Captain Sam Louis blinked and rubbed his eyes, then struggled to sit up. He had been asleep dreaming that he was back home with his wife, Topsy. Their newborn son, Butch, was lying between them as they reclined on a small patch of clover.
But someone was now speaking to him in a foreign language, suddenly erasing the sublime interlude. He could immediately tell it was urgent, jumbled refrains of panicked vernaculars. A German patrol must have been spotted, a lost detachment of Wehrmacht or SS traipsing the woods nearby.
Closing his eyes, he turned his face away just for a moment and wept silently, quickly purging the wakening grief. He then turned back to the excited Partisans, hoping they didn’t catch his episode of frailty. He lied to himself a lot about things like that, knowing they had seen all the times he had gone to pieces, discreetly tied in knots wringing his hands, acting as if it was a coughing fit or a moment of deep thought. What he did not know was that this was one of the many things that caused them to admire, trust and respect him. But most of all, it caused them to love him.
The enemy patrol must be rather large and close by he thought; otherwise they would have attacked on their own without consulting him.
It was still dark, but through his tent flap he could just make out a diagonal slant of thick, purple sky set against the trees and mountains of southwestern Bosnia, a beautiful rugged country that reminded him of parts of Arkansas and Tennessee. But the Slavic language and dialects he now heard made it seem much older, early intimacies gripped in antiquity.
Finally, he saw Gustov among the montage of faces peering into his tent. The tall, gaunt middle-aged Frenchman, fugitive doctor from the Paris mob and police; he spoke English.
“Captain Louie,” he said with a heavy accent. “There is something you need to see.”
By the time they reached the narrow pass that ran through the mountains to the west it was daylight, treetops protruding from a fine mist lifting at staggered intervals from the valley below. Louis and his co-pilot, Lieutenant Peter Cormac, were so weak they had to be helped most of the way. Even with their crutches they had to stop often to rest.
They soon met up with other Partisans, contingents of a night patrol that sought out the Germans, ever alert for the enemy, ready to give ambush. They often sent warning to the battalion of resistance fighters camped in the nearby valley. Old men, women and children fighting a desperate war against Hitler’s Reich.
Gustov was consulted for a moment before speaking with the two Americans. “There are many of them,” he said with a disturbed look on this face, nervously glancing back at the other Partisans.
“Germans?” asked Louis.
“No. Jews, I think.” Gustov looked back again and pointed with a long attenuated arm. “Hundreds of them. They are being herded like cattle down a bombed out rail line by a platoon of collaborators. Probably Croats.”
It was nearly an hour before they were able to view the disgusting parade from a cliff high above the destroyed tracks. A procession of some five-hundred poor souls kept tight together in a line six wide, a hundred yards long, surrounded by twenty-eight men with machine guns, rifles, whips and clubs. They were being forced to march down a snarled maze of bomb craters that had obliterated a section of track that wound through the mountains. Their path was fringed with jagged bits of upturned rail. Every hundred feet or so the track ran perfectly segmented between each earthen concavity, littered with charred and shattered chunks of railroad ties.
After studying the scene for a few minutes, hunkered down with the others behind boulders and brush, Louis turned and looked back up the line. His twenty-three-year-old face was creased with exhaustion, causing him to look nearly forty.
“I know what to do,” he sighed, slumping to move against his crutches.
Another hour later, after moving a mile ahead of the death march, Louis crouched in a scrub of bushes at a bend in the tracks facing the oncoming column. He had told them to use rifles, not machine guns. To aim slowly and not to hit any of the Jews, to shoot only the collaborators or whoever it was that herded people, old men, women and children. He could smell them now, the ungodly stench wafting by, scarves covering the faces of their tormentors. He could just make out the yellowish Stars of David sewn to the filthy rags they wore. Prodded, beaten and whipped from somewhere worse to somewhere even worse still. Emaciated, they moaned and wailed the sighs of the forsaken, lost in an odyssey of promised lies.
Louis had chosen each man’s target, deliberately pointing them out with a clear translation from Gustov. Cormac, a capable city boy from Phoenix, was to the left of Louis fifty feet ahead of the bend. The others were spaced evenly, paralleling their targets. The co-pilot would wait for his pilot to fire first. They all would. He was their leader, their savior fell from the sky, shot down on a bombing run of the Ploiesti Oilfields three agonizing months ago. Even Prodki, the Partisan commissar-commander who had been sent with explicit orders from Tito’s committee, paid heed to Louis’ wishes. Most of them anyway.
