Category Archives: Fiction

Dangerous Passage – Chapter II

IN THE DAYS following the Germans annexation of Austria, many landed families found their distaste of the National Socialists turn to fear, as the laws of the land were warped to fit the new Fuhrer’s preconceived notion of his thousand year Reich. Many Germans were willing to march to Hitler’s goose step, seeing in it a way to improve their lot, many times at the expense of fellow Germans and Austrians. A dark pall descended over Europe as Der Fuhrer consolidated his political position.

The Gerber family had been broken up, the father impressed into the Luftwaffe and the children about to be ripped out of their happy life and thrust into a regimented camp where they would be trained as Nazi’s. Long before the father left in a black car with the SS, he decided they must flee over the German Alps into neutral Switzerland. He prepared. He contacted the Mother Superior at the nearby abbey and arranged for his family to make the attempt.

To throw off the SS, Karl Gerber thus sacrificed himself for the good of his family.

Having left St. Stanislaus Abbey as darkness descended, the six Gerber children, under the care of Sister Anastasia, managed to get deep into the foothills. The Sister, relying on years old memory found a hunter’s cabin whose location she knew. She’d been there once as a girl of twelve before she got the Call. Bone tired, they settled down for the night. The October night chill had a winter feel to it.

They could not build a fire. Smoke would advertise their presence. They ate cold food. They stoically bore conditions they had never experienced before. The youngest, Hans, had much trouble getting to sleep. Exhaustion hit them all, but at six, Hans hadn’t developed the stamina of his elder siblings and didn’t truly understand why they had to flee. He dreaded being forced into unnatural surroundings.

Sister Anastasia gave the boy to Greta and admonished her to keep him quiet; that there could be listening ears nearby, that they couldn’t count on only distance from the abbey to feel safe. She told them of dangers they would face on the morrow and said they only differed in character from what they had gone through the previous day.

They found blankets in a chest near the door. Greta took the boy lovingly under her wing and curled up with him under two old blankets. She and Hans got the lower bunk bed. The code of the hills required hunters make certain their cabin remained livable after they vacated it. Honor required it. The nun knew the cabin would be a temporary haven.

The blankets were musty and dusty and they made the twins, Helmut and Karl, sneeze. Sister Anastasia, after peering outside the cabin for a long moment, took the blankets outside and shook them violently. Dust wafted away on a small breeze. She returned the blankets to the twins.

“They won’t smell any better, children, but they shouldn’t make you sneeze again.”

“Danke, Sister Anastasia,” they said.

The two found a corner and huddled close, only their noses showing as they lay down together on a lumpy mattress, there to share the warmth of their bodies. Rikard took nine year old Marta under his wing and snuggled her in the upper bunk of the bed. Sister Anastasia got to sleep in the large rocker someone had left in the cabin years before. With her feet on a broad stool and her blanket wrapped all around, she managed to be comfortable enough.

Before she let them sleep, she made sure they took care of their bodily needs. Finally, she told them what to expect in the morning.

“We must leave before the day becomes light. We must be well up the side of the mountain behind this cabin before I can be certain we aren’t being tracked. Now sleep well, children. We have a long and difficult journey ahead. We can make it. Guten nacht, kindern. Schlaf gut.”

Sister awoke to a scratching sound outside the cabin. Carefully she brought her feet to the floor and went as quietly as possible to the cabin’s one window. The window had an interior wooden security door that covered it in the event of sudden violent storm, typical this close to mountain updrafts. She had latched it before they went to bed so no one could peer in. She wondered if she had become overcautious, but decided that extreme hazards required extreme measures.

The Sister unlatched the door very slowly and peered through the crack. Nothing. She opened it wider. Black as pitch! Suddenly she heard a low growl that became a scream. A cat. Mountain lion. Big one from the sound. She smiled through her fear. It couldn’t get in, but she saw it as a good omen. Mountain lions were leery of Man. It smelled them and it wouldn’t hang around long. It also meant no two-legged predators would be near. She closed the window’s storm door and latched it again.

The noise had waked all five of her charges. Their fear filled voices overflowed the cabin. In a firm voice she told them all was well and they should go back to sleep. To illustrate, she returned to her chair and covered up again. Hans whimpered, but Greta soothed him and the furor died quickly.

Sister Anastasia slept lightly but restfully for two more hours. Perceiving that dawn wasn’t far ahead, she got the children up. She directed the morning meal, praying over it and doling out a large portion.

“For strength,” she said. “Now, take care of your needs. We must leave in zwanzig minuten. We are leaving fall and entering winter. Dress warmly.”

The older children assisted the younger ones in practiced fashion. Sister Anastasia looked them over from head to mountain boots and pronounced them ready. She made certain their snowshoes were lashed tightly to their backpacks. They left the cabin in the first lightening of the day and trudged away. Green fields now faded in behind them in the October morning and dense forested slopes faced them.

Marta and the twins looked back longingly at the hills and again at the cabin as it diminished in the distance and then, resigned, followed along. Greta took the rear of the troupe and Hans stayed back with her. Capable girl, Sister Anastasia thought. Resilience; much needed now.

