The Germans had moved on, heading north along a ridge that was familiar to any Partisan who’d been on patrols outside the camp. Pavlov wrote out a dispatch and gave it to Mikel. Next to Pavlov himself, he was the best runner of the Salute Scouts with both speed and endurance.
As Pavlov and the others began their slow, arduous task of following the Germans without being detected, Mikel raced back to the first relay point and gave the dispatch to Kafka, who was waiting with Suli, his alternate. After Kafka took off running with the dispatch back to the camp, Mikel took Suli up to the spot where he’d just left Pavlov, the German’s last position. Then Mikel continued running to catch up with Pavlov, while Suli waited at that spot for the returning runner to arrive with Louis’ new orders, or an update from Pavlov, which ever came first.
Thirty minutes later, Suli was sprinting from the spot where he’d been left by Mikel, racing to find Pavlov and the Salute Scouts. Bola, Arlo’s relief runner, had just arrived informing him that Louis had passed through the Gate with over 30 men, moving at a steady pace with a special splint on his leg and better crutches. Pavlov sent back word of their current course and advised that additional runners be used to fill the gap between his men and Louis’s. For the next six hours Louis and Pavlov communicated this way, a moving relay of nearly a dozen runners, the points changing continuously as the two groups pursued the Germans to their source.
By late that afternoon, Louis and his men had slowly closed the gap to less than a kilometer between them and the Salute Scouts. All this time Pavlov had kept the German patrol constantly in his sights, always within fifty meters, the enemy totally oblivious of their presence.
About an hour before dark, Suli was seen running toward Louis’s column, a dirty scrap of paper in hand. As Gustov read the note, Louis rewarded the boy with one of the apples Katia had given him. He devoured it in just four bites, core, seeds and all.
“They’re just around the next bend,” said the Frenchman. “About half a kilometer. Eighty, maybe a hundred Germans.”
At that moment all of the faces in Louis’s impromptu strike team turned to him. After a moment surveying their collective gaze, he nodded and motioned forward with his arm. They pressed on, holding tight to their weapons, the darkness forming on the ground where the shadows of the day ebbed back into the terrain.
The German company was in a small clearing that stretched out about 100 feet along the base of a rocky cliff. The clearing extended out a short distance to a small oval-shaped pond that was fed by a creek running from a series of foothills to the west. About twenty of the Germans were bathing in the pond, which appeared to be no more than waste deep.
Pavlov and the Salute Scouts were hunkered down watching the Germans from the trees on the other side of the pond when Louis and his men crept up slowly from behind. Pavlov’s eyes met the American’s, a homicidal glare that looked almost sexual. At first nothing was said; the Macedonian just shifted his eyes toward the enemy as if to reveal a special possession, an offering of sacrifice. Then, in whispers quiet as the breeze around them, they conferred together. Louis quickly learned that the patrol they had been following entered the German camp just moments before another ten man patrol returned, instantly disrobing to splash into the water. All of the Partisans, including the boys, looked through the trees at their hated enemy, eyes staring across the pond, silently demanding satisfaction so rightly due.
Louis whispered his plan, barely audible, pointing right, center, left, then right again. Pavlov then took the Salute Scouts and ten others west through the trees, moving quietly until they came to the creek. After continuing further upstream, out of view of the Germans, they crossed over. Then they turned back downstream and took a position in the trees along the cliff just left of the enemy. Louis and the rest of the men crept close to the opposite edge of the pond, using hand signals to ready them for the attack.
The sun had just settled behind the hills and mountains to the west, silhouetting the landscape in a pinkish-orange glow. The enemy’s sharp guttural voices were suddenly cutoff by the plopping sounds of grenades tossed specter-like from the bushes nearby. Even small explosions in water do terrible things to the human body. Bones are cracked and tissue ripped by the sudden, terrific hydraulic pressure. Simultaneously, as the grenades exploded, a hail of bullets issued across the pond into the unsuspecting Germans, drowning out their screams. From the trees to the left, two panzerfausts lobbed in an arch, landing right in the middle of the enemy encampment, while more bullets ripped into the panicked Wehrmacht troops. For a few seconds, the Germans fought back firing blindly into the trees, shooting only their own. Then, just as Louis expected, what was left of the small company fled into the brush to the right of the camp. At that moment the two mortar tubes were loosed, already aimed at that very spot. The deadly artillery rained down on the stunned Germans, shattering rocks and trees, sending chunks of debris hurling through their midst. They screamed as they sprinted, staggering dead, toppled bloody to the ground.
