WWII Universe: Larabee's Lepers
Characters: Chris, Vin, Buck, JD and Ezra
OC(s): Therese Donay, Jean-Michel, Mari-Claire, Joseph, Dieder and Louis. Please don’t borrow them unless you ask J
Synopsis: This is based on an episode of Garrison’s Gorillas, titled "Run From Death". There are differences, but I’ve tried to keep the majority of the episode intact.
Webmaster Note: This story was previously hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in September 2012.
Vin Tanner leapt agilely in the window of the abandoned building. With the ease of a man used to moving soundlessly, he took a turn around the dark room, checking for signs of a trap. They were deep inside enemy territory and it didn’t pay to be lax.
Seeing that no one was around, the young con-turned-soldier crept back to the window and whistled. He held a semi-automatic machine gun easily in one hand, but with a slight shift, he would be holding it with a deadly accuracy that would make short work of anyone foolish enough to go against him.
One by one the other members of the elite group known as “Larabee’s Lepers” entered the building through the same window that Tanner had used. Soon, five men gathered around a dusty table, where Lieutenant Chris Larabee, their leader, lit an oil lamp. He looked at each of the members of his team in attendance. Only Sergeant Major Josiah Sanchez and Corporal Nathan Jackson were missing. Influenza had stricken the little town near their headquarters back in England, and the two soldiers had stayed behind to help tend the ill.
Vin “Chief” Tanner stood easily, leaning against the table while he chewed on a piece of straw he’d picked up somewhere. Beside him, JD Dunne was perched on the corner of the table. Buck Wilmington and Ezra Standish were standing beside the table as well. All five pairs of eyes were trained on Lieutenant Christopher A. Larabee.
“So, Warden, where is he?” Dunne asked; an impatient tone in his voice.
“He’ll be here,” Larabee reassured.
“Are we certain that we can trust him?” Ezra Standish asked softly.
“I’ve worked with him before, he’s a reliable man.”
Suddenly, Chief’s head cocked and he stood away from the others. With an air of certainty, the young con said, “Sh. Someone’s outside.” With that, he sprinted across the room and all but flew out the window.
The others crouched beside the table, their weapons at the ready. Buck blew out the flame in the lamp, throwing them all back into darkness. Then, the four men stared in shocked surprise as Tanner came in the front door, preceded by another figure. This one was petite, dressed in the garb of a country peasant. When the angry words of protest issued forth in French at being so roughly handled, the men realized quickly that the person in the faded, canvas pants and loose top was no gentlemen. They were in the presence of a lady. Or as JD so succinctly put it,
“Hey, it’s a dame!”
“Let me go! How dare you!” Came the screamed protests in the language of the land. “Let me go! I have done nothing to you!”
Motioning to Tanner to put away the weapon, Larabee addressed their visitor in French. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
Ignoring the questions, the young woman asked, “I’m a friend. Are you Lieutenant Larabee? I was told to speak only to Lieutenant Larabee.”
“Told? By who? Just who are you, lady?”
“My name is Therese Donay. Claude told me where to find you.”
“Claude? Where is he?”
Shrugging, the woman said evasively, “He was detained… I am to take you to him.”
“Where?” The Lieutenant was becoming frustrated. “Where is he?”
“I will take you to him,” The woman who identified herself as Therese Donay insisted.
“Look, lady, I don’t have time to play games with you. Now, tell me where the man is… now.”
“You can trust me. Claude told me who you were and why you are here,” The woman said, her French accent heavy as she spoke in English now. “I will take you to him.”
Larabee studied the young woman for a full minute before nodding curtly. “All right. Be warned, though. One false move and you won’t live to sell us out.”
“I told you, you can trust me,” Therese tried once more to convince the man of her sincerity. When she saw that all of the men continued to look at her with distrust, she gave up. Standing, she canted her head. “Follow me.”
They walked warily through the woods, the young woman in the lead. As they reached a road, Therese Donay walked out onto the rutted dirt, glancing briefly to each side as she made her way to the other side. She was in the middle of the thoroughfare before she noticed that they weren’t alone. A Nazi vehicle sat off to the side, two soldiers standing nearby.
“Halt!” One of them ordered.
Therese stood stock still, shocked by the order. She held her arms slightly away from her sides as she turned to face the Germans. Then she jumped and screamed as gunfire rang out and the two soldiers fell to the ground, dead. Turning to the five men, emerging from the woods, she screamed, “Why did you do that!?”
Coming to stand near the woman while his men checked on the downed soldiers, Larabee said, “Because we couldn’t take a chance.”
“I could have gotten rid of them!” She insisted, tears streaming down her face.
“Or given us away,” Vin said softly as he came to stand near the Warden.
“I would not!” Therese cried out, still on the verge of hysteria.
Leveling an even stare at the woman, the lieutenant simply replied, “We couldn’t take a chance.”
The six travelers moved quietly through the darkness, the men following the young woman who remained an unknown quantity. Chris kept her close, not letting her get out of his sight. She glanced up at him from time to time, studying the handsome man. There was an outward appearance of coldness, but she could see something else beneath it. Hidden beneath the all business soldier was a kind, decent man, she was certain of it.
Just before dawn, the travelers reached a battered and bomb-riddled compound. Therese led the way around a variety of obstacles, taking them directly to the front door. She pushed it open and continued inside, knowing that the men were behind her. The young woman retrieved a lantern, lighting it so that they could see to travel through the building. Like the landscape outside, it was filled with violent evidence of the war.
Therese led them along a corridor, moving farther and farther into the building. The men behind her were on the alert, knowing far too well how quickly thing could change. If this were, indeed, a trap, they would be ready.
“What is this place?” JD asked the quiet man beside him.
“It was a convent,” Ezra Standish replied in a sad yet near-reverent tone.
Looking around him at the signs of destruction, the younger man shook his head. “A convent… why would anyone want to destroy a convent?” When no one had an answer for him, he simply shook his head again and followed behind the others.
They soon reached their destination, a tiny courtyard deep within the convent. The men stopped as they realized that the courtyard was littered with roughly made grave markers. The woman made her way through their number and came to a stop behind one of them. Turning to regard the men, she laid a hand on the marker. “I found Claude here three days ago. He had been shot… badly wounded, and had lost a great deal of blood. He died a day later. Before he did, he told me that he was to meet you, and why. He asked me to meet you, and to tell you that the contact he was to take you to meet is also dead.”
Chris’ shoulders slumped and he heaved a sigh. Rubbing a hand over his face, he looked at the woman. “When? When did the contact die?”
“He died one week ago, in a prison camp near here.”
“A week ago! Why didn’t you tell us sooner? Why bring us all the way here to show us a grave?”
“I knew it, Warden!” JD exclaimed angrily. “She wants to sell us out!”
Raising a hand to silence the young hothead, Larabee turned his attention back to the woman. “I want the entire story. Now. Just what’s going on?”
“I will explain, soon.” She looked directly at the tall blond. “If you will come with me?”
Again Chris studied her, uncertain as to just how far he was willing to go with the woman. Then he nodded. Turning to his men, he ordered, “You men look around, make sure we’re safe.” As they nodded in agreement, he turned and followed Therese out the door.
In the hallway, Larabee studied the shadows around them, watching for signs of attack. A sound caught his attention and he turned in time to see their guide disappearing around a corner. With a growled oath he took off at a dead run, chasing her. Reaching an intersection in the corridor, he glanced in each direction. Cursing once more, he tried to decipher where Donay had gone.
While Larabee was busy trying to find the young woman, Wilmington and Standish were investigating the cellar. They had just decided that there was no threat there, and turned to leave, when a soft sneeze caught their attention. Wheeling around, the two men held their guns at the ready.
“Come out here,” Ezra ordered in several languages. As he repeated the order in French, a pair of hands rose above the rim of a barrel. They were followed by the figure of a small boy who regarded them with wide, fear filled eyes.
“What the – “ Buck stammered.
“What are you doing here?” The suave con asked in flawless French. Before he received his answer, another child appeared from another barrel. And then another, and another. Very quickly, three boys and a tiny girl were facing them.
The tallest and, presumably, oldest boy announced, “We surrender.”
Just then, the Warden appeared at the top of the stairs, followed by Tanner and Dunne. Larabee wanted to gather his men and warn them of the fact that Therese had disappeared on him. Casting a questioning glance at the two men below, he asked, “What’s going on here?”
“We caught some desperate criminals here, Lieutenant,” Buck explained, a broad smile on his face. “They just surrendered to us.”
Coming down the stairs, Chris motioned to the children, announcing in French, “Put your hands down, you’re safe.”
The five men gathered at the bottom of the stairs, studying the children. Frowning, Vin asked, “Who put ‘em down here?”
“I put them down here.”
The men startled, each silently cursing the fact that they had allowed themselves to become distracted. Looking up the stairs, they were surprised to see the young woman who had led them here. Only now she was wearing a nun’s habit.