They passed a high point and descended into a little valley beside a rill. Now bright enough to see their footing without misstep, they moved confidently ahead. Forest enclosed them. They descended another two hundred meters, looking for a place to cross the small stream that had been their company. There they found a wide place where smooth, flat rocks provided stepping-stones and they leapt across it, Marta, Helmut and Karl laughing gaily.

“Children,” Sister Anastasia called sharply, “it is a beautiful day and you feel like romping, but you must save your energy for what is to come. I am sorry to say that, but you must.”

Now they began their long upward climb in earnest, leaving the pure mountain water tumbling in small falls as it disappeared behind them. The Sister called then into a group and told them to search for a sturdy stick they could use as a staff to help their walking.

“I do not wish to cause you fear, kindern,” she said, “but there are wild animals that live in these mountains. We will stay closely together and we shall use these staffs to protect ourselves, too, so choose your stick wisely.”

Hans’ eyes grew large and he pressed against Greta. He looked at his sister for comfort, but Greta chose this moment to be stern.

“Hans, we must protect each other. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Greta.”

“Now find a strong stick and show it to me.”

Hans searched nearby and found one. Greta took it and bent it on her knee. It snapped in half.

“You see, Hans. That stick would not help you. Let me see if we can find one for you.”

Much of the forest was of pine, but a few hardy hardwoods stood nearby and Greta picked up two pieces from the ground that appeared recently blown off by wind. She tested them and gave the short one to Hans. She hefted the longer one and pronounced it good enough. The older children, with Rikard’s help, also found good staffs and soon the six continued on their way.

“Give them to me, children,” Sister Anastasia called. She removed her pack. She took her hunting knife and carefully sharpened each stake.

“Now, use them gently,” she said, “but remember, they can be a weapon if you should need.”

Moving through the trees, sometimes unable to see more than a few feet ahead, now and then sounds startled them. Once they spied a wolf and where they saw one, there would be others. Although it frightened them, no others came near. Sister Anastasia took Rikard’s staff and beat it with hers. The racket she made did not make the wolf go away, rather it seemed curious, but it kept its distance.

As the group climbed deeper it became markedly steeper…and colder. As the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so too Hans slowed them down and complained most. Greta did much to cheer him and to get his mind away from the ordeal. Only once did Sister Anastasia intervene with Hans, and that occurred at the crest of a false summit when Hans looked at an even mightier mountain than the one that had just tired him to a point of exhaustion.

“I’m tired. I want to go home,” he said, stubbornly, and he refused to go further.

“Hans,” Sister Anastasia said, “there is no going back.” She shook him gently to gain his full attention, “If you want to live, take another step…and another…and another…and don’t stop.”

Hans started to cry. The Sister enfolded him and held him and soon he quieted. When she held him out in front of her again, he wiped his tears and said, “I’m tired. I want to go home.”

“Home is the way we are going, Hans,” the Sister said. “We are going to a new place and it will be home, you will see. Now, can you be brave like your brothers and sisters?”

Hans pouted, but finally said, “Yes, Sister.”

They encountered snow at the six thousand foot level. Once on an icy slope one of the twins slipped and only quick thinking on Greta’s part stopped him from going over a precipice.

“Jam your staff through the snow pack, Helmut,” she screamed. The boy heard her and turned as he slid. He poked his sharpened stick into the icy snow and it stopped him. They waited in fright while the young boy carefully regained the path they were on. Safe again, they hugged each other and the Sister’s thanked God for sparing Helmut.

As they continued on, the mountain rounded off and with their staffs and snowshoes, they trudged slowly to its crest. Other mountains showed in the distance, and in between two of approximately the same height they saw a narrow pass. This time Sister Anastasia laughed gleefully.

She pointed. “Look, children, the pass!”

They saw a place, a thing they could grasp with their minds, a destination. A weight lifted from the little group. “Beyond that pass is Switzerland?” Rikard asked.

“Yes, Rikard. Another day and we will cross the border. We will walk another hour and in the day’s last light we will build a snow fort to sleep in. We will snuggle together and we will be warm. We have food. We have our health, and we have God. God is good and He will see us through.”

Courage to go on flooded in. They began again, lightly, this time. They made the ordeal an adventure. Hans became quiet. He kept looking ahead as if by doing so he might make the pass come closer through sheer will. Greta’s heart swelled with pride, not only for the strength she saw in the frailty of Hans, but for them all, for a leader who clearly walked a path ordained by God, to the brothers and sisters who helped one another at every turn, to sibling rivalry that had completely disappeared, and to the promise of hope and the promise of a future, a real future in which they could begin to grow again.

And in Greta’s mind she quietly held a thought she had harbored since that moment in the cabin – it seemed so long ago – when she’d held Hans and told him that Papa would find them and they would be a family again. As it was Sister Anastasia’s mission to get them to Switzerland, she made it her charge to reunite the children with their father. She saw God’s plan for her, and she gratefully accepted it.

Dangerous Passage – Chapter I

“WHY DID YOU slam that door? Do you want to bring the Nazi’s?” Sister Anastasia called hoarsely. She sounded frightened and her look communicated itself to the small boy.

Hans’s Gerber’s terrified eyes looked into the Sister Anastasia’s and remorse radiated from his small frame. The beginnings of tears clouded his eyes.

Her forehead pinched in her frown, the Sister put a finger to her mouth as Hans moved toward her for the safety of her touch.