Now the chase was on, Pavlov leading the pack. About a dozen enemy troops made it through the last barrage, bounding off into the darkness of the trees. From across the pond Louis shouted to take them alive, but to let none of them escape. A handful of severely wounded were found in the camp. Louis tried to prevent torture, but their last few moments were spent being jeered, taunted and kicked by the partisans. A young German lieutenant with a shattered arm and a bullet wound to the stomach was found rummaging through a medical bag. He had just injected himself with a small syringe, letting it fall to the dirt as Louis and Gustov approached, a glossy sheen in his eyes, a derisive grin.
“Morphine,” said Gustov, examining four vials which had been intentionally smashed on the ground.
“Ask him where the rest of his outfit is,” Louis said to Gustov, but kept his eyes on the enemy officer as he stood over him.
The German said nothing.
“Tell him, if he doesn’t answer, I’m gonna let this guy take over.” Louis motioned to a large nasty-looking Partisan named Horst, who had just finished kicking one of the dying Germans to death. Horst was about 50 and in good shape for his age. He stood almost as tall as Gustov, but weighted 250, very strong and never smiled. It was said that he had been a hitman for the Belgrade mob before the war. Next to Pavlov, nobody could match his rigor upon the enemy. He’d been one of Prodki’s bodyguards, but wanted to be a Salute Scout. Louis wanted to use him for obvious reasons, but he couldn’t run very fast, though he was able to walk at a brisk, tireless gate.
After Gustov translated, the German shrugged, emboldened by the effects of the morphine, still refusing to talk.
“Tell’m not to kill’m,” said Louis as he turned to Horst and jerked his head at the prone enemy soldier. With no emotion whatsoever, the large man pulled out a large knife and stomped his boot into the German’s stomach wound. He reached down and grabbed the German by the crotch of his trousers, shifting his boot to the man’s throat, stepping with his other boot on the man’s leg, lifting his midsection off the ground to cut away his pants. When the German was exposed, Horst grabbed the man’s scrotum and penis, placing the sharp edge of his blade under his genitals. The German, who had been shouting all along in a loud manly yell, now began to scream and shriek like a woman. Soon he was babbling a spew of information.
“His battalion,” said Gustov, “is about two kilometers northwest of here.”
“Any artillery?” asked Louis, knowing the enemy battalion heard the noise they just made.
The German nodded.
“What type? How big?”
The German screamed something at Gustov, causing the Frenchman to tell Horst to ease off. The large man released the German and took his boot off his mangled arm. The young German now spoke with more clarity.
“Only small tubes,” said Gustov, studying the German, their eyes fixed. Gustov suddenly realized that the German was well aware of the fact that he was soon going to die, he was just doing what he could to make his last moments tolerable. “About a dozen, he says, 55 and 48 millimeter tubes. Nothing big.”
“What about patrols?” said Louis. “Ask him if any more patrols are out?”
Again the German nodded and began to speak.
“He says there is one more patrol out. It left yesterday and is not due back until tomorrow.”
“Which way?” asked Louis.
With his good arm the German pointed southeast, toward the Partisan encampment.
Soon Pavlov and his group returned with a more bad news. They had captured none alive, and two of the enemy had escape, fleeing in different directions through the dark forest.
About the same time Louis was rewarding Suli with the apple, a sixty-year-old Bosnian Muslim named Pol was helping patrol the area just north of the furthest zone from the Partisan valley. He was about 200 meters east of the trail that led to the rocky bend. He could just barely make out the Balcony, about a quarter-mile southwest of his position. Where he stood was a sloped, densely wooded area that led to a pass rarely used by the Partisans. To the west of Pol, about a hundred meters passed the trail were two more Partisans, Louko and Taga. The three men were currently the first layer of defense for the valley. It had been that way since Louis and his 30 men had passed through, gone to catch up with Pavlov and the Salute Scouts.
To his delight, Pol had just found a patch of morels. After tossing a few in his mouth, he began stuffing his pants pocket with the tiny, brown, edible mushrooms. As he sat cross-legged on the ground, contemplating whether or not to share his little find with his two comrades, he heard the snap of a twig behind him and reached for his pistol.
He never even considered that it might be the enemy. Any Germans would be coming down the trail in front of him. It must be a rabbit or squirrel he thought to himself, pondering the makings of a nice stew.