“A nun?” JD asked no one in particular. “In the underground?”
“I am not a nun, nor am I in the underground,” Sister Therese corrected him.
“Then what ‘re ya doin’ in that get-up?” Tanner asked softly.
“She’s a novice… she’s studying to become a nun,” Buck explained. If it had anything to do with the fairer sex, Wilmington would know about it. Even those things that kept a woman from becoming one of his conquests.
Deciding he had other questions he wanted answered first, Larabee pointed to the children, now gathered around the woman. “Who are they?”
“Their parents are… were… resistance fighters. They were killed two weeks ago in a raid. I had promised them that I would look after their children if anything happened to them.”
The blond shook his head. He was beginning to have an inkling as to what the woman was planning, but hoped he was wrong. “You still haven’t explained why you let us come here without getting word to us about our contact. Why did you risk our lives?”
Therese spoke softly to the children and moved away from them, coming to stand in front of the Lieutenant. Peering up into his face, she said, “You have a way out of here. I promised their parents that I would do everything in my power to see that they got to England.”
Larabee glared at the woman, fisting his hands on his hips. “No.”
“You have to! They are just children, and they are in danger!” The novice exclaimed.
“Sister, there are children all over who are in danger. We can’t rescue them all.”
“But these children are different. The Germans will do anything to capture them, for the simple fact of who their parents were. You must help me get them to safety!”
Chris simply shook his head, his expression growing cold. “I said no.” Turning toward his men, he said, “All right, our ride home will meet us in two days…”
As the soldiers began to plan what they would do until they left the area, Therese returned to where the children waited patiently. As soon as she neared, they began to clamber, asking her when they would be leaving. Kneeling before them, she held out a hand for quiet. “Hush, hush now.”
“When are we leaving, Sister?” The oldest boy, Jean-Michel, asked.
“Will we go on a ship… a big ship?” The youngest boy, Joseph, questioned.
On the other side of the cellar, Larabee and his men were gathered in a tight circle, discussing their plans. None of the men could block out the questions the children were asking; couldn’t stop the feelings of guilt that crept up on them at the thought of leaving them behind. Even those who couldn’t understand the language could understand the intent of the little voices.
Finally, JD voiced the thoughts they were all having. “I feel like a bum.”
Leveling a stern look at his men, Larabee said, “Well, stop it. We can’t drag them all over the countryside with us. It’s not safe.”
Staring pointedly around them, at the battle scarred basement, Vin said softly, “And this is?”
The blond glared at him, but said nothing.
Across the room, Sister Therese slid a furtive glance toward the men. She found it difficult to hide her smile as she turned toward her small charges.
Morning saw Vin and JD busily working on a truck that the Sister insisted had run… once. Dunne knew everything there was to know about any vehicle you could name. He could drive them, repair them and even build them. But for a while, it looked as if this vehicle would prove the young con’s downfall. Finally, however, they got it running.
Chris moved to where Standish sat, surrounded by the children. He stifled a grin as he watched the girl, Mari-Claire, wrap her little arms around the fastidious man. To his surprise the lieutenant watched Ezra smile and pat her arms, speaking to her softly. Shaking his head, he announced, “We’re ready to go.”
Nodding, Standish spoke to the children in their native tongue. When cries of protest rang out, he asked them what was going on.
“We cannot leave without Louie!” Jean-Michel announced.
“Yes, Louie. We cannot leave without him!”
Ezra frowned. There had only been four children in evidence as long as they had been there: Jean-Michel, Mari-Claire, Joseph and Dieder. There was no one named Louis that he was aware of. Turning back to the older boy, he asked, “Who is Louie, Jean-Michel? I’m not certain who you’re speaking of.”
Rather than answering, the children scampered off toward the building. A few minutes later, they returned with a large, mongrel dog. He wore a leather collar with a rope for a leash. Jean-Michel led the beast toward the man, his face lit with a proud smile.
“This is Louie! He is our friend and our protector. He must come with us!”
With a chuckle, the suave conman nodded. “Yes, Louie must come with us.”
Ezra started at the loud call, turning toward the speaker. Larabee was standing near the truck with the others, staring pointedly at him. Tossing a brief wave toward the man, he got the children gathered up in preparation for departure.
Nearby, Buck Wilmington was walking across the rubble, searching for Sister Therese. When she appeared in a doorway, he smiled and moved toward her. Seeing her all but dragging a large suitcase, he said, “Here, let me get that.” Then as he hefted the heavy piece of luggage, he added, “I thought nuns traveled light.”
Therese regarded him coolly. “Are you worried that I have a bomb?”
“No,” Buck said evenly.
“You do not trust me,” the woman observed.
“I didn’t say that.”
Shaking her head, she said, “You did not have to. I am not certain why, though.”
“Why?” Buck repeated. When she nodded, he said with a faint smile, “That’s easy, Sister. I don’t trust you because you remind me of myself. I’m not sure why… yet… but you do.”
Larabee was pacing back and forth behind the truck. The sun was far too high in the sky, they were behind schedule. He watched as Buck flirted with the Sister and Ezra continued to play with the children. It was as if the men had forgotten that there was a war going on. Stopping, he turned to face the men, hands on his hips and a frown on his face. Once more he called out, “Let’s go!”
Buck carried Therese’s bag, escorting her to the truck. Quickly behind them, Ezra ushered the children forward, carrying a large gunny sack over one shoulder. As the entourage reached the truck, they all paused to look at the Warden expectantly.
Chris looked first at Ezra and then at the hairy beast standing in the midst of the children. Pointing a finger at Louie, he asked, “What the – what is that?”
“This,” Ezra said with a lilt in his voice, “Is Louie. And this,” He handed the sack to the blond and climbed into the back of the truck, “this is his food. Louie must come with us, because he is the friend and protector of the children.”
Glaring at Standish as he tossed the sack back at him, Larabee muttered, “This just keeps getting better and better.”
It took a few minutes to sort everyone out. Therese, the children, Louie, and three of the men climbed into the back of the truck. There they would be hidden by the heavy canvas that covered the bed. Larabee climbed into the cab beside Dunne. Nodding toward the road ahead, he said softly, “Let’s go, JD… let’s get this circus on the road.”
They had been on the road for less than an hour when the next problem arose. The only road from the bombed out convent toward friendly territory took them right by the soldiers they had killed the night before. Just as they passed the bodies and the truck, Larabee caught sight of a German patrol behind them.
Dunne caught sight of the enemy soldiers as well, and instinctively pushed down on the accelerator.
“Damn it, Dunne! Slow down, the last thing we want to do is to call attention to ourselves!”
“But we can outrun them!” JD argued. Then a glare caught him from the passenger seat and he begrudgingly let up on the gas.
Chris watched the car slow down and stop beside the men they had come up against the night before. Turning back to the dark-haired con, he said evenly, “Keep it nice and slow. So far they don’t seem to be interested in us. But, as soon as we’re out of sight, floor it.”
A determined look in his hazel eyes, the team’s driver nodded, keeping track of not only the road ahead of them, but that behind them as he watched for any sign of pursuit.
In the back of the truck, the other cons and their charges held on tightly to whatever they could find. Therese held onto the tiny girl beside her, while across from her, Ezra held tightly to Louie’s collar.
Ahead of them, in the cab of the vehicle, Chris monitored the road behind them. As soon as the enemy soldiers were out of sight he ordered, “All right, JD, let’s get out of here.”
Dunne stomped on the accelerator and the old truck bounced down the road, the engine straining as the driver forced it toward its top speed. Neither man said anything more, too busy watching for signs of pursuit.
The sun was nearing its zenith when they pulled over to the side of the road. The truck was making strange sounds and Dunne was cursing with every sputter. While he fumed beneath the hood, the rest of the party climbed out of the big vehicle. Chris and Vin poured over a map while Buck and Ezra kept watch.
Pointing to a spot on the map, Larabee said, “There’s a bridge up ahead, Chief. We need to scout it out.” When the younger man nodded, they started off.
“Ezra, Buck, we’ll be back in ten minutes.” As the two cons nodded in acknowledgment, the blond continued on, the other young con beside him.
A few minutes later, the two men were crouched in bushes along the side of the road, near the bridge. Frustration crossed both faces as they saw several soldiers standing behind heavy barriers. Larabee looked at Tanner and said quietly, “We’re going to have to clear them out. There’s no other way across unless we add several hours to our time. Come on; let’s get back to the others. I think I have a plan.”
Therese Donay looked up as the tall, handsome blond approached her. With a tentative smile, she said, “Are we ready to go?”
“Not yet, Sister. I wanted to talk to you about the children.”
The color drained from the woman’s face, fearful that he would once again refuse to help her get the little ones to safety. Finding her voice the young woman said softly, “All right.”
