Sam's War

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Chapter X

For over a week the training and preparation continued. The area just outside the Gate was constantly patrolled in layers. The Ticket was widened as much as possible, all brush cleared away. But still no more than four at time would be able to pass through its narrow confines.

It was a Sunday, so far an uneventful day, much of the work behind them. Suddenly the stalling, sputtering coughs of an airplane could be heard. Just as every eye in the camp looked up, a small wounded aircraft crossed over the peak halfway between the Gate and the Horn, smoke trailing its red-blazoned swastika tail. For a moment it looked as though it might crash into a ridge right above the Ticket, a fate much better than the plane’s pilot would eventually receive. Then the vessel banked slightly to the left, and just as it crossed over the mountain out of view, a parachute deployed drifting down into Oz.

No orders had to be given. Even before the whining crash of the plane was heard from the other valley, dozens of armed men were rushing toward the Ticket. In less than an hour word came that they had caught him.

They soon returned with the bloody battered pilot, still being beaten by his captors. He was tied to a tree, Prodki standing before the man speaking in quiet pensive tones, asking if he was comfortable, how his flight was.

Louis had been lulling with Katia in the valley’s late-day penumbra when the plane had crossed over the valley. He limped slowly up behind the little colonel, who was admiring the Iron Cross that been taken from the enemy pilot.

Gustov stood to the side with Cormac. Both men looking at Louis as he approached, grimacing, slowly shaking their heads. When Prodki turned to see Louis, at first his look was cold. Then he smiled, hiding a duplicity few men could see. Prodki pulled out his sidearm, a Russian Tokerov, holding it out to Louis, speaking to him in his tongue as if the American knew what he was saying.

“You are the only one,” said Gustov, still grimacing as he spoke, unable to meet Louis’s eyes, his hand vaguely motioning. “You and Lieutenant Cormac are the only ones who can give the German a quick death. Otherwise, he says stay out of this.”

“What the hell are you gonna do?” demanded Louis looking at Prodki.

Prodki said nothing, just smiled his perfectly wicked smile, calm as the devil, holding the pistol out to Louis. He then turned like some well-taught renaissance thespian of old, took two steps and offered his gun to Cormac. For a second Cormac stared at the weapon, then his eyes shifted to Prodki’s, letting the colonel see the anger before turning away shaking his head. Prodki cooly shrugged and turned his attention back to the German pilot. He holstered his pistol and pulled out a knife, glaring as he smiled at the man, slowly running the razor sharp blade across his own hairy forearm. Then Prodki showed the German the bald spot as if it were some unusual birthmark or tattoo.

The German was obviously terrified, yet he did not beg or plead for mercy. To Louis, he looked to be the epitome of Hitler’s master race; blonde hair, blue eyes, the fine chiseled features showing even through his fear, ever willing to take one for Der Fuehrer. Louis guessed the German was probably in his late-twenties, maybe thirty. Oddly enough, he felt a type of bond to the man. Not only were they both aviators, they were members of another very rare fraternity; Prisoners of War.

“You can’t do this colonel!” shouted Louis. “It’s against the United Conduct Combatant Code!”

“NO CODE HERE!!” screamed Prodki, spinning to look at Louis.

“It’s the law!” Louis shouted back, moving to within a few feet of Prodki and the German, pointing at the enemy pilot. “It’s what separates us from them! This man has rights!”

“No rights here!” Prodki snarled slashing the air with his hand.

“HUMAN RIGHTS!” Louis screamed so loud it made Prodki flinch, just slightly.

Prodki slowly stepped toward Louis, again pulling out his sidearm and offering it to him, speaking in a calm chilling voice. “This his rights.”

“It’s a crime,” said Louis, matching Prodki’s new-found composure. “I won’t do it. It’s murder.”

Prodki just stared at Louis for a moment. Then he turned back to Cormac, who still shook his head, but did not look away.