Louis noticed that most of the men herding the Jews were on the left side of the column. Due to where the bombs had fallen and because the base of the mountain came up close to the tracks, only a few were to the right. The odds were good, but not great. He knew they could win the little battle, it was the sorrow of losses that he feared. The collaborators’ lives did not matter, nor did their pain or suffering. They were not soldiers but criminals of the worst kind, having forfeited their right to compassion and concern the moment they took up arms against the weak and helpless. Twenty-eight well-armed bad guys about to be bushwhacked by sixteen ragtag upstarts and two busted up American fliers. If they got any help from the severely abused Jews it would be a miracle. And if any of the Jews could keep from being shot in the upcoming fray that too would be a miracle.
Louis lifted a rifle to his eye taking aim on a large collaborator who seemed in charge. ‘Bastard’, thought Louis as he fired, hitting the man in the chest, killing him instantly. A crescendo of shots then rang out from the tree line, the past two months of target practice and skirmishing with the Germans paying off as seventeen more collaborators went down. Most of the Jews instinctively dropped to the ground but many, catatonic from endless brutality, stood still or moved as if caught in a web of lingering slack. Louis and Cormac easily took out two more collaborators apiece. The others didn’t fare so well; their targets were now moving about more quickly.
Two of the collaborators on the right side of the column began firing their machine guns at the Partisans through the crowd, hitting a half dozen or more of the Jews. Just as Louis was about to shoot the first machine gunner, a Jew leapt from the huddled chaotic mass and snatched a rifle off one of the dead collaborators. Louis blinked and lowered his weapon just an inch for the brave lad was in his line of fire. He was young, Louis could tell by his size and his movements, just a boy. After steadying himself with the large rifle, the young Jew fired it point-blank into the back of the first machine gunner. Both were violently knocked to the ground in opposite directions like sprawled bookends. This instantly gave Louis a clear shot at the second machine gunner. ‘Any miracle is better than none,’ he thought.
Two more Jew-herders went down in a hail of bullets from the Partisans. The last two threw down their weapons and fled for their lives sprinting off panicked into the woods, only to be chased down by some of the younger, more spry Partisans. Promptly executed, they were gunned down on their knees begging.
Murder was something Louis had not yet grown accustomed to, but he no longer tried to stop it. Helping these people fight the Germans was one thing. Stopping them from murdering, even torturing the enemy, was something entirely different. And they had made it very clear to him with upmost respect; it was simply none of his affair. The seeds of hate grew very deep with these people. Showing anything like mercy toward the Germans was looked upon as an unpardonable high crime. Any time they were captured alive, the best they could hope for was a quick execution. But often they were kept alive for interrogation, butchered to get needed information. Other times they were cut up for what seemed like recreation, a sick twisted pastime. “Preventing the Germans from reaping what they have sowed,” Gustov once said, translating for an elderly Partisan, “could upset the very balance of nature.” But Louis never got use to all the screaming.
The poor Jews were all starving and Louis feared many would die that day. The one thing they needed most was food; something the Partisans desperately lacked. The whole Partisan camp was malnourished, the Jews even more so. Skeletal, a bare minimum supporting the waning life within. Stillborn eyes set back deep in sunken cave-like sockets, rendering a sameness to their appearance. Some mumbled incoherently, mouths partly agape. Others wept, falling to their knees huddled in small groups blessing the ground, a woeful fraternity of misery.
Gustov had been able to get a little information from some that could still talk. They had come from Sarajevo, fifty miles to the northeast through the mountains. Driven by a group of thugs hired by an SS colonel, to be paid upon delivery in Zagreb. They were to be sold to a wealthy Croat collaborator who owned an assembly plant that produced fire extinguishers for the German military. A small fortune in slave labor that could possibly pay for itself by the year’s end.
Louis and Cormac were discussing what to do with the poor lot when Gustov approached with a very frail old man and a young boy about twelve. Looking at them, the two Americans could not believe either one had been able to march fifty miles through the mountains, especially the old man.
“They want to know your name,” said Gustov, his hands on their rail thin shoulders. “The boy and his grandfather are all that’s left of their family.”