Stepping away from the others, the soldier turned to face the novice. “Sister, we’re not certain of what we’re going to find up ahead. I’m concerned about the children; that they’ll panic if we should come up against more soldiers.”
“Lieutenant, I understand your concern, but I assure you, these children know only too well how to handle themselves in the face of danger.”
“I hope you’re right, Sister. However, I want your reassurance that you’ll keep them calm and quiet through the rest of the trip.”
Therese was confused. She could understand the soldier being concerned, but her four charges had, so far, maintained themselves calmly. Nonetheless she nodded her agreement. “I assure you, Lieutenant Larabee, that the children will be fine.”
With a nod of his own, Larabee said, “That’s all I can ask, Sister. Thank you.”
The sentries standing behind the barricade watched with mild curiosity as the black-clothed figure approached. The nun moved quickly, despite the fact that her head was down and her hands were hidden in the folds of her habit. By the time they became aware of the fact that something was odd about the holy woman, it was far too late.
Vin Tanner looked up as he came within a few yards of the barricade. Blue eyes flashing with a predatory look, he swung the machine gun he carried, upward, firing as he did. The soldiers fell before they could react enough to draw their own weapons in return.
Just as the young con began to pull the nun’s uniform off, the others arrived in the truck. Before Dunne had stopped the vehicle, Therese leapt from the back and dashed toward Tanner with an enraged cry. She began striking at him, screaming angrily.
“How dare you! Take it off! You have no right! It is mine!”
The Chief deflected her blows as he tried to finish taking off the borrowed outfit. “Hey! Lady, stop!”
Larabee sprinted up and grabbed hold of the young woman’s arm. “Sister, stop! He was following my orders!”
Therese rounded on him, fire in her dark eyes. “You! What gives you the right!? Is nothing sacred to you!?”
Pain flared and died in the blond’s hazel eyes, to be replaced by anger. In a heated voice, he replied, “Yes Sister… life is sacred to me. All life!” With that, he stormed away.
Vin finished removing the habit and handed it to the woman. She snatched it away and stormed back toward the truck. He watched her, then his attention was drawn by something else. A sound. Turning toward the blond lieutenant, he called out, “Warden! Truck’s comin!”
The others heard them, now, too. Larabee hurried over to where Dunne was standing near the truck. “JD, you remember that farm house we passed coming in, the one I pointed out as a possible rendezvous point?”
Frowning briefly, Dunne said, “Yeah.”
Nodding, the blond said, “Take the others there and wait. Tanner and I will stay here and hold them off as long as we can.”
JD didn’t like it. None of them liked it when Larabee put himself in danger. Not that he was particularly worried about the man himself. It was simply that he knew he’d be sent back to prison if the man died. They all knew that Larabee was their one hope of getting through the war and receiving their pardon. All of that flashed through the youngest con’s mind in a second, while all he said was, “You got it.”
The others were on their way a minute later. Larabee and Tanner replaced the barriers and positioned themselves on either side of the road right in front of them. The dead soldiers had been moved out of sight, making it look as if the sentry post was untended. Just then two vehicles approached in single file. The two men opened fire, spraying bullets across the road, the front vehicle, and the soldiers inside. The Nazis opened fire in return, the two men ducking down to avoid being shot.
Vin cursed, calling across to the other man, “I’m out!”
Larabee knew his own weapon would be empty soon. Turning, he spotted a pair of motorcycles off to the side. “Chief! Get those bikes running!”
Spotting the motorcycles, Tanner nodded. Dropping his useless weapon, he sprinted toward them, staying as low to the ground as he could. Reaching the bikes he straddled one and hit the ignition. Rewarded with a low purr, he smiled before moving to the other bike. As soon as he had them both running, he waved to the soldier. “C’mon!”
Staying low, Chris sprinted toward the empty bike, leaping astride it, kicking the kickstand up, and coaxing the German vehicle into gear. With Vin right beside him, he took off down the road at top speed. The Nazis were in hot pursuit, not far behind.
They flew down the road, both men silently praying that they could outrun their enemies. Those prayers seemed to have been heard for several miles before tragedy struck.
The Nazis had been taking potshots at them, bullets winging past one or the other of the men. Then Chris grunted as he felt raw pain explode in his back, followed quickly by a second bolt of agony. His left arm left the handlebar of the bike as he pressed it against his shoulder. He felt himself sliding, the motorbike becoming more and more difficult to control as the pain overwhelmed him.
Tanner’s bike was a few yards ahead of the lieutenant’s before he realized something was wrong. He turned just in time to see Larabee lose control, the bike skidding several yards on its side, the blond tumbling away, head over heels. With a curse, he turned the bike sharply, heading back toward the downed man. Dropping the little vehicle to its side, he sprinted the last few feet and knelt beside his commanding officer. Larabee was sprawled gracelessly on his back, blood seeping from beneath the black, corduroy jacket he wore. His eyes were closed, mouth lax. His breathing was ragged, his body trembling slightly with the onset of shock.
Gently cupping the man’s jaw, Vin turned the colorless face toward him. “Lieutenant? Warden? Larabee?!”
Hazel eyes blinking open only slightly, the soldier wheezed, “Chief… get outta… here. Get to the… farm… house… go!”
“Ain’t leavin’ ya. Ya didn’t leave me,” Tanner said firmly, speaking of their first mission together.
With a shake of his head, Larabee said, “Go… get the… others… get out… out… out of… here.”
“Not leavin’ ya,” Vin replied, stubbornly. The point was moot, anyway. The enemy vehicles were pulling to a stop nearby.
Gritting his teeth, the blond said, “I’ve got… a… plan.”
The rest of the Lepers had reached the designated farmhouse, hiding the truck inside the barn and taking refuge there, themselves. The house itself had been bombed at some point, most of it reduced to rubble.
Ezra sat on one of the few relatively clean surfaces he had been able to find, watching the children. The three boys were gathered around Louie, using curry brushes they had found in the barn to brush the big dog. On his part, the hairy beast lay on his side, eyes half closed, as he enjoyed the pampering. The little girl, Mari-Claire, was sitting in Therese’s lap. He realized that the child was crying. While he would never admit to having a soft spot for children, deep down the man preferred their company to that of adults. They were far more genuine and open about their motives.
Pushing himself to his feet, the green-eyed conman walked over to where the two females were sitting. Squatting down beside them, he asked the nun, “Is she all right?”
Nodding, a sad smile on her lovely face, the Sister said, “She’s just a bit sad. Imagine being taken away from your family, your home, and everything you’ve ever known at the age of four.”
With a far away look, Standish said softly, “I don’t have to imagine, Sister, I know that feeling only too well.”
Before Therese could form a response, the gambler stroked a hand through the little girl’s hair, spoke gently to her in her own language, and moved away. The young novice watched after him, curiosity and concern vying for control of her expression.
Buck was leaning against the truck’s fender, toying with a wrench. JD was once more beneath the hood, tinkering with the ancient engine. With a thoughtful look, he said, “They ought to be here by now.”
“They’ll be here,” Dunne insisted.
“This is the right place, isn’t it?”
Huffing angrily, the young con said, “Yeah, it’s the right place. I ain’t stupid, Buck.”
“Not sayin’ you are, Kid. Just sayin’… they ought to be here by now.”
Chris and Vin sat in the back of a staff car. Actually, Chris sat and Vin lay sprawled out across the seat. Blue eyes closed, Tanner was clutching his shoulder. Beside him, Larabee sat ramrod straight. His left arm was resting along the edge of the door, and he looked for all the world as if nothing was wrong. Only when you got close enough to notice the clenched jaw, perspiration soaked and pinched features did you question just how well he was.
“Don’t like this, Warden,” Tanner said quietly.
“It’s the only way, Chief,” Larabee said through gritted teeth. “You’ve got… to get back… to the… the others… get b-back… regroup… get the children… outta... h-here.”
Vin wondered briefly when the main purpose of the mission had become rescuing the four orphans. “I’ll git ta the others… but we’re comin’ back fer ya.”
“Ain’t arguin’, Warden.”
“That’s an… an… an order.” Chris was finding it more and more difficult to focus.
“Ya know I ain’t one ta take orders easy, Lar’bee.”
Any further argument was cut off as they pulled up to a hospital. There was a guard shack at the end of the drive, a drop bar blocking it from easy entrance and exit. Passing through that barrier, they drove to the front of the big, brick building. There were two guards posted on the broad porch but that seemed to be it. A pair of orderlies hurried down the steps, a stretcher between them. They opened the canvas and wood contraption and settled it on the ground.
With a barely perceptible nod from his superior, Tanner pulled himself up from the seat. Feigning pain and weakness, clutching his shoulder, he exited the car and positioned himself on the stretcher. As the orderlies lifted it and began to carry him toward the hospital, he caught sight of the blond. Their eyes locked and he made a silent vow. He would be back.