“Ha,” spat Prodki, turning back to the German, gun in one hand, knife in the other. He stood close to his captive, looking ready to disembowel and shoot the man in one quick motion. Then the little colonel reached with the knife and cut the cords, freeing the German from the tree. His bonds were so tight, the battered pilot literally fell away, stumbling to the ground before standing.

For a few seconds he just stood there looking over the crowd of Partisans as if seeking a familiar face. Perhaps a survivor from one of his murderous rampages from the sky was there. When he'd attacked the small villages, the helpless refugees caught out in the open, caught in his sights. He glanced at Louis, then at Prodki, who motioned that he was free to go. Just as the German started to move, Prodki shot him in the knee.

At that moment Louis was taken back by the sound he heard, a formidable memory of his childhood. A cougar had been stealing little calves off his Uncle Wayne’s spread back in Oklahoma. Eleven-year-old Sam had been allowed to tag along with the hunt to find the mountain lion. Armed with rifles and a pack of dogs, they cornered the puma in a shallow cave. Standing on a large rock behind the ever cautious men and the howling dogs, Louis had been able to make out the figure of the big cat, its greenish-orange eyes glowing defiantly from the back of the cave. But the shrill scream caused by the first bullet chilled him much more than the sight of the cat itself. He heard that shrill scream now.

Again Prodki put away his pistol as he walked casually toward the crowd of Partisans, looking back over his shoulder telling the screaming German he could go. His debt was paid, the wound being sufficient balance out his crimes.

Then Prodki found a withered middle-age woman who had been raped by the Germans in front of her husband and sons. Afterwards, as she laid helpless and ravaged on the ground, she’d been forced to watch as they’d been stood against a wall and shot because they’d tried to help her.

Prodki handed her the knife, whispering to her, pointing at the German. He held her by the hand, escorting her over to the enemy pilot while he spoke of her husband and her boys. All the while telling the German he could go, that he’d better hurry before someone decided to hurt him. Still the man did not beg, but kept crawling, clinging threadbare to the last hope of cat and mouse. Prodki stood approvingly to the woman’s side, one foot on man’s knee, as she stooped and gathered a handful of blond hair. She thought of her husband and her boys as she slashed at his perfect fatherland-face with the knife, catching him on the cheek, his screams amplifying across the valley.

Louis was finally chased away by the screaming. A few hours later he sat with Katia staring into the flames of a small fire. Gustov brought him the Iron Cross that had dangled from the pilot’s neck.

“Many of them tried to take this,” said the Frenchman. “But Prodki said it was for you.”

Louis took the three-inch-wide medal in his hand, studying it, knowing its significance. “Did they at least bury him?” he asked, not taking his eyes from the impressive decoration.

“In the woods,” Gustov said quietly, then turned to walk away.

At sunrise the next day Louis, Cormac and a few others went to inspect the crash site. Since the zones had been established, the Salute Scouts had been spending most of their time patrolling the areas north of the valley. Oleg, Pavlov and the others had missed the German pilot being tortured to death, not arriving at the camp until well after the woman’s handy work was done. They had seen the plane first, however, later telling Louis how it had weaved erratically across the sky before passing out of view. They’d feared that it might have actually crashed into the camp itself.

The plane, a Messerschmitt 109, had traveled about a mile into the next valley. Its wingless fuselage had finally come to rest in a thick clump of trees on the east side of the valley. Both wings had been sheared off on impact, each dangling precariously from the boughs left and right. Its engine still smoldered, smoke billowing through the tree tops. The tail had broken loose jackknifed to the side, displaying the wicked swastika like a gaudy clue to some secret underworld passageway. The right wing and right side of the fuselage were perforated with several large holes, making Louis wonder who had actually brought the plane down.

“Must’ve been near outta fuel,” said Cormac. “Otherwise, the damn thing would’a blown.”

“Yeah,” Louis replied. “Shot it up pretty good, whoever it was.”