Sister Anastasia looked at Hans’ older sister. “Greta, run quietly to the main court and see if Hans has drawn attention.”

The Sister crouched in the dark corner of the small stone room, her black habit flowing around her, while she held two shivering eleven-year-olds in either arm and prepared to encompass six-year-old Hans.

Another girl and boy, nine-year-old Marta and thirteen year old Rikard sat on either side of the nun, on a wall projection of cold stone.

The older girl, clothed only in the short dark blue uniform skirt and white blouse of the abbey, flat shoes and the wrap hat typical of the order, took off without a word. She kept to the shadows and moved like a wisp. She had no training in stealth, but light and agile as a fairy, she made as little noise.

At fourteen, Greta had had to shoulder much responsibility for a novice. Too much, Sister Anastasia thought sadly, and like me, she hardly smiles any more.

The German takeover of Austria, the so-called Anschluss in March 1938, fused Austria into the larger German state. It did not happen smoothly. Many landed gentry at first bucked the tide of the ruling National Socialist Party, but they had learned. Now they feared that if they disagreed with Hitler’s apparent design, retribution would follow. It had come; far worse than they could have imagined.

He’d brought the aristocracy down. Those who wouldn’t play along were brutally swept away. The Brown Shirts were mob mentality personified. Paul von Hindenberg, ailing president of the German state had given in to Adolf Hitler in January 1933, and begrudged him the title of Chancellor. Eventually Hindenberg signed the Enabling Act.  When he died in 1934, Hitler quickly consolidated the offices of Chancellor and President into one office. This move gave him control of the Reichstag and the military.

Now, in 1938, people were being hounded to choose, basically to live and work for Hitler, or for imprisonment, impressment or flight from their native country. The other choice wasn’t a choice at all, but a sentence to oblivion.

The Abbey of St. Stanislaus stood on a high place, a foothill of the western Bavarian Alps, which became the Swiss Alps at some difficult and nebulous point high and deep in the mountains.

Two days before, his children stood quietly and fearfully as Karl Gerber disappeared into a long, black sedan. A look by his father galvanized Rikard into motion as soon as the car began to drive quickly away.

As previously instructed, he ran to get Leon Richter, a family friend. Richter, old, crippled and an unlikely conscript – thus relatively untouchable, although he too had air experience – hobbled over to the Gerber household and had them pack for a journey.

“Hurry, and quiet,” he said to them in the main salon of the great house as he inspected what they had brought. “You must leave. The SS will be here later today to take you to a camp. You would not like it there. Your chance is over the mountains.”

He brought them to the abbey.

The Mother Superior, woman of God and no friend to the current regime appointed Sister Anastasia to get the children into Switzerland.

“You are young and athletic,” she said. “You know the mountains. It is the wrong season of the year to try a passage, but you must. You will leave this evening, no later. Soon they will search for you. As soon as vespers are over, change into street clothes and take your charges and may God bless you.”

Greta’s mother Anna died six years before from childbirth fever after delivering Hans. Karl Gerber, a retired Airline pilot, had been summarily impressed into the Luftwaffe and taken away. Sister Anastasia now had charge of the remaining six young members of the Gerber family.

A long, dangerous trek faced them, but first they must get away from the abbey. The SS had set up a border patrol in Freidrichshafen and had taken over the hamlet of Berchesgaden, the town below. From there, SS police scoured the surrounding territory to discover any disloyalty amongst the population. They were enthusiastic, hardened and exceptionally thorough in their searches.

Greta rounded a corner. Coming toward her she saw two big uniformed SS. They noticed her. Quickly she put her hands together and looked downward. Her lips began a rosary and with her heart in her throat, she kept a measured step. The officers approached and stopped her.

“Fraulein, we are looking for a family with several kindern namst Gerber. Have you seen them?”

Not trusting herself to speak, she shook her head.

“You are certain of this, Fraulein?”

Again she shook her head. She removed a small bible from her pocket and put her hand on it and shook her head a third time.

“Vow of silence,” the other officer said. The first one grunted.

“We heard a door slam. Did you slam a door, Fraulein?”

She nodded.

“It wouldn’t bother you if we took a look, would it?” They looked at her searchingly. She shrugged.

“We have no time for this, Conrad. She’s telling the truth or she’s a very good liar. Nuns don’t lie, do they? Let’s get back. Our search parties will be here in zehn minuten. They will find the fugitives.”

“Ja.” They turned and retreated. Greta stood there, her breath ragged as perspiration formed around her lower lip and in the creases of her forehead. She forced herself to continue forward. To turn now would give her away. She must get back to the little group, but…

Yes, they turned to look back. Convinced, they continued on. When they turned the corner, Greta came upon a doorway into another part of the abbey and turned in. Barely breathing, she stayed out of sight under the archway and watched nervously until certain the Germans had gone back to their group. Then she ran as fast as she could to where her brothers and sisters hid.

She burst in on them and in a wild whisper, she said, “We must leave now! The search parties will be here in minutes and they know we’re here.”

Sister Anastasia, with a calm she didn’t feel, stood now and said, “Gather your things and come, children. Quickly! Be silent.”

