so that he could drink, praying he didn't say anything.
"Chut! Petit frere, silence, silence maintenant, chut," he whispered urgently.
With his back momentarily to their audience, he placed a finger on his lips when he saw Vin's eyes open a fraction. While he did this, Buck, standing at the horse's head, was shielded from the Germans. He used this moment to pull his revolver and place it in the voluminous pocket of the jacket he wore, keeping his hand on the weapon. Giving Vin one more imploring look, and a tiny nod of the head to Buck, Chris turned back.
"S'il vous plait monsieur, nous devons l'emmener chez notre tante," Chris tried again, hoping he was a good enough actor, as he pleaded be allowed to get Vin to safety.
There was more discussion in German. One of the soldiers came forward and searched the sacks hanging over Annie's flank. He seemed uninterested in the cheese but took the sausage; he sniffed at the content of the wine bottles but was clearly unimpressed by their contents - water. Then he stepped back and took a long look at Vin. After this he turned to Buck, who was standing with his eyes down, holding the halter rope. Jamming the muzzle of his gun under Buck's chin he forced it up, laughing when the action opened a small cut. He called over to his friends; whatever he said made the translator cringe.
Just then there was huge boom. The night sky behind them lit up, illuminating the outline of a tank, seconds later, a second explosion and flashes some distance away. Annie tossed her head and tried to shy away from the noise. Buck almost blew their cover, by speaking to soothe her, but just in time he restrained himself and just patted her. Clearly the German tanks had caught up with their infantry and were shelling the British held bridge. The Germans turned to face the action; then, shouting over their shoulder started to jog up the track, back toward the tank.
"Nous pouvons y aller," their translator said clearly. "Bonne chance Tommys," he added softly, before he, too, turned, and in response to shouts from the Germans, broke into a run.
Chris turned away and nodded down the track.
"What happened?" Buck whispered.
"We can go. He knew we were British army. Poor guy, I don't reckon he volunteered for that job. I hope he makes it."
"Guess they reckon they'll be over the bridge soon and they don't want to miss the action."
"Probably. The question is what are we gonna do now?"
Their plan had been to sneak across the no man's land between the Germans and the bridge before the real battle started, but it was too late to do that now.
"Make our way to the water, hope there's a boat or something? Hell all we need is a log for Tanner, we can swim if we need to," Buck pointed out.
They made it to the hedge with no further incident, keeping close to a big hedge which was casting deep black moon shadows. The water, when they reached it, was like a ribbon of silver, snaking through the dark land. It was wider than they had thought, but once more luck was with them. Fortune was indeed favouring the brave. Their side of the canal wasn't very deep and on the far side, not very far down stream, there was a place were cattle had been down to drink.
"We don't need a boat," Chris announced.
"What about junior here?" Buck looked up at Vin.
"He stays right were he is, on Annie, and she swims with us."
Buck thought a moment, then looked at the big horse. "What do you reckon old girl, up for a midnight dip?"
She lowered her head and nuzzled at his hand.
"I think that means yes," Chris commented.
They pushed the food, guns and boots up onto her back with Vin, hoping to keep them dry, then led the horse down to the water. She hesitated, dropped her big head to sniff and then drink deeply, finally she followed Buck as he waded into the water. The bottom dropped steeply and all three of them were soon swimming. Annie seemed to take the swimming in her stride, though the bangs and flashes from the battle worried her. Buck swam at her head, managing to keep up a litany of soothing words. Chris swam at her flank, a hand on Vin's leg, keeping him steady. Considering it was no more than fifty yards, it seemed to take forever before Annie's feet once more touched dry land. They had barely made it up onto the bank when Annie began, not unnaturally, to shake. Chris had to grab Vin before he slid off.
They pulled off their wet clothing and pulled their uniforms back on. Removing the dark cover so that the white sheet was clearly visible, they headed off in what they hoped was the right direction to intersect the bridge road. After about half an hour, they were close.
"Halt!" someone shouted. "Who goes there?"
It was wonderful sound, a rich voice with a thick Cockney accent.
"Captain Larabee, 2nd Green Rifles," Chris shouted back.
"Advance and be recognised."
They walked a few paces forward and were nearly blinded by the light shone in their eyes.
"So who are these two?" the sentry demanded.
"Sergeant Wilmington, 2nd Green Rifles," Buck answered. "And this is Sergeant Tanner, Wessex Rangers, we found him. Oh, and Annie, we mustn't forget her." Buck gave the horse a tender pat.
"We need a medic urgently," Chris told the sentry.
"Just where are you two from? You sound like Yanks."
"That's 'cause we are Yanks," Buck explained. "Now where can we find a doctor for the sergeant?"
The sentry looked at them one more time, then put up his gun. "Go on as you're going, you'll come to the road, head away from the bridge, there's an aid station down the road, got themselves a Frenchie doctor, but the fellers who've seen him say he's okay."
Dawn was paling the sky when they reached the aid station. A bed sheet, with a red cross painted on it, hung from an upper window of what had probably been a school. A few men slept in the garden come playground, most of them with bandaged wounds of some kind. Leaving Annie tied up at the gates, they lifted Vin down and carried him between them into the building.
"Hello!" Chris called as they entered. "We need a doctor."
"That's what they all say," came the reply, in an unmistakably southern drawl.