As the stretcher disappeared into the big building, a Nazi officer strode toward the car. In German he called out, “American! American, come here, now!”
Larabee gritted his teeth, pulling himself away from the side of the car. He managed to stand and take the few steps needed to reach the open door. Just as he moved to exit the car, a wave of dizziness overtook him and the world grayed and went out of focus. With a breathless groan, he collapsed, falling to the ground below.
With a shocked expression, the Nazi officer strode to where the man lay sprawled on the ground. Bending down, he grasped Larabee by the hair, lifting the man’s head so that he could see his face. Larabee managed to peel open his eyes, staring unfocused at the other man.
Chris couldn’t help it. Suddenly everything seemed hysterically funny. He began to laugh, right in the soldier’s face.
Disgusted, the Nazi let go, watching dispassionately as the injured man fell to the ground. Standing, he marched away, yelling as he did, “Pick him up! Take him inside and prepare him for interrogation!”
Tanner leapt into an open window, perching on the windowsill as he quickly surveyed the grounds beyond. He had been carried to a small, dark room at the back of the hospital and left there, untended, when the orderlies were called away.
Satisfied that he had found an escape route, he dropped to the ground and sprinted away. As he did, he made one more silent promise to the man he left behind. He would come back with the others as quickly as possible. They would not leave Larabee in enemy hands any longer than they had to.
Chris lay shivering on the narrow bed, fighting not to give in to the pain. They had stripped him to the waist and laid him down on the sheet covered surface in what passed for an operating theater. Leather straps held him still; ankles, wrists, chest and forehead were restrained by the wide, bloodstained restraints. Even half conscious, he understood what that meant.
They were going to operate on him without benefit of anesthesia.
The Nazi commander who had ordered him from the car came into his line of sight. Larabee forced himself to keep his eyes open, staring coolly up at the angry man.
“You are badly injured,” The man said in his native tongue.
“I’ve had worse,” Chris noted the slight look of surprise in the other man’s eyes when he answered in fluent German.
“We may be able to ease your pain if can tell us what you’re doing here.”
“Just seeing the sights,” Larabee quipped.
Fury flared in the man’s face and he pressed down on the injured man’s shoulder. “Tell me what you are doing here!”
“L-Larabee… Chris… Christopher A. Lieu… tenant. 0723…1525…T41… 43… A,” The blond gritted out through clenched teeth.
“You are making it harder on yourself. Tell me what you’re doing here and I’ll make the pain go away.”
Chris stared defiantly up at the other man and, in a trembling voice, repeated his name, rank and serial number. After several more, similar exchanges, the Nazi growled in absolute frustration. Turning to the doctor who stood nearby, he ordered harshly, “Get on with it!”
The blond watched as the Nazi doctor approached. He fought to keep his breathing steady, his heartbeat slow. Nothing seemed to help as he watched the man bring a scalpel toward him. Although he had been shot in the back, the bullets were both lodged closer to his chest. The doctor had decided, after a hasty examination, that it would be better to retrieve them, there. It made little difference to him that he was cutting into healthy flesh rather than probing for the bullets through the holes they had created in the well-muscled body.
In a quiet voice, the medical officer said, “If you hold yourself still, it will not hurt quite as much.”
Seeing the nearly hidden hint of compassion in the man’s pale eyes, the lieutenant managed a slight nod. The man pressed a rolled cloth against his lips, and he opened his mouth to accept it. Biting down on the cloth, he still cried out as the sharp blade sliced through the flesh of his shoulder.
Tanner was jogging through the dense forest, his keen sense of direction leading him toward the farmhouse. He was vigilant, listening and watching for any sign of pursuit. He knew that they had to have discovered the ruse by now, he just didn’t know if he would be considered important enough to send people after him. If they did, it would be one of the first times in his life that he was considered important.
He smiled briefly at the sight of the rendezvous just up ahead. There was no sign of anyone around, but he had faith that the others were waiting for him and the Warden inside.
Buck was pacing back and forth across the barn, a frown on his face. The Chief and Larabee still hadn’t shown up, and they should have been here hours ago. He knew as well as the others that if they returned to England, their chances of being sent back to prison were almost absolute.
Beyond that, however, he was genuinely concerned for the two men. He looked over at where Dunne was still tinkering with the truck. “It gonna get us where we need to be?”
Not looking up from where he worked on the engine, JD said, “It’ll get us there, count on it.”
“We are, kid,” Wilmington said softly. “We are.”
Ezra couldn’t help but smile as he once more showed the children how to deal from the bottom of the deck. They giggled as, one by one; they tried and failed to recreate the trick. As Dieder sent the entire deck flying across the makeshift table, made from an empty barrel, Standish chuckled. “No, no, like this – “
“What are you doing?” Therese scolded as she came upon the little scene. Pulling Jean-Claude up by an arm, she ordered the children, “All of you, go back and care for Louie. He needs to be fed. Now, go!”
Obediently, the children nodded and hurried off, leaving only the conman in her wake. Eyes shooting sparks of righteous fury, the nun said, “Would you have them know how to break the law? How dare you make an attempt to corrupt them!”
“Listen, Sister,” the green eyed man started, “I didn’t mean anything. I was simply attempting to distract them for a few minutes… get their minds off their problems, as it were.”
Her anger deflating quickly, Therese attempted a smile. “I am sorry, Mr. Standish. I believe I overreacted. It’s just that – “
The woman’s response was cut off as the door flew open. The entire party looked up, seeing Vin Tanner enter. Alone.
In an out of breath voice, Vin informed them, “They got the Warden… he’s hurt… bad.”
The blond soldier lay as limp as a rag-doll on the bed, only the slight rise and fall of his broad chest giving an indication that he was still alive. The orderlies had dumped him there after the doctor had finished taking out the bullets. His upper body was swathed in bandages, blood stains marring the white cloth both where the metal projectiles had entered and where they had been taken out. The medical professional had sewn the wounds closed, but they continued to seep.
With a pain-filled moan, Chris Larabee opened his eyes, staring around him with confusion. Slowly his mind put things together and he realized that he was in a hospital, and alone. He tried to get up, deciding that he would make an attempt at escaping. That thought ended quickly, when he found himself without the strength to even lift his head from the pillow.
One trembling hand rose, moving to the bandages covering his upper chest. At least the torture was over for the minute. He supposed that they had let him rest for a bit, more than likely wanting him in good shape when they resumed the interrogation.
With a long, shuddering breath, he wondered where his men, the nun and the children were. He hoped that they were gone, that the men would be able to get the children to freedom, he hoped they realized that getting the children out of France had to be top priority now.
If he was going to die… he wanted it to count for something.
“All right, what’re we gonna do?” JD asked. The four cons were in a huddle, discussing the situation.
“He said we’re ta take the Sister ‘n the kids an’ head out,” Tanner said in a non-committal tone.
“So then that’s what we do. We get out of here,” the youngest con replied quickly.
“We ain’t leavin’ the Warden!” Vin straightened from where he had been leaning against the wall, his passivity gone. Blue eyes flashed sapphire sparks as he stared at the smaller man.
“It’s what he said to do!” Dunne replied hotly.
“I don’t give a damn, we ain’t leavin’ ‘im!”
“Gentlemen!” Ezra raised his voice as he broke into the argument. “This is getting us nowhere.”
Buck had been silent until now, standing there, brushing his mustache thoughtfully. Folding his arms over his chest, he said quietly, “We need a plan. A way to get us into the hospital and get Larabee back out.”
“You’re kidding, right?” JD asked, incredulously.
“The Lieutenant did say we were to leave as planned and to ferry Sister Therese and the children to safety,” Standish pointed out.
“Look, we know what Larabee said. We also know that if he doesn’t make it back to England we can all kiss our pardons good-bye. So, it would be in our best interest to bust him out.” Wilmington paused, looking at each man in turn. He read the relief in Tanner’s face, the acceptance in Standish’s, and the resignation in Dunne’s before he continued. “So… how do we bust him out?”
Buck was startled by the woman’s soft voice. Therese and the children had been standing silently nearby. The big man looked down at the petite novice and said, “What is it, Sister?”
“I want to help.”
“You can help by keeping the children quiet and out of the way.”
“But I want to help!”
“Sister,” The big man’s patience was wearing thin. “We’ve got to get this done quickly if we’re gonna rescue the Lieutenant. Now, excuse me,” he turned, dismissing her. Looking at the other men once more, he said, ‘Now, which one of you heroes want to play a deaf mute?”
Not to be put off, the young woman turned to the green-eyed conman. “Mr. Standish? If we’re to stay here, might I borrow your cards?”
While Buck and Vin huffed and grumbled in irritation, Ezra reached into his pocket as he replied, “Yes, Sister, of course. I – “He broke off with a confused expression.
The corners of her mouth turning up, Sister Therese held up the missing pack of cards. “You needn’t bother.”