For over an hour they checked out the wreck. Oil and other fluids still draining from plane were caught in some tin cans Louis thought to bring, to be used for various needs around the camp. In the cockpit all the instruments were smashed including the radio. The only personal effects left behind by the pilot were a comb and a tan beret, folded inside a dark blue scarf.

Just as the group was heading back, a runner could be seen coming toward them from the Ticket. It was one of the boys constantly used as a courier throughout the camp. He ran up and handed Louis a piece of paper. Cormac stood beside him as they read Gustov’s handwriting. A small German patrol had been spotted by Pavlov and Mikel nearly a half mile north of were the zones started.

Louis pulled out a pen and wrote on the back of the paper. Follow them as best you can. If they enter the zones; do as we’ve planned, but try to take prisoners.

“Hurry!” Louis told the boy, giving him a light shove. “Go! Give this to Gustov! Hurry!”

“Think they’re looking for the plane?” asked Cormac as they watched the boy sprint back toward the Ticket.

“More than likely.”

If the pilot had been able to contact a German unit in the area before bailing out, this patrol could be looking for him. Louis was far less worried about the patrol itself; he wanted to know where they’d come from. He hoped Pavlov would realize the importance of mirroring the enemy, stalking them, making no contact unless absolutely necessary. And if that happened, he hoped the young warrior, as blood-thirsty as he was, would have the good sense to take prisoners. Not to be sliced up for the fun of it, but properly and severely interrogated.

By the time Louis and Cormac were making their way through the Ticket, another runner came to update them on the situation. The enemy patrol had stopped and was resting just outside the furthest zone from the Partisan valley. Louis sent word for Pavlov to try and get on the other side of the German Patrol and create a disturbance, luring them away from the zone.

It worked. Just as Louis and Cormac emerged from the Ticket, makeshift wheelbarrows were waiting at the pass to quickly take them to a spot Prodki had set up at the bottom of the last switchback that led up to the Gate, a staging area of sorts. Prodki’s men were keeping back a small crowd that had gathered, armed small-folk asking what they could do to help. Right away Louis could tell by the looks on their faces, they knew something that he didn’t.

“Pavlov has done something to entice the German’s away,” said Gustov as the two Americans arrived. “Just as you’ve ordered Captain Louie; he’s been making noises and leaving articles of clothing.”

“How do you know that so soon?” asked Louis. “I thought they were way outside the zone.”

“We have organized a series of many runners,” Gustov explained, motioning to a young boy about 12, standing to the side, hands on his knees, breathing heavy, but looking up at Louis as if he were ready for more. “This boy is being used to run from here to the Gate and back. And we have at least five more outside the Gate, stretched out in a relay to Pavlov.”

“What’s your name, son?” Louis asked the boy, who stood up straight and looked at Gustov, the Frenchman uttering a quick response.

“Arlo,” said the boy.

“Well, Arlo,” said Louis. “If you’re up to it, I gotta ‘nother message for Pavlov.”

“Aye,” said the boy, nodding vigorously after Gustov’s translation.

“Tell Pavlov to keep the German patrol in sight, but do NOT make contact.” Louis looked back and forth between the boy and the Frenchman as he spoke, making deliberate eye contact with both of them. “Also, keep the communication line open. Make sure all runners know to keep well clear of the enemy. Tell him I’m coming with thirty men, but the main thing is to find out where these guys came from.”

After making sure Arlo understood his message, Louis gave the boy a few gulps of water, then sent him off, his feet making little flicking sounds as he sprinted up the switchbacks.

“What are they doing?” Louis motioned at the crowd of well over three hundred. They were mostly made up of the men, and some women, who did the menial work around the camp.

“They want to fight the Germans.” said Gustov.

Louis looked up the trail of switchbacks. “That's good, cause they're probably gonna hafta.”

Pavlov crouched in the brush fifty meters from the Germans. He could see seven of them. Behind him were Mikel and Oleg.