But when he saw the German soldier he froze. Then he slowly brought around the P-38 machinegun slung across his back. Even though he was less than forty feet away, the German did not see Pol. All he would’ve had to do was look down, but he was looking straight ahead toward the trail. If the German continued on his current path he would march right over his prized patch of morels.
He was just about to fire when the German stopped not twenty feet away. Pol could see the German’s eyes clearly. He had spotted Louko and Taga, and was already signaling back silently to others behind him, slowly lifting his hand shoulder height palm forward. Pol could now make out another figure about 15 feet behind the German. After motioning with his thumb, the two German soldiers slowly moved backwards out of sight. Pol waited a minute, then he began to crawl as quietly as possible toward Louko and Taga at the trail.
Pol was a seasoned resistance fighter. As a young man he had seen some combat in the Great War against the Germans. He had been working as a firefighter in Belgrade when the Nazis came in ’41. Though most of his friends and family were dead, he had a daughter and two grandchildren in the camp. In the summer of ’42 he had been badly wounded in the hip and still walked with a limp. If not for that, he would have possibly made the Salute Scouts.
Near the trail that ran into the zones, Taga and Louko, shared a cigarette. Both were about the same age as Pol but lacked his experience and over all drive as a fighter. However, they both seemed to think they were a little better than the Muslim simply because they were Christians. At this very moment they were arguing religion. Louko, a Catholic, was explaining to Taga, a Protestant, the virtues of the blessed Virgin. He suddenly noticed something moving low in the brush. Just as he was about to raise his rifle, he realized it was Pol crawling on the ground.
“What the hell are doing?” asked Louko.
Pol put his finger to his lips, then mouthed the word, “Germans,” pointing back the way he had come. At first Louko and Taga thought he was joking, but when they looked up slight images of movement could be seen through the trees. Pol instructed them to act normal, telling Taga to go into the zone and alert the rest of the watch. He told Louko to go warn the other two men in the outer sector.
As Taga and Louko did as they were told, Pol wondered if the Germans realized they had been seen. He had only seen two, but surely there were more. Were they just a small patrol like the one Louis and Pavlov were following. Or perhaps the advanced guard of a whole company or an entire battalion moving deep in the woods? He positioned himself to get a better look back at the spot he had just come from, a thick knot of trees, perfect for hiding.
The ten-man German patrol was hunkered down debating whether or not it had been seen. The first man told the others he saw the two men they had spotted look down, then suddenly look up as if they'd seen him. Shortly after that, the Germans saw one man go south, then the other head west. One of the Germans said he had seen something moving in the brush right before the two men looked up toward them.
They were part of a German company that had been sent out to sweep the region, sending out small patrols as they went. Not all the patrols had a radio, but this one did. However, when they could not make contact with their company, they called back to their battalion, who was also unable to make contact with the company it had sent out over a week earlier. The battalion advised the patrol to sit tight and observe what they could without engaging any resistance. They also asked the patrol if they had found any signs of the wounded German plane spotted limping across the sky the day before. Negative, said the patrol.
About the same time Horst was threatening to castrate the young German officer, Cormac was learning about the second enemy patrol outside the zone. He immediately began to wonder if it was just a patrol and not something much larger.
By nightfall the Partisans had all fallen back into the zones. Pol, Taga and Louko had taken up a spot in the boulders at the bend in the trail. From there, even in the dark, they could see anyone entering the zones. Well hidden in the first zone was over fifty Partisans, their weapons trained on the wide area just to the right of the boulders. Three machinegun nests and about a dozen fighters were now positioned on the bluff in the trees on the other side of the creek. They had also been given orders to be mindful of their comrades in the boulders. The two 8mm machingun nests were now fitted above the Balcony were fitted with plenty of ammo and half-a-dozen runners for resupply.
Cormac had packed forty men up on the Balcony with another half-dozen ammo runners. His biggest problem was the language barrier. With Gustov gone, there was nobody to do any proper translating, but so far they were making due with the simple stuff.
Back at the camp, Prodki had put together about 500 of what was left of his warrior class. Anyone who was able to use a weapon. Most of the women prepared to tend to the wounded. Some prepared to fight. Everything having been taken from them, except the belligerent qualities of wrath. Willow tree bark was gathered for its asprine-like qualities. Any cloth that could be found was into strips to be used for bandages. The young, very old and the disabled were kept near the Ticket in case of evacuation. As darkness settled, an eerie presence could be felt by all. Something familiar waited in the earthly works, lurking back until its call.