She led them to a small, heavy wooden doorway with iron hinges. She produced a heavy iron key and unlocked the door. It creaked when opened. The children went in. The way smelled of dampness. Sister Anastasia pulled the door shut and locked it from the inside. A long set of steps led downward. A sputtering torch rested in a wall socket a couple of steps inside.

She grabbed it and called to them. “Come children. Be careful. The steps are slippery.”

They made their way with care to a landing. Inside an alcove in the damp wall they found clothing and heavy jackets. Stacked against a wall they saw seven pairs of snowshoes. Removing her habit and instructing Greta to do the same, she dressed rapidly.

Without losing precious time, Sister Anastasia told the party to dress warmly and for each to grab and tie to their backpacks one pair of snowshoes. Using leather thongs, she tied Hans’ snowshoes to her backpack along with hers. Then she led the frightened party lower yet. Water glistened as it ran down the gray of the stone walls. At another small door like the one they came through she called for silence.

She carefully unbolted the door and opened it a crack. A cold wind searched out the party and, although now dressed warmly, an involuntary shiver went through them. This door made no noise. The smell of recent oiling told Greta that someone had preceded them to help make their way safe.

The sister gazed outward for a full minute. Darkness had come. Good, she thought. She gave last instructions.

“Greta, take the rear and keep a good watch. Children, from now on, no talking, no crying, no noise at all. Do you understand?”

They all nodded. She bent down to Hans. “Hans, it is very important for you to be as quiet as you can be. If you slip, if you fall, do not cry. You must be a man now. Can you be a man like your older brothers?”

Hans started to whimper, but swallowed it with his fear. He nodded his little head. “I will be quiet like the church mouse,” he said. Sister Anastasia smiled at Hans and he returned it like a brave scout.

“Now we must go.”

She opened the door and went out into the October night. Once outside Greta closed it. Soon someone would follow to bolt it again. She walked slowly, looking in all directions. There were many who lived in the town who knew the abbey and its sympathies.

Attached to poles and trees the Nazi’s had attached flyers that told the townspeople they could earn a bounty by reporting the whereabouts of fugitives. Times were not good and dichotomies existed everywhere.

Someone could be out there. Their safety now required silence, slow movement, quick stops and breathless waiting before moving on.

Over the next two hours they worked their way along an old trail, keeping to ravines and little valleys. Suddenly a gunshot reverberated against the hills, echoing back and forth before dying out.

The fugitives instinctively dropped to the ground and lay there in terror. The shot did not repeat and in a few minutes, Sister Anastasia decided they had to go on. She waved the children back as she crawled to a ridge and peered over it with just her head showing.

Moving back to her group, she said, “I see nothing. We must take the chance that a hunter has found what he needed. Come, I know a place. We will be safe for the night in another hour.”

She knew she had lied and she would ask God’s forgiveness later when alone, but she believed it important to her charges that they not feel the constant fear that saps the body’s energy.

They followed her slowly. Hans’ mittened hand held Greta’s. He hadn’t said a word for three hours. Greta knew what the boy felt. She felt it too, and she felt justifiably proud of her youngest brother. She squeezed his hand. He returned it and looked up at her and she smiled at him.

In the deep night they came across a hunter’s hut. Sister Anastasia hadn’t been there since before she got the call to God, but she remembered it from the one hunting trip her father took her on when she turned twelve. The food they carried had been split out to the various backpacks so that they all had staple. Each had an ice pick and snowshoes, but no rope.

“We have blankets and we will be warm enough, but we must not have a fire. It is too dangerous. We are at the base of the mountains now and we will start climbing tomorrow. We must leave here before first light. By the time it is light enough for us; it will be light enough for a watcher. I know of a pass that is difficult and dangerous, but it is not watched. We can make it. I am sure of it,” she said.

“Now we must eat and tend to our bodily needs. Press closely together for warmth tonight. We will need all our strength tomorrow. I will say a special prayer for you tonight and if you remember it, it will give you the courage to leave this oppressed land and again find freedom.”

“I want my Papa,” Hans finally spoke after so many hours of silence, and then he cried softly into Greta’s chest.

Greta held her brother tightly and said, “Papa will find us, Hans.” Her conviction rang like a bell and even Sister Anastasia, who had many sad and awful thoughts within her, believed her. Yes, she thought, we will make it, and their father will find them.

They ate cold food and it satisfied them. Exhausted, when they slept that night, they slept without dreams. They’d made one dangerous passage already. Tomorrow they would face another, this time from nature. It would not be easy.

Chapter II next week

Combat

The sun set over leafy green hills, darkening the Saar Valley. What had been bright moments before lay covered in shadow and from Colonel Freshette’s view, its beauty had washed out of the peaceful, serene panorama. At another time the town below would have seemed ready for sleep.

Through his field glasses the Colonel could see no movement. Intelligence said the town was heavily fortified. He saw no evidence. The Germans were a clever bunch and they were well entrenched. A hush like a held breath brushed over the land, not peace, but waiting. Only Company B, camouflaged in mottled green and crouched low on the ridge, looked alert and at the ready.

“Colonel,” a thin voice came to him over the walkie-talkie, “we’re ready.”

Lieutenant Groneau’s platoon had scoured the ridges on either side of the valley as the company marched through. He’d pronounced it safe. Now Captain Bennet had his field pieces in place.