Ignoring the woman’s smug expression, Standish stammered, “What? How?”
“There was a man… a con artist… who was the best in Europe. He ran soft cons, usually. He was the best at what he did; running his cons all across Europe.
“And he had a daughter. He taught her everything he knew.” As she spoke, the woman manipulated the deck of cards with a casual professionalism that made even Standish envious. “She was an apt and willing pupil, happily following in her father’s footsteps. Even to prison.”
Pulling his attention away from watching the flying pasteboards, Ezra broke in with, “Donay… Maurice Donay? Are you Maurice Donay’s daughter?”
Nodding as she continued performing trick after trick, Therese said, “Yes, Maurice Donay was my Father.”
“You’re a con… just like us!’ JD’s voice was a mixture of shock and amazement.
Dealing out two small stacks of cards, the young novice smiled as she held up one ‘hand’ to reveal four aces. With a smile, she said simply, “Yes. I am.”
The four cons looked at one another, then looked at the young woman, regarding her in an entirely new light. Finally Buck broke the silence. “All right, then. What we need is a plan…”
Chris Larabee struggled to open his eyes, the pain keeping him from resting while sapping his strength more and more. Someone had had the decency to pull a blanket up over him earlier. He vaguely recalled seeing a little slip of a girl sneak into the room at some point. She was wearing a gray uniform and an apron with a starched white cap, indicating that she was a nurse or an aide. She had seemed frightened, but tiptoed across the room and covered his trembling body. He could still see her shocked expression when he had thanked her. She had managed a brief nod before scurrying back out the door.
Since then he had lain there, alone and in pain. He had come to terms with the end of his life. He felt some regret, knowing that the four men he had chosen to form his team would be returned to the prisons he had taken them from. Despite their attitudes and rough edges, they had come a long way since that first mission.
He found that he was especially saddened at the thought of Vin Tanner losing his freedom once more. Of the four cons, he had little doubt that the Indian raised man was innocent. Thinking of Tanner spending the rest of his life behind bars saddened him greatly.
At the same time, there were other thoughts that gave him a sense of peace. The thought of joining his wife and son once more brought a quiet to his soul. It was a quiet that he had lost when Sarah and their son, Adam, had died in the horror that was Pearl Harbor.
Larabee took a breath, grimacing as the pain surged. He felt the overwhelming need to respond to the call of oblivion. As his eyes began to close, he wondered if he would ever open them again.
The sentinels at the gate that barred entrance to the hospital grounds straightened as a car approached. It pulled to a stop and, before they could respond, a woman leapt from the backseat. She was dressed flamboyantly, obviously out for an evening on the town. She was just as obviously near hysterics. Spotting the men, she cried out in French.
“Imbeciles! You stand there while my beloved is in pain! How dare you! You must let us pass! I must get him into the hospital; I do not have time for your posturing! Now let us in!”
One of the guards stepped forward to peer into the car. Inside, in the backseat, was an officer, his jacket glittering with an impressive array of decorations. The man was hunched over, obviously in pain, groaning and gasping. As the soldier watched, the officer stared up at him, pinning him with a glare.
“I am in pain, you fool! Open the gates and let us pass, now!”
Quickly, the soldier snapped to and hurried back to the gate, calling orders to the others as he did. The car was soon ushered through the entrance to the compound.
Inside, behind the wheel, JD let his breath out in a relieved sigh. He turned to the two men beside him, crowded together on the front seat. Both Buck and Vin were wearing relieved expressions as well.
In the backseat, Ezra turned to the young woman beside him. With a smile he said, “You did wonderfully, my dear.”
Trembling hands brushing her hair back beneath the hat she wore, Therese smiled back at him without commenting.
Dunne pulled up at the front entrance and he and Wilmington, both dressed in stolen Nazi uniforms, got out and helped the ‘ailing’ Standish out of the car and up the steps to the hospital entrance. Therese hurried before them, wailing and creating a huge scene. An orderly met the three men at the door, pushing a wheelchair that they helped Ezra into.
It was all the perfect distraction. Tanner slipped out of the car, carrying a large duffel filled with equipment, and slipped into the shadows around the corner of the building.
The hospital staff inside turned toward the disruption as the ailing officer was pushed inside. He was followed by a hysterical woman who was flailing her arms and wailing hysterically. No one but Ezra recognized just how effectively Therese kept the attention off him.
Looking around, he spotted a doctor who roughly matched his size and coloring. Using his stolen ranks and the privilege it evoked, he ordered the man to attend him. The doctor hesitated, fear flashing in his eyes at the thought of treating such an obviously powerful man. Then he nodded and hurried forward, leading the way toward an examination room.
Standish looked around him, searching for any indication as to where Larabee might be. Seeing a pair of guards stationed in front of the door at the far end of the hall, he decided that the Lieutenant was more than likely there.
The orderly pushed him along behind the doctor, into the examination room. Standish continued his act, moaning and groaning in the pretense of pain.
At the end of the procession, Therese stepped up her wailing. She found herself stopped at the door by a rather stern looking nurse. With only a token argument, she stomped away, continuing her hysterics as she marched back and forth along the hall.
Inside the room, Ezra felt someone trying to remove his jacket. He looked up into the face of a rather formidable looking nurse. He realized quickly that he couldn’t continue his plan while she was in the room. With a scowl he barked, “Woman! Take your hands off me! How dare you touch a man of my stature without permission! I want you out of here, now!”
With a “hmph!” the nurse turned up her nose and stormed from the room. Her departure left the conman alone with the doctor. The medical man was standing with his back to Ezra and didn’t see the change that came over his ‘patient’.
Therese registered the opening of the nearby door without missing a beat. She had continued to create a scene, keeping the attention of almost everyone on the floor on her. As Standish emerged, dressed in the doctor’s white coat now, she hurried over to him, clutching at him as she cried out, “Doctor, Doctor! Please, tell me how my beloved is!”
“Now, now, everything will be fine,” The conman replied. Then he whispered, “The Doctor is sleeping now… and will be for quite some time.”
Therese barely repressed a smile as she continued to cling to the man while he moved down the hallway. As they reached the door where the guards stood, he pretended to be comforting the woman until the very last second. He only released her as he made to go past the guards. She pretended to try to get past them as well, drawing their attention to her while Ezra slipped inside.
Standish moved near the single occupied bed in the room. The lamplight was low, but he could see the waxen and perspiration soaked features of Chris Larabee. Coming to a halt at the man’s bedside, he reached out and gently shook the man’s uninjured shoulder.
Slowly Larabee responded to the touch, blinking his eyes rapidly as he struggled to focus his vision. Finally he recognized who stood beside his bed, dressed in a white coat. He frowned, smiled, and shook his head.
“Well, Warden, if you’ve finished your nap I thought I’d see if you would be interested in leaving these accommodations.”
With a weak, tired chuckle, Larabee said, “Not sure you can… get me… past the house detective.”
“Well,” Ezra retrieved a small light from the doctor’s bag, “I believe we’ll have to send you air freight.”
Chris frowned as he followed his rescuer with his eyes. Standish went to the open window nearby and switched the light on. He flashed the light in a seemingly random pattern in the night air.
Below, on the ground, Vin watched the signal. He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. In a near silent whisper, he said, “Would have ta be on the third floor.”
That said, the man quickly got down to business. Opening the duffel, he retrieved a slender rope, a grapple attached to the end of it. Swinging it expertly, he sent the grapple and rope upward, where it hooked itself over the sill of the open window three stories above him. He attached the other end to the bag, hoisting it into the air and waiting for Standish to start hauling it up.
Standish quickly pulled the rope upward, drawing the heavy duffel toward him. It seemed to take hours for the bundle to reach him; when it did he lowered it to the floor and began rummaging around inside it.
Chris watched curiously from his bed. He wished he had the strength to assist the other man, but could barely find the strength to lift his head and watch him.
Ezra attached a block and tackle to a beam above the window sill, testing and tightening the heavy rope he ran through it. He tossed the end of the rope over the sill and out the window, waiting with feigned patience. He could hear Therese outside and knew they could be discovered at any moment. He wouldn’t feel safe until he was back in England, enjoying a good brandy and a fine cigar. Well, he would as long as he wasn’t found out.
A dark head popped up over the window sill, and Vin was quickly scrambling over the ledge. He paused only briefly to look across the room to where Larabee lay. The man looked as close to death as he cared to think about. He wondered if the Warden would even make it out of the compound. Shaking himself from those thoughts, he moved to help Ezra. They quickly had a rough harness formed with the ropes. That done, they moved across to the injured man.
Chris was struggling to push himself up, but making little headway. He dropped back and gave into the thought that the other two men would have to get him from the bed to the window. Vin and Ezra came to his bedside and he helped as much as he could while they carefully lifted him up. He was soon couched between them, his head dropping to lean against Tanner’s shoulder.