Louis slowly stepped forward on his crutches, steadying himself, offering his hand and a weak smile. “My name’s Sam Louis,” he said with a thick southwestern drawl.
For a moment the boy hesitated, his dark pain-filled eyes pooling with tears, his shallow chest breathing heavily. A gaunt dirty face frozen upon the unspeakable horrors it had witnessed. Two, maybe three weeks of hair grown in thick, filthy swirls on a grimy scalp. A mix of Mediterranean and Slavic features, ever stoic, yet so close to utter defeat.
“Sam Louis,” said the boy, almost keening, barely discernible, nasally and languid. “Thank you.”
The boy kept speaking, but in Yiddish, slowly kneeling as he reached out with his thin fragile boy-hands taking Louis’ boots and weeping. He began to kiss the filthy leather, crying out loud sobs that carried a distance, piercing even the stoniest of hearts.
“Come on now, Son,” Louis said reaching down to the frail boy, placing his hands on his back and shoulders, vaguely noticing a fresh layer of dirt. “You gonna be aw’right. Don’t need to do all that, now. Stand on up, if ya can.”
With help from Cormac, Louis got the boy to his feet but he was still crying so hard it looked as though he might fall. As the two stricken airmen held the boy between them, the old man slowly shuffled forward. He spoke soft intimate words, reaching out lovingly to the child, a kind smile on his ancient face, kissing the boy’s cheeks and forehead. He then turned to Louis and Cormac, smiling and nodding, reaching out with an old gnarled hand touching the Americans’ faces.
“Sam Louis. Thank you.”
It was then that Louis noticed Gustov had an extra rifle slung over his shoulder. He looked more closely at the boy, realizing he was the one who’d grabbed the rifle and shot the collaborator.
It took all that day to move the newly liberated group back through the pass into the valley of the Partisan encampment, increasing its size by nearly one-third. Now, close to two-thousand made up the body of resistance fighters, mainly women, children and old men, very few able-bodied young men and even fewer trained soldiers. There were plenty of weapons and ammunition to pass around. Rifles, pistols and machine guns of all sorts, grenades and even small artillery. But there was very, very little food. Bite-size portions issued out daily, if they were lucky. A potato, a carrot or a turnip split four ways. A squabble over a dead rabbit or a squirrel would lead to a close quarter brawl, ending in a small riot, or worse.
There was, however, plenty of hate for the Germans. Three years now since their invasion with Fascist Italy, easily forcing the Royal Yugoslav government to surrender within a fortnight. Yet many of the people had chosen to fight on, even struggling independently in small groups. The beginning of a bloody occupation. In some cases, it was the only common bond between a very diverse and assorted people, someone to hate and fight instead of one another. Fighting in the cities was increasing but still rare. That was the Nazi’s domain, populated sectors rife with seductive propaganda and brutality. But the many scattered Partisan tribes, well hidden in the valleys, mountains and woods, waged a dirty guerrilla war against the Nazis. And not long ago, a precious bit of fortune came to this particular group of Partisans in the form of two downed American pilots, half-crippled and starved. Two accidental advisors showing them how better to channel their hate, scrounging what they could from the land that gave birth to the First Great War.
A month earlier a radio had been found at a small enemy camp ambushed by the Partisans, the German soldiers all tortured and killed. Its batteries were weak; it could only receive, not transmit. Every now and then news was gathered from Allied territories, some recently taken back from the Nazis; Rome, Cairo, Stalingrad. The radio was carefully monitored each day but only for brief periods to conserve its batteries. For many it was the only reliable news they had heard from the outside world in three years.
Later that evening the old man died and was buried peacefully in the woods. Just as Louis had thought, many of the starving Jews died that night. They had chosen to let go and drift away in the pleasant interval of peace, dying free, purchased from the hands of their tormentors with mere blood and sweat.
Shortly after helping the boy bury his grandfather, Louis was sitting off alone under a tree looking up at the stars in the sky. In his hand was a tiny pair of bronzed baby shoes, their laces intertwined with an emerald-green ribbon that was braided carefully into a long lock of auburn hair, the thick wavy tresses spilling out at its end. He was suddenly approached by Gustov who’d been off with the others listening to the radio, a joyful murmur coming from the crowd of Partisans.
“I have some good news, Captain Louie,” said the Frenchman as the American turned to face him. “The Allies marched on Paris today.”