Freshette spoke into the mike. “Three minutes from…mark.”

“Mark.”

The energy level went up. His sense of the crack combat troops under his command he likened to a steel spring under tension. The Germans below, hidden amongst the buildings didn’t know…or did they? Their intelligence equaled ours and they’d held the territory for several years. Our side had gambled at every step in this lousy war.

At the three-minute mark the big mobile howitzers behind the hill went off simultaneously. Explosive sounds followed bright flashes from six muzzles and an interrupted barking staccato sound trailed six shells packed with volatile material as they sped to targets below. Gouts of flame erupted time after time. A second later the “Whump” of their payload reached the company’s ears. The little town dissolved in fire and smoke.

At the five minute mark the Colonel gave the signal to move out. The pall that had been in shadow grew into a huge blossom, red fire licking at its base, telltale of devastation on a huge scale. Lines of green began to snake down a hillside devoid of trees but covered in knee high grasses, the men, silent wisps in the coming night. They crouched and moved in an interrupted pattern, taking advantage of what cover they found. They relied most on the smoke cloud below to make them poor targets.

No shots came from the town. Freshette wondered. Could Intelligence be wrong? He’d had his communique for two days. Could the Germans have evacuated this important crossroads?

“Corporal! Get me Lieutenants Riley and Germaine.”

“Yes, sir.”

Corporal George called to the two flanking platoon leaders. In a moment he handed the walkie-talkie to Colonel Freshette. The two flanks were more than half way to the town, leading a pincher wave for the main force.

“Riley and Germaine. What’s your take on the silence?”

Riley, on the left, came back first. “Eerie, Colonel. I expected we’d be engaged by now.”

“Germaine?”

“No activity, Colonel.”

Just then, mortars arched from the near side just beyond the first row of houses where the smoke thinned and started peppering the main body. The columns hit the dirt. As they could, they rose into a crouch and moved forward, zigzagging furiously. Shouts for Medics came through thinly to the Colonel’s ear. From his vantage at the top, Freshette called for answering fire from the howitzers.

“Captain Bennet, are you onto this?”

“Yes, sir. My spotters are calling position.”

“Very well.”

The colonel followed the battle with field glasses. The howitzers made an occasional dent on return fire, but the Germans kept moving their mortars and the field pieces couldn’t keep up. Soon small arms fire began to sound up the valley. The pincers closed.

Suddenly, a section of hillside west of the town rose and raking machine-gun fire spit its deadly message into the left flank.

“Colonel,” Riley reported, “we’re pinned down. They’re cutting us to shreds. Think the howitzers could give us some help?”

“Captain Bennet?”

“Setting up a fire mission now, Colonel.”

Less than a minute later the field pieces had all turned and began delivering fire onto the machine gun nest. They pasted the hill, four aiming for the nest and the other two firing short to create a smoke screen for the flank. Finally the nest fell silent.

“Riley?”

“Still here, Colonel,” he groaned. “Took one in the leg. Captain Bennet’s doing just fine, sir.”

“Colonel?” another voice joined the mix. “Colonel, we have company behind us, sir.”

“What?”

“Corporal McCarthy here, sir, rear flank. We’re surrounded, sir.”

“Blast! Where’s Groneau?”

“Dead, sir. We got surprised on the eastern side hill. The Sarge got it, too. We’re pinned down, can’t move a muscle. Can you send help, sir?”

“Keep your phone open, Corporal, and your head down.”

“Roger, sir.”

The tide of battle had suddenly turned. They were in a trap.

“Major Notting!”

The Colonel’s exec leaned over.

“Map?”

Notting produced it, open to the territory where they lay. “We’re right here, Colonel.”

Freshette studied the map. “How could they surround us if Groneau did his job?”

“Colonel, he acted on the best Intelligence we had. The Germans obviously pulled out and moved back as we came through the valley.”

“Smart bastards. Find out their strength immediately.”

“Yes, sir.”

Freshette called to the radio man. “Call for air support, Bugsy.”

The little man cranked up his mobile unit and broke radio silence.

“I gave them our position, sir.”

“Good,” the Colonel said, “stay close.”

Notting disappeared for five minutes, during which time the level of the fighting went up several notches. When he reappeared his face had lost his usual aplomb.

“Best guess, two companies, sir.”

“Damn!” The Colonel hadn’t seen combat before, but he had worked out some brilliant strategies in the War College. Faced with the real thing, what should he do?

“I’m going to order the men forward at a run, Major.”

“Colonel?” It sounded like suicide.

“Intelligence said one company would be left to defend this point. If there are two, we have been outfoxed. My sixth sense says the Krauts have pulled everything out from in front of us except a harrying force to make it look as if the town is defended.  Facing that, we’d have no choice but to surrender. That I will never do. Corporal!”

Freshette reached for the Corporal’s walkie-talkie.

“Company B, drive for the town. Do it now! That is an order.”

To Notting he said, “Major, get as much materiel down the hill as you can. Move out.”

“Yes, sir.” Notting went to work.

Well trained officers, non-coms and soldiers pulled up stakes and ran like the wind. They encountered sporadic gunfire. Every so often a soldier would drop to his knee and fire several rounds at the last point of light he’d seen. As the first wave reached the devastated buildings, suddenly all firing stopped. Company B swept in on a blanket of its own fire. It met no resistance.