“They git the bullets outta ya?” Vin asked, concern showing in his blue eyes.
“Yeah,” He replied breathlessly. “They f-found it a gr-great way to… interrogate… me.”
The two men carrying him looked across the sweat-soaked blond head, exchanging angry expressions. Then they returned to the business at hand and moved him to the window sill.
“Sit ‘im on the sill,” Vin instructed. As he and Ezra did just that, they slipped the rope around Larabee. It formed a rough seat for him, but he would have to hold on to keep from falling. Tanner informed him of that, watching him nod weakly as he wrapped the rope around one wrist, clenching it with his hand. The other was bound just above his trim waist with thick gauze.
“Ready?” Standish asked with feigned cheerfulness. When Chris nodded once more, he and Vin lowered their commanding officer over the side of the window.
Below, Buck stood in the shadows, watching as the injured man was lowered from the window. The trip down seemed to take days, but finally Larabee was close enough for Wilmington to take hold of him. Just as he did, Chris went limp, all but falling into Buck’s arms. With a shocked expletive, the big man took all of his Lieutenant’s weight, guiding him to the ground. Looking upward, he saw Vin climbing back down the rope so he held onto Larabee, letting the man’s body keep the rope steady for the young con.
As soon as Tanner reached the ground, they untied the soldier and lifted him carefully between them. Chris groaned, eyes opening for a few seconds, staring around him with an unfocused gaze. They watched as he slowly registered where he was, a faint smile curling one side of his mouth.
“Thanks,” Larabee murmured softly, just as darkness reclaimed him.
“No problem, Warden,” Buck replied just as softly. Then his eyes went to the window from which their rope still dangled. He could see the conman still standing there, watching them as they carried Chris to the waiting car.
Now, if only Ezra and Therese could make their escape.
The two members of the rescue party in question were just meeting up once more. Standish exited the room, pretending to read a chart as he walked past the guards and into the hallway. He was immediately set upon by the hysterical woman, who began pleading with him.
“Doctor, Doctor! Please, you must tell me how my beloved is! How soon will he be able to leave this place? Please!”
“Now, now, my dear, you must calm down. Please, lets go get some coffee and I’ll be glad to answer your questions, all right?”
“Oh, but I don’t want to leave my beloved!”
“My dear, he’s sleeping now. We have time to have a coffee. Now, come along.”
He steered the young woman down the hallway, much to the relief of the guards. The men exchanged looks, shaking their heads as they traded comments about the foolish woman.
Outside, Buck and Vin were loading Chris into the back of an ambulance that JD had managed to procure. The blond was stirring, moaning softly as they settled him on a stretcher set up in the narrow bay. As they moved to take up their stations to guard the blond, Tanner found himself stopped. He looked down, realizing that Larabee had wound the fingers of one hand in his stolen uniform shirt. He glanced up at Wilmington, silently asking what to do.
“Looks like you’re elected to stay with the Warden,” Buck said softly. “You keep him calm ‘til he settles, I’ll keep an eye out for Ezra and Therese.”
“Kay,” Tanner replied, sitting cross-legged next to the injured man. He watched as the restless man’s head tossed and turned. Breathless moans issued from slightly parted lips, interspersed with murmured words that he couldn’t make out. He heard the sounds of guards walking nearby and leaned forward to whisper in the blond’s ear. “Warden, ya gotta calm down now. There’s some Krauts comin’ along. Don’t let ‘em hear ya. Calm down, okay? Larabee? Chris? C’mon… calm down now.”
Slowly the soldier responded to the hushed words. Hazel eyes, glassy with pain, fluttered open to regard the speaker. The tip of his tongue ran over his lips as he struggled to make sense of what he was being asked. “Kr…Krauts?”
Nodding, Tanner said, “Yeah, they’re comin’ close, so ya need ta be real quiet, okay? We don’t want ‘em comin’ ta see what’s goin’ on in here.”
“Yeah, be real quiet,” Vin was all but begging.
“Hurts,” Larabee complained.
“I know, but ya gotta be quiet, so ya don’t end up as a prisoner again.”
“Kay,” The blond head lolled to one side as the Lieutenant lost consciousness once more.
Tanner sighed, deciding an unconscious Larabee might at least be a quiet Larabee. Gently he untangled the clutching fingers and placed the man’s hand beneath the blanket they had covered the him with. He watched for a moment, making certain that their commanding officer was going to stay quiet for the time being, he retrieved his weapon and moved to take up position at the back of the ambulance.
Just as Ezra and Therese moved to the stairs, an officer breezed past them with several soldiers marching behind him. They barely gave the pair a glance as they moved toward the room at the end of the hallway.
Turning as they started down the stairway, Standish noted that the men were heading for the room where Larabee had been. He turned toward Therese and said quickly, “We need to make haste, Sister, they’ll realize he’s gone soon.”
Nodding, Therese hurried down the stairs, the conman right behind her. Just as they reached the bottom flight, they heard the guards running down the stairs behind them.
“Move it, Sister, move it!” Ezra yelled. As they reached the ground floor, he grabbed her arm and pulled her after him. They reached the front door as all hell broke loose. Gunfire erupted all around them, along with shouted orders to halt. Ignoring the order, the pair continued down the steps and toward the ambulance where they saw JD in the driver’s seat. Just as they arrived, Buck and Vin moved to cover them, Buck waving them into the rear of the vehicle.
As soon as Ezra and Therese were safe inside, Buck and Vin took up position; Buck on the running board of the ambulance and Vin perched in the back door, on hand holding onto the side of the door, the other balancing the machine gun that he fired rapidly into the group of soldiers heading toward them.
Likewise, Buck held onto the ambulance, firing at their pursuers. He called out, “Move it, JD!”
Dunne was already throwing the vehicle into gear. He stomped the accelerator, the ambulance flying toward the closed gate they had entered only a short time ago.
In the stretcher bay, Larabee lay semiconscious on the rough canvas, clinging to the frame with one hand. His teeth were clenched; sweat coursing down his pale features as the pain burned through him. He felt a hand cover his and managed to open his eyes long enough to see the young nun sitting beside him. His muddled mind didn’t register the fact that she had exchanged her habit for evening clothes; all he saw was her face. She was looking down at him with a concerned expression on her pretty face. He tried to give her an encouraging smile, but it turned into a grimace as the ambulance rocked dangerously up on two wheels.
Behind them, Ezra had joined Vin at the open back door, firing at the enemy soldiers. With a puzzled expression, he said, “They aren’t pursuing us.”
With a grin, Tanner said, “Me ‘n JD sliced their tires whilst you and Therese was gittin’ inside of the hospital. They ain’t goin’ nowhere fer a while.”
Standish smiled and nodded his approval before turning back to the task at hand. He didn’t feel that he had taken a proper breath since this mission had begun. He hoped they would be able to pull this off, to make their escape from the compound.
Ahead of them, in the driver’s seat, JD had his full attention on getting them safely out of the compound. They would then rendezvous with the children back at the farmhouse. From there, hopefully, they would continue on to the pick up site and return to England.
He only hoped that it turned out to be as simple as it seemed.
On the other side of the cab of the ambulance, Buck continued to hold on for dear life as he fired the machine gun at the Nazi soldiers. He spared a look behind him, spotting the fast approaching guard post at the gate. Managing to twist around, he fired on the guards, taking them down or sending them scattering for cover. Dropping into the front seat, he closed the door and yelled to the young driver, “Ram it, Kid!”
The ambulance flew through the closed gate, sending wood and metal flying. As they passed through onto the open road, Dunne yelled back, “Don’t call me Kid!”
The ambulance moved, unimpeded, along the pockmarked road, no sign of pursuit. They knew that it wouldn’t last though. If for nothing more than the saving of face, the Nazis would come after them. JD slowed the vehicle as they neared the bombed out farmhouse where the children waited. He stopped just long enough for those in the back to climb out, pulling Larabee and the stretcher out with them. Vin and Ezra carried the injured man toward the barn, with Therese hurrying ahead to check on the children. As they disappeared, JD and Buck drove onward, hoping any pursuers would follow their tracks away from the hiding place.
“It’s me, children, it is all right,” the Sister called out as she opened the barn door. She left it opened wide, allowing the men to pass through with their burden before closing it tight once more. The young woman turned to find herself being set upon by four frightened, chattering children and one large, whining dog. “Calm down, my sweets, it is all right. I’ve returned and so have the others. It is all right!”
Ezra and Vin scarcely noticed the reunion, their minds on the man swaying on the stretcher between them. They carefully settled him on the straw, deciding to leave him on the canvas carrier rather than moving him. As badly injured as the man was, the less they moved him, the better.