In a very short time Pavlov had become the unofficial leader of the Salute Scouts, Oleg smartly passing the command to him without word or ceremony. Oleg fought the Germans both out of a sense of duty and with passion, but he was more tempered in his age, having already gained a large degree of satisfaction knowing that his family was safe away from the madness. Pavlov had nothing but passion for warfare against those that had taken everything from him, everything but his physical health and his passion. He could lead by example in ways that would have made him the stuff of legend in any military anywhere. He was always thinking two and three steps ahead, deliberate and constantly animated, not an ounce of procrastination or duplicity to his being. Like Achilles reborn, his very presence was intoxicating to those around him.

Fifty feet behind Oleg and Mikel, split fifteen feet apart, were Rikardo and Joseff. Their job was to watch the watchers, constantly maintaining the same distance, while also keeping an eye on the Germans. Another fifty back was Nikoli; he also kept the same distance, except when a runner came. The runner would take his place as a lookout, while Nikoli quietly delivered the message to Pavlov. Nikoli would then relay Pavlov’s reply back to the runner to be delivered to Louis.

At this point it was taking a series of six runners to get reports back to the camp. The first jaunt extended from Pavlov’s current position to just north of the outer zone, where the enemy patrol was first seen. The next four legs went all the way through the zones to the spot under the Balcony, where 12-year-old Arlo waited to make the final stretch down into the valley.

Down in the valley everything was all a buzz. Prodki continuously marched around barking orders, while Louis, Cormac and Gustov went over the plans with a few others they had chosen, men who were fit and ready to fight. Cormac would stay behind and work with Prodki in securing the camp. Louis, Gustov and thirty others would set out to ron dé vue with the Salute Scouts, keeping the couriers running as they went. Gustov had fitted Louis with a special splinted cast. He was also given a second crutch, enabling him to move more quickly. They were taking with them two of the panzerfausts and three 50mm mortar tubes with fifteen rounds of motars.

As they moved up the trail leading from the camp to the Gate, Katia walked with Louis. She now looked more like a resistance fighter. Pants, tunic and a sweater, replacing her frock. A rifle was slung over her left shoulder. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail, revealing a more stoic appearance. At the Gate she gave him a pouch attached to a strap, looping it around his neck and under his arm. In it were two apples, a piece of bread, a small chunk of cheese and a lock of her hair tied in a green ribbon. When she hugged him she did not let go for a long while.

“Don’t worry,” Louis said. “I’ll be back.”

“Okay, Sam,” was all she said in her thick Slavic accent.

Louis looked at her over his shoulder as he crutched through the Gate. She seemed to almost be standing at attention, a mountain fighter girl. He noticed that most of the sadness in her eyes was gone. They now had a healed aspect in them. Something dangerous glimmered those eyes looking to catch a glimpse of the shattered world on its way there and back again.

As they moved passed the Balcony Louis gave some last minute instructions to Cormac. “Keep about five men just inside the Sticks, and a few more spread back to Rushmore.”

“What about up there?” asked Cormac, pointing up at the Balcony.

“I’d put about twenty or thirty. And make sure the machinegun nests are stocked with plenty of ammo.”

“Where do you want the line?” Cormac asked looking toward the boulders at the bend in the trail.

“What line?” asked Louis.

“The line where I start shoot’n the Germans.”

Louis looked north and thought for a moment. Then he looked back at Cormac. “As soon as any Germans round that bend, I want you to put a dose’a wup-ass on’m like they stole something from your grandma. But make sure our guys are back outta the way, before it starts.”

The two Americans then shook hands and parted, Louis down the trail with his band of sappers, Cormac to be lifted up to the Balcony. They both noticed a gleam in the eyes of all the Partisans. They all seemed to be tirelessly working to earn their little portion of victory, knowing without a doubt they had at least one thing left to kill and die for.

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