Dienstadt, a town of three thousand people, he thought. The town had been evacuated, herded into the hills. Their sympathies were not with the Nazi army. The Americans piled behind the remnants of buildings and turned to fight.

“What’s our company strength, Major?” the Colonel asked.

“Best guess, seventy percent, Colonel.”

“Secure the town and find any usable cellars. Watch for mines and booby traps. Get out sniper patrols.”

“Right, Colonel.”

“Bugsy!”

“Yes, Colonel?” The radioman came closer.

“Give the Air Force our new position. Tell them to come in tight and sweep from the north.”

“Sir?”

“Just tell them.”

“Yes, sir.”

The orders went out. Platoon leaders secured an ever expanding portion of Dienstadt. Mines blew two regulars to bits. Five more fell to snipers, including fourth platoon leader Lieutenant Smyth. Sergeant Gray took over with no time lost.

Detachments of each platoon were sent to find and destroy sniper nests. The heavy concussive sound of grenades sounded intermittently. The rest of the company dug in as the Germans tried a three-point pinch similar to the Colonel’s battle plan. They swept over the hillsides in armored vehicles mounted with machine guns.

Firing from slits and edges of buildings, trying to make every bullet count, they made enough difference to bring the assault to a grinding halt.

Less than an hour later, a spitfire patrol heading east turned abruptly south and began raking the German positions highlighted by the American infantry’s position flares. The battered ground force added jubilantly to the light show they created. Exhausted soldiers got new energy from God knew where. On Colonel Freshette’s command, Company B began to advance, this time to retake the hill they had vacated.

As mopping up continued, Major Notting said to Colonel Freshette, “I wonder where the Luftwaffe was.”

The Colonel offered a tired smile. “On the eastern front is my guess.”

ÛÛÛ

Author’s note: War occurs because of a desire for power by the few, the mortal sin of covetousness and complacency by millions. You want to blame someone; blame everyone. War is destructive of lives and property and it will always be with us. This story of conflict hearkens back to WWII, an example often called upon to illustrate sad flaws in the human character…and their cost.

Mohave Desert Incident

APOLOGIES TO ANYONE offended by the use of the term, “Indian,” which of course refers to a people we know in this age as Native Americans. Similar frictional situations are public knowledge. The story depicts known friction between races, it’s outlet in one case, and a reflection of what I will term western “justice.” I hope the reader will see something else within the story, too, that I will not describe, but look for it.

ΩΩΩ

THE MERCILESS SUN beat down. Jennifer and I lay on our sides at the bottom of a dune. I could feel sweat trickling down my arms and legs under my clothing. Tied hand and foot, duct tape across our mouths, I knew we would quickly dry out and dehydrate. If I couldn’t do something, we were going to die.

Probably high up on peyote, the desert raiders who tied us up left laughing and drove away in our Jeep. Dumped on the ground like sacks of potatoes, we would have given a lot to be anywhere but on blazing hot sand. Obviously, the rebel reservation Indians left us to die. Scream for help? You kidding? Besides the gag, nothing could be alive for miles around. Cruelty knows no bounds. They wanted us to suffer.

Why us? I would like to corner any one of them and ask that question, but right now we had get out of this fix. We couldn’t talk but we could move, squirm and get closer.

Although Jenn’s wrists were tied, her hands and fingers could move. I got an idea. Jenn’s a pretty savvy woman. Why I liked her. Get out of this and I might even marry her. I struggled my way around behind her and got my face up against her tight bound hands.

Making “Mmm…mmm” sounds, she responded by grabbing unsuccessfully for the edge of the tape several times. Finally she got it. When I saw her fingers go tight with the effort of holding on, I twisted my head violently and the tape tore part of the way. “Oww!”

Jenn pulled away slightly, but I said, “No, do it again.”

It came out “Ro, rue it ahen,” but she understood. I waited until she could feel the tape, grab it and hold on tighter. I ripped my head up.

“Oww!” The tape came fully off my mouth but lay attached to the side of my cheek. Now I could talk.

“Jenn, I’m going to work on your ropes. They look tight, but I think I can worry them loose with my teeth.”

Jenn nodded.

I’m twenty-eight and real strong, high school wrestling team and all that, but not enough to overcome the three black-haired men with long braids who’d done this. I could, for a fact, bite hard on the half-inch hemp that held her wrists and I went to work on it. The knots were tighter than I thought. I took considerable time on the king strand, the one I thought would begin to unravel the knot. Jerking my head back and forth until I thought my teeth would come out of my head, I finally felt it loosen a little.

Jenn’s a real trooper. She never complained during the entire time I had to look at her butt while I worked. Pity I couldn’t appreciate it just then. I grabbed a few breaths and let my teeth settle down. They hurt. After a minute, I gripped the rope again, tugging and pulling. Almost free! I sighed when it flopped loose.

Jenn moved.

“Don’t move yet,” I said, “there’s another one. You could still tighten it on me.”

She made a sound; could have been, “Sorry.”

Looser still, I worked the next strand carefully, thoroughly. Five minutes later I said, “Okay, I think you can worm out of them.”