While Ezra searched through the medical bag he still carried, Vin found a cloth and wiped the perspiration from the blond’s face. Without realizing it, he began to talk to the insensate man. “Yer gonna be okay, Warden. Ya jist gotta lay quiet ‘n let us do th’ work, all right? We’re safe fer now… we’ve jist gotta wait ‘til Buck ‘n JD git back, then we’ll head fer th’ pick up spot.”
“Buck… J… JD,” Larabee mumbled, brows furrowing above closed eyes. “Where… where are they?”
“They went ta lose the ambulance,” Vin replied. “Went ta draw Jerry off our trail.”
“Oh,” Chris whispered. “Soon… soon as they’re… back… take… t-take off.”
Grinning at the fact that, barely conscious, Larabee continued to direct things, the younger man said, “That’s th’ plan. Now, you git some sleep, okay?”
Deciding that that seemed like the best idea he’d heard for a long time, the blond nodded. “O… kay.”
Watching the soldier drift off once more, Tanner shook his head and returned to bathing the blond’s face.
Ezra settled at the other side of the stretcher, setting the black bag next to him. Pulling back the blanket, he sighed and shook his head at the sight of blood that stained the bandages, growing larger as the wounds continued to seep. “The Lieutenant appears to be bleeding once again.”
Nodding in response, Vin said, “Yep, he done sprung a leak.”
Rolling his eyes at the man’s comments, Standish set to work, doing what he could with his limited supplies. With the other con’s assistance, he removed the ruined bandages, cleaned the wounds, and even added a few stitches. Working together the men redressed the wounds before settling the injured man back on the stretcher. Larabee lay there limply, panting as fever and blood loss overwhelmed him.
Watching as Ezra cleaned the blood off his hands, Vin asked the question he didn’t want to ask. “Ya think he’s gonna make it?”
Heaving a sigh, Standish replied, “I’m not a doctor, Mr. Tanner, I can’t be certain. He’s strong, though, that should count for something. I do wish Corporal Jackson was here, though.” They all knew that Nathan was well skilled in the healing arts and would be best suited to care for the injured lieutenant.
Tanner continued to watch the other man, seeing the look of helplessness that shadowed the green eyes. He knew Standish would never admit to thinking of anyone but himself. Nodding, the young con said, “Well, reckon you’ll do in a pinch, pard.”
“How is he?” The two men looked up to see Therese standing nearby, surrounded by her young charges.
“Holding his own, Sister,” Ezra replied softly. “Are the children all right?”
“Yes, a little tired and rather frightened, but all in all they’re well. Do you think Mr. Dunne and Mr. Wilmington will be back soon?”
“They ought ta be,” Vin said, trying to sound reassuring. “We’ll watch the road fer a bit ta see the ways clear then we’ll head out.”
“Will… will the Lieutenant…” her voice faded, the woman not certain how to ask what was on her mind.
Mustering a gold edged smile, Ezra repeated his earlier statement. “He’s strong.”
Not certain how comforting his words were, the nun nonetheless nodded. “Is there anything I can do?”
Shaking his head, Vin said, “Jist take care of the young ones, miss. Me and Ezra’ll take care of the Warden.”
Therese smiled at the young con, enjoying his thoughtful tone. With a nod, she guided the children back to the other side of the barn, where they would wait for the rest of their rescuers.
A short time later the door creaked open, and the other two cons entered the big building. Buck was grinning, JD was frowning. The bigger con said confidently, “Well, we sent them Krauts on a wild goose chase.”
Dunne added, “We took the truck about three miles down the road and sent it over the edge of the road. With the help of a lit gas can, it’s burning pretty good.”
“Good,” Ezra said quickly. “Did you see any sign of the Germans?”
“We saw ‘em about half way between here and there, heading for the fire. If we leave soon, we should be at the pick up point on time.” JD announced.
Buck turned to the injured Larabee. Once more the blond head was tossing and turning, the delirious man muttering incoherently. With a frown, he said, “I just hope we all make it there.”
In the pre-dawn darkness the four cons prepared to take their wounded commander and their other charges to the rendezvous point. Larabee had been restless, neither asleep nor quite awake, the entire night. He had muttered disjointedly, only a few words recognizable. The men had done their best to keep him comfortable, Vin, especially, staying close. The young man had made several trips to and from the farm’s well, bringing cool water to bathe the feverish man’s brow.
While Tanner tended the blond officer, Buck and Ezra took turns standing watch for Nazis while the other helped JD with the old truck. The young man wanted to make certain that the decrepit vehicle would deliver them to the designated place on time. The muffled sounds of his cursing could be heard through the barn all through the night.
Sister Therese had taken the children to the far corner, where they slept huddled together in the straw. She had donned her habit once more and sat beside her little charges; a petite, black-clad guardian. On the other side of the children, Louie lay with his big head on his paws, dark eyes watching over the children as well.
Tanner found himself being scrutinized by a pair of pain-filled, hazel eyes. “Hey, Warden, ‘bout time ya woke up.”
With the briefest of smiles the blond asked, “Where… where are… we?”
“Still in the barn. Reckon we’ll be headin’ out in a bit. JD says he’s got the truck patched up enough ta get us to the pick up spot.”
The tip of his tongue running over dry lips, Chris nodded. His eyelids began to flutter as he edged back toward sleep. “O… kay.”
“Hey Warden,” Buck greeted as he came over to where the injured many lay. “We’re about ready to go. Think you can handle another ride?”
The dark and unfocused eyes blinked open and he studied the questions for a moment before nodding briefly. In a voice rough with pain he said, “Let’s go.”
The children and Sister Therese were helped into the back of the truck first. Then the four cons carefully loaded the stretcher, holding their injured commander, into the truck. Larabee moaned through clenched teeth as the movement woke the pain once more.
“Take it easy, Lieutenant,” Tanner coaxed quietly. “We’ll have ya settled in a minute.”
“’Kay,” Chris groaned through gritted teeth. He grasped the edge of the stretcher, knuckles bleeding white and fingers trembling.
They lifted Larabee into the bed of the truck, Tanner and Standish remaining there as well. Ezra took up station at the rear of the vehicle, while Vin stayed near the stretcher. He braced both it and the blond as the truck started off.
Ahead of them, in the cab, JD was once more in the driver’s seat. Beside him, Buck watched the road ahead of them, looking for signs of enemy soldiers.
As Dunne slammed the vehicle into gear and sent the old vehicle onto the road, he spared the bigger man a glance. “You think we’ve got a chance?”
With a broad grin, Wilmington said, “We’re still breathin’, Kid, there’s always a chance.”
Dark brows furrowing , the smaller man growled, “Don’t call me kid!”
The young driver did an excellent job of keeping them out of harm’s way. They played a tense game of cat-and-mouse only once, the game ending when the German staff car went careening off the road and into a ravine.
Throughout the rough trip, Chris Larabee felt every bump as it sent explosions of pain ripped through his upper body. He moaned over and over, sweat-soaked head tossing back and forth on the canvas stretcher. From time to time his eyes slanted open, staring unfocused around him. That unfocused gaze landed on the young man sitting beside him. He said nothing, but the sight of Tanner brought him a sense of comfort amongst the shocks of pain.
As the truck hit a particularly nasty pothole, Larabee cried out, reaching blindly for something to hold onto. He found his hand enveloped firmly and knew without looking that it was Vin.
“Ya jist hang on ta me, Warden,” the young man drawled. “Reckon this hurts a mite more’n ya bargained for.” Then the Reservation raised man turned toward the front of the truck and yelled out with uncharacteristic anger, “JD! Reckon y’all could miss a few pot holes? This ain’t doin’ the Warden much good!”
Half turning toward the back, Dunne yelled, “I’m doing the best I can!”
Catching sight of the Lieutenant’s bandages as the blanket fell away, Tanner called out, “Well do better, ‘cause he’s bleedin’ again!”
Ahead of him, the young brunet cursed under his breath, but did work even harder to avoid the rough spots in the road.
Sister Therese and the children watched the drama playing out around them with a mixture of fear and concern. The children huddled around the young woman, taking comfort in the stalwart presence.
“Sister?” Mari-Claire spoke quietly, as if fearing to call attention to herself.
“Oui, mon petit?” Therese replied fondly.
“Will we be in England soon?”
Smiling, the novice said, “It will take some time. You will be taking a ride on a ship soon. Won’t that be fun?”
“Yes, yes! You promised we would go on a big ship!” Joseph chirped.
Fondly ruffling the little boy’s dark hair, Therese said, “Yes, I did. As soon as our friends have gotten us to the place where they will meet their friends, you will have your chance to ride in a big ship.”
The children all giggled, chattering amongst themselves, their fears forgotten in the face of this new adventure. Even Louie got into the act, ‘woofing’ happily as he joined the celebration.
The out of place sounds roused the injured soldier. Larabee moaned softly, twisting on the rough bed as he tried to find the source of the sound. “Wha… what?” He murmured softly. “Adam?”
Curious at the name his leader called, Vin gently patted the man’s uninjured shoulder. He quietly reassured the man, “It's okay, Warden, it‘s jist the little ones havin’ some fun.”
The voice calling him from his fevered dreams, Chris blinked as he processed the words. Then, allowing himself to drift back to sleep, he mumbled, “Oh.”
Just then the truck made a strange sound; one that was repeated several more times before the aged vehicle came to a stop. The sudden quiet was shaken with a few choice words from the mercurial Dunne.
Those in the back stayed where they were, listening while JD and Buck checked out the condition of the old truck. After a few minutes of banging around, the older man poked his head in at the rear of the truck. With forced humor, he said, “Well folks, looks like we’ll be taking a short walk. We’re still a about a mile from the rendezvous point.”
“You must be joking!” Standish protested.
“Do I look like I’m joking?” Wilmington replied, serious now.
Heaving a sigh, Vin squinted at the big brunet. “We’re gonna have ta tote the Warden. He ain’t gonna be able ta hike outta here on foot.”
Nodding, Buck said, “We’ll get him out of this, Chief, don’t you worry about that.”
Nodding in return, Tanner began sliding the stretcher toward the tailgate. As he did, Buck took hold of the end and pulled it toward him.
With a grunt of pain, Larabee once more pried his eyes open to half-mast. Struggling to form the words, he murmured, “Are we… th-there?”
“We’re close,” Vin said evasively. The words seemed to satisfy the blond and he drifted back to sleep. Tanner managed a wry smile and patted one broad shoulder.
A few minutes later they were once more on the road. Vin and Buck carried the stretcher between them. JD moved ahead of them, watching the road for signs of the enemy. Ezra walked behind them, helping the nun to shepherd the four children and Louie.
They moved as swiftly as small legs could manage and with as little pain as Larabee could be provided. Twice they were forced to dodge off the road and into the woods to avoid being seen. Each time they did, the two men carrying the stretcher took the opportunity to set their burden down.
The second time they rested the stretcher on the ground, Chris’ glassy eyes blinked open and he stared out from beneath shuttered lids. In a raspy voice, he croaked, “Wh… why are we… stopping?”
“Just waitin’ fer Jerry ta pass by,” Vin whispered softly.
“We’d be there already if those damned Krauts would just leave us be,” JD supplied from where he crouched, watching the road.
“How long will it take us to get to the rendezvous?” Sister Therese asked. “When will they be there to pick you… us up?”
Heaving a sigh as he checked his watch, Buck answered, “They’ll be there in twenty minutes. They’ll wait ten minutes and leave, whether we’re there or not.”
“They won’t return for twenty-four hours,” Ezra added.
The young woman looked stricken. “Twenty-four… oh my. What will you do if that should happen?”
“We’ll find us a hole and crawl in,” Tanner replied quietly.
“We’ll make… make it,” Larabee said insistently. “If n-need be… leave… leave me. You h-have to make th… make that pick-up.”
“Now, Warden,” Wilmington protested. “There’s no reason for us to go back if you’re not with us.”
The soldier knew that self-preservation spurred the comment and couldn’t blame Buck for feeling like that. He couldn’t blame any of them. They had worked hard to fulfill their end of the bargain. It would be completely unfair for them to lose their pardon now. “Well then… let’s go,” he observed in a shaky voice.
Tanner and Wilmington picked up the stretcher and the group once more began to move toward their destination. They moved quickly, hoping to make the pick up point without another delay.
For once, their prayers were answered. No German soldiers came anywhere near the little band, allowing them the chance to make the rendezvous point without any more delays. The four cons breathed heavy sighs of relief as they spotted the distant boat coming their way. The little vessel would take them to the ship that was anchored farther out at sea.
They made their way down the final hill, heading for the water’s edge. The children’s voices raised in excitement as they, too, saw the boat. Vin and Buck carried Larabee as carefully as possible as they descended the hill, but the man still groaned several times as the movement jarred his already traumatized body.
Reaching the water’s edge, the men couldn’t help but laugh as they watched the children dancing nearby, waving as the boat beached. Louie added his voice to the excitement, bounding around the children and barking loudly.
Buck turned as he realized that Sister Therese was standing back, her face a mixture of elation and sadness. Frowning, he called out, “Come on, Sister, time to go.”
She looked into his eyes then, tears glistening in her own. “I’m not going.”
The big man’s frown deepened but he said nothing more as he helped get Larabee onto the little boat. It was only after the stretcher was secured in the bottom of the boat that Wilmington turned back to the nun. Finding her with head bowed in prayer, he moved close, but didn’t interrupt her. As Therese’s eyes lifted, locking with his, he asked, “What do you mean, you’re not going?”
“Just that, I’m not going. I’ve fulfilled my promise to their parents,” she canted her head toward the still chattering children. “They’ll be safe now, I know that you and the others will see to that.”
“But we need to get you to safety, too.”
Shaking her head, the young woman said, “No. My place is here, as it has always been.”
Blue eyes glittering, the big man said, “I knew you were like me… conning people to get what you want.”
With a smile, Therese said, “I suppose you’re right. But at least my ‘con’ is for a less selfish purpose now.”
Sobering, Buck said, “Sister… Therese… are you certain?”
“Yes, very certain. I must stay here. There are so many things I need to do; so many people I wish to help.”
Nodding, Wilmington said, “Well, maybe after this war’s over I can come back and look you up. We’d be a helluva… sorry… team.”
Smiling fondly at the big man, Therese shook her head. “No, Buck, that part of my life is over. I am not in this for the duration… I am in it forever.”
Looking deep into the beautiful face, the con said softly, “I reckon you are… pardon me saying this, but that’s a shame.”
Reaching out to gently stroke her hand over the stubbled jaw, the young woman said, “I will miss you.”
Taking her hand and kissing the knuckles, Buck replied, “And I’m gonna miss you, too. You beat about anything I’ve ever seen, Therese Donay.”
Squeezing his hand, she said with a wink, “that’s Sister Therese to you.”
“Buck, Sister, we’re ready!” JD called from where the others waited for them.
Therese moved toward the boat, barely keeping the tears at bay. She knelt before the four children. Reaching out, she touched each little face.
“Sister?” Jean-Michel spoke in a quivering voice, having seen something in her face.
“You will go with these men. They will make certain that you find new homes.”
“But you are going with us?” The older boy asked even as tears of understanding began to fall.
“No, I must stay here.”
“NO!” The little quartet cried out together. Then the air was filled with anguished voices as the children begged her to go with them.
From where he lay in the boat, the Lieutenant turned toward the sound. Frowning up at the ever present Tanner, he asked, “What’s… wrong?”
Shaking his head, Tanner said, “Ain’t for certain, but don’t seem like th’ Sister’s gonna go with us.”
“What? Sh… she has to,” Larabee protested weakly.
“Don’t reckon it’s me ya gotta convince,” Vin said with a shake of his head.
Therese said her good-byes gently to the children, embracing each in turn and murmuring words in their native language. The men stood by, uncertain as what they should do. They watched as she ushered the four children and the large dog into the boat. Tears flowed freely as the little ones continued to protest her abandonment.
Wiping the moisture from her face, the young woman stood and moved away from the weeping little group. As she moved along the side of the boat, a hand caught hers. She looked down to find a pair of glassy, hazel eyes staring up at her.
“Sister… are you sure?” Larabee asked.
“Oui… yes… I’m certain. There is still much for me to do here. I thank you once more for taking the children to freedom.”
Chris looked at her, searching her face and then settling his gaze on her eyes. Seeing the resolve there, the soldier hesitated only briefly before nodding. “All right. But prom… promise you’ll get w-word to us… should you… need us.”
Smiling through her tears, the young novice said, “I promise.”
The soldier watched as she turned away, hurrying away from the boat. She moved swiftly as if not certain how strong her resolve was. Reaching a place a few yards away, she knelt and folded her hands in prayer once more.
Therese watched as the boat was pushed back out into the water. The children were huddled around Ezra, clinging to the handsome young con and crying as they waved good-bye to her. She waved to them in return, watching as the boat moved toward open water.
The men watched from the boat, even Larabee lifting his head from the stretcher to catch the last sight of the young novice. The silence was broken only by the sniffling of the broken-hearted children. The men piloting the boat could only wonder as they left the young woman behind.
“She’ll be fine,” Buck said from where he sat near the stretcher.
Nodding, Vin added, “She’s tough.”
Shaking his head, JD observed, “She’s all alone.”
“No,” Larabee responded as he watched her kneel, hands clasped in prayer once more. “No… she’s not… alone.”
The men grew quiet, watching as the figure of the young novice grew smaller in the distance. Then they listened as the children began to sing, their voices blending in a child-like harmony as they sang a French lullaby. As the foreign words rang out over the sound of the boat engine, the men finally began to relax.
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