Jenn tested her bonds and worked one hand out. How fortunate her hands were small and thin boned. Once free, she used a hand to remove the dangling rope. The first thing she did was to rip the tape off her mouth. Her victim status changed; she breathed fire.

“Those bastards!”

Venting done, she worked her feet free and then went to work on my hands and feet. We took five to get circulation back.

As a final thing, I tore the loose tape from my cheek and kicked sand over it. “Thanks honey. Let’s move. We’re still a long way from safe.”

“What’s your plan, Josh?”

“First I’m going to crawl to the top of the dune and make sure they went away.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Get behind me. If they’re gone I’ll try to figure a direction. Cover any exposed part as much as you can. We’ve got to keep our water in.”

“Okay.” She busied herself for a few seconds and said, “Ready.”

I nodded and began climbing. The sand kept slipping under my feet. It nearly exhausted me to reach the top. Jenn noted my trouble and picked a place a few feet to the side so she wouldn’t get into my wash. She climbed slowly, crablike. Like I said, she’s a smart cookie.

Finally we made it to the top and I had to say I would rather have empty desert to cross than to try and deal with those stinking Indians. Which way? I placed the sun without looking directly at it. Like I needed to blind myself, too, right? It had slid considerably off to one side. I did the celestial math, time, season of the year, you know. We had driven out from Yuma after deflating the tires to eight pounds for the sand trek. With the sun over my left shoulder when we left at eight this morning, I knew we’d headed pretty much west. I turned my body and pointed. Dips and turns, civilization must be that way.

How many miles? Who knew? Maybe somebody would be driving out our way and pick us up. I couldn’t wait to report this incident to the Yuma authorities. And the Indian Bureau, for that matter. They still fighting us? What did we do to them? Being white enough? Wasn’t that over a hundred years ago? What’re they, sore losers?

I railed for a time until I realized if we didn’t start moving, our day would get a whole lot sorrier.

Jenn steps flagged. I stumbled, my feet like lead. No help for it. I recognized the symptoms. Night came on. I stayed wary. Fool me once, not again. We walked into the night. Our rest stops got more frequent. Jenn got quiet early.

“You all right?” I asked her.

“Saving my breath.” I gave her thumbs up.

Got cold. Too hot and then too cold. No cougars anyway. I figured they’d be up in the mountains.

We’re both at about our limit when I see lights coming across the desert. Three vehicles. Couldn’t be the renegades. I find energy somewhere inside. I climb out of my shirt and wave it for all I’m worth. The headlights cut across us a pretty long way out. I yell. My voice cracks. They’re not going to see us. Jenn drops to the ground, dejected.

They start to go in another direction, but then they cut back and head our way. Sweet rescue. It’s a posse and they’re looking for us. The sheriff gets out and in that southwestern drawl I like says, “You folks look dried out. Have some water.”

I take the two liter plastic bottle, open it and hand it to Jennifer.

“Take a drink and pass the bottle,” I say. Ladies before gents, after all.

Well, we get the story from the Sheriff. “Seems there’s a maverick bunch jumped the reservation and showed up in town with a new Jeep it was clear didn’t belong to them. We pieced it together, went to see the Chief and since he didn’t want any trouble, he identified the varmints and we collared them. They were drunk as skunks by then. We got them to talk and then provided Yuma hospitality for the three of them in our air-conditioned quarters. They’ll sit there for a time and then we’ll send them back and the Chief will take up where we left off. Your Jeep needs gas, but it’s fine otherwise. Sorry for your trouble. Let’s get you in and have you checked out.”

“Any charges?”

“Disorderly. Theft of vehicle. You got more if you want it.”

I thought about it. We’re alive. We wanted adventure. We got it.

“Jenn?”

“You’re call, Josh.”

“No chance I could meet up with them one at a time, is there, Sheriff?” I asked.

He looked me over and said, “I reckon you’d do well for yourself, but I think you’d better just chalk it up to the old Wild West.”

“The Chief will make them understand?”

“You bet he will!”

I look over at Jenn, who had recovered considerably and looked pretty again.

“Well, guess I’ll just write about it, then.”

Believe I will marry this gal.

Getting Together Again

I STOOD IN the front hall and stared at the closet door under the stairs. How many years had it been? Hesitantly, I turned the key to unlock this particularly distressing part of my past and opened it. I reached around a jumble of old coats and boxes. I pulled the light cord.

With a flash that dazzled me, the old bulb burned out. The shock sent my body reeling. My head hit the hallway wall and sudden pain radiated into my eyes. I gasped, got control and leaned against it, more than a little shook.

I’m not meant to do this, am I?

But I had to. My psychiatrist, Dr. Walker, insisted I see the contents of the closet today. Why today? Her words resounded in my brain.

“Wayne, you have to do this today.”

I didn’t want to. She gave me all this gobbledygook about time lines and psychological flash points and stuff like that and I don’t think I understood her, but I promised to follow her advice.

“Will you come in with me?” I pleaded.

“No, Wayne, only you,” she’d said.

As I stood with my back against the wall, it hit me like the key click sound in the lock I’d just turned! My God, this is the closet I locked twenty years ago today.

The rage came back, swelling like a putrescent boil. Twenty years ago today I went completely mad, crazy mad, killing mad! She said experiencing my rage would be the first step.

More than ever I didn’t want to look into this closet, but now I felt inexorably drawn to it. I willed my body to stop, but it wouldn’t. People joke about how split personality should be fun; you always have someone to talk to, but it isn’t so! From within, separate Wayne’s rose and raged inside my skull. Charlie, the good guy jumped into the breach.

“You must do this, and now!”

“Must I?”

“You must!”

“But why?”

“You know what she said!”

“I can’t. It’s too hard!”

“Don’t be a sap! Look, you want to be sane again? You want to live in the world of normal people? You used to have courage. Find some!”

Charlie’s voice dimmed, shoved around and pulled down and now George emerged and his hatred beat on me in waves.
“Don’t do it! Don’t do it! I’ll make you regret it!”

Charlie pushed back wildly. He crowded George to one side. The two people that shattered away from Wayne Bittler on Thursday, September 16, 1996 when I murdered my faithless wife now wrestled in my head. The crack in my psyche that ripped reality away and propelled me into the horrible nether-land of madness now threw stacked memories and broken dreams from my past life at the fragile shell of my awareness.

“Get out, get out,” I cried. The voices slowly dimmed but would not leave.

It felt like acid stomach. You know what’s wrong and you know drugs keep it down, but you know it’ll always be back.

I shifted my feet none too steadily and leaned harder against the wall. It had substance. I badly needed substance. How long I stood looking into that dark rectangle I don’t know, but it didn’t matter. If I didn’t go forward, if I didn’t pull out the records and the memorabilia I couldn’t go outside to the waiting van. If I did and Dr. Walker couldn’t see a change in me – and she would – I might as well dig one and zip it up after me, because I knew I’d never see the outside of the Asylum again.

She’d warned me and I had listened, really I had. I had to do it and could I do it and I didn’t know if I could and why did I have to make this decision? I’d made no decisions of my own for twenty years. Why now? Inside my head my voices welled again.

“Let it go. Close it. Lock it up again. You’ll be all right. Wayne, listen to me!” George spoke in the strident voice he’d used on me all these years, the voice I’d listened to, to my great damage.

Charlie fought back. “No, Wayne. He’s not your friend. You have a chance. Go for it!”

What should I do? Indecisively I stood before my future. Then with a little snap, like the click of a latch from a secret door, I heard a third voice. It horrified me. Another one, a new one? Oh God! Slowly my body slid down the wall and I sat on the floor, shivering.

“There is a way,” the voice said.

“Who are you?”

“I am the guy you used to be before these clowns came along and took over. I am the guy who grew up in a small house at the end of a nice street in a nice neighborhood, lived with order and grew up loved and cared for. Your bad friend there pushed me down and the other one, the goody-two shoes didn’t help, but Dr. Walker assisted me to resurface. If you want this thing, listen to me.”

“How come I never heard of you?”

“Dr. Walker found me during one of your hypno sessions and we agreed not to let you know until the right time. It’s now.”

“So, who are you?”

“I’m you, the real you, the essence of you that has been locked up mute. I am the power you have lost. C’mon Wayne, it’s time to get to work.”

The apparition of me, only an impotent shell, then. No power, no will, just a sounding board. I knew what I had to do. I stopped trying to resist and let the new guy in. Then I waited.

Charlie and George clamored for a hearing, but the new one shouted them down. “Nuts, guys, leave that apparition you’ve been beating up on alone. It’s me you’re messing with. Your time is past. Now shut up and listen.”

Silence. Then the new voice soothed and coddled and reasoned with the others. It said, “I am Wayne, the composite of all you have been. I am all of you in the best and most important sense and now I’m going to prove it.”

He told me to go to the cellar and find a new bulb. I flooded the little closet with brightness. The light shined on stacks of letters and documents and other detritus of a shattered life and on the floor to one side, my eyes went to a shoe box.

“Pick it up.”

I reached for it. Like watching a play from a balcony seat in a theater, I watched my hands do what he wanted. I felt far away and fragile.

Strong, assertive new Wayne gentled me, treating me like the shell of an egg that could break. I felt the power of this third personality soothe me time and time again and he took away my fright.

“Open the box.”

The old, brittle tape broke and the cover yielded easily. I took it off gently, almost reverently. I pawed through the box, removing my high school diploma, the sharpshooter’s medal I’d won in Basic training, assorted pictures of childhood, and one photograph of my dead wife and me on our wedding day, our happiest time, a beautiful woman but oh, so shallow. At the bottom of the box I saw her letter.

“Read it.”

I grasped the letter, the artifact that cost me twenty years of my life. Why did I keep it? I read every word while a killing rage engulfed me. Then, at its end, I felt a strange coolness, and the fires of my wrath banked and dampened and went out, and I could feel again, really feel. And with feeling the pain went away. My keeper’s drugs seemed so artificial now.

Then my early self said, “It’s over Wayne. Whether she deserved the price she paid or not, you have paid a heavier one. Let’s get back together again, okay?”

“Yes, I see now. I’m ready.” And I did see clearly for the first time.

Charlie and George bubbled up and merged with new Wayne and me. And then  all of me stood whole and strong and complete and I cried like a baby for the first time in twenty years.

How wonderful to be whole!

I left the house for the last time without looking back. I headed for the van. Dr. Walker looked at me and she saw, and she smiled.