Louis and the men were making good time, but exhaustion was setting in fast. Even Pavlov was showing signs of fatigue. Louis wanted to send a runner ahead, but was afraid they’d get lost in the dark. Horst had finally done in the young German, making short work of him with his knife. Louis didn’t even bother protesting, knowing the big gangster wouldn’t listen. He wasn’t so much worried about the German patrol still out there as he was about the two mem who’d gotten away. With two enemy battalions less than four miles from the camp, he wondered if he should go ahead and evacuate or wait it out, risking a losing battle. As they marched back the way they’d come, there was very little talk, only the sounds of the woods and the trudging of their feet. As they moved down the narrow trail, around rocks and bends, they all looked at every shape and shadow as suspect retribution for their recent killing work. Wordless callings of doubt and fear.
The first German soldier made it back to his battalion five minutes before the second one. Immediately the other battalion to the west was notified. They had known for some time that a large body resistance fighters were somewhere in the area, but until now had no idea of its exact location. A few hours earlier a patrol had radioed in reporting possible resistance activity just three kilometers south of their company, which failed to acknowledge any radio transmissions. Not long after that, faraway gunfire and explosions were heard. Now they knew why the company was not answering; they had been wiped out by a band of Partisans.
Nighttime activity was rare for the Germans, but both commanders agreed, the group of Partisans must be found and destroyed as soon as possible. By 3am the advance guard of the first battalion arrived at the massacre sight. Bodies were strewn everywhere, corpses floating in the nearby pond. Next to the bullet riddled radio was a young German officer, his genitals stuffed in the mouth. A rage came over the Germans as they looked out on their slaughtered comrades. Talk began to spread of what they would do to the Partisans. Loud threats uttered through gnashing teeth. Fists clinched tight in the blackness. Devilish moods of enmity.
At the boulders Pol strained his eyes to see. He thought he saw movement, but wasn’t sure. Suddenly he heard a bird whistle used by the Partisans for signaling all clear. Or safe advance. He wasn’t sure what to do. He knew there were at least a handful of Germans just outside the zone. Maybe more. Maybe a lot more. He heard the whistle again. What if Louis’s group had been attacked and overwhelmed? His men captured and made to talk? Then he realized something. The whistle was for all clear. It meant things were safe. A low, long growl meant danger, things were not safe. Pol did his best imitation of the sound, ending off with a slight yip. Then he waited. He was pretty sure the sound wouldn’t fool any Germans off in the near distance. But maybe it would let his comrades know things were in fact not safe.
Louis came up to the front of the line where Gustov, Oleg and Pavlov had just heard the reply from the zones indicating danger.
“What is it?” he whispered.
“I don’t know,” said Gustov. “Something’s wrong.”
The thirty-seven men and six boys were waiting about 150 feet from where the zones started. They were huddled up together and it made Louis nervous. They were vulnerable this way. Pavlov whispered something to Gustov and started off into the darkness, taking only his knife and a pistol.
“He says he’s going to have a look around,” said Gustov.
Louis started to speak but it was too late. Pavlov was already gone, creeping stealthily off into the woods. Knowing the other German patrol could be out there close by, they all just sat waiting for a long time, listening to the sounds of the night.
Pavlov had covered about a hundred feet when he heard something to his left. A faint whispering, barely audible. He was down on his belly moving so slow it took all of his concentration, moving in the direction of the whispers. Another meter. Another foot. He heard it now more clearly, whispers in German. A little closer. Two maybe three of them. A little further, just a foot or two.
Now he could see them, crotched low right in front of him, looking straight toward the zone. Three German soldiers. This was what he lived for. Knife in hand, he was on them so fast the first man was dead before the other two realized it. Pavlov’s movements were fluid, quick and deliberate, imitating the techniques Louis had taught him. A loud cough was followed by a split second scream, cut off the gurgling hiss of warm blood gushing through a severed wind pipe.
I own you, he thought to himself, you’re mine. Forever mine.
Then he slithered on, as comfortable in his own skin as a king might be in his castle. Feeling his way, knowing the ground and the trees. Then he heard the whispers again, the sound of fear. This time they came to him, two of them, half-panicked, stepping right into his clutches. Three seconds work, the blood on his hands glistening black in the moonlight.
Then on his way again. Loving the night, the beautiful, dark and glorious night.
“What was that?” whispered Taga.
Pol jammed the palm of his cupped hand over the Protestant’s mouth, leaning in close with his finger to his lips. They had just heard a quick, grunting cough, then a sharp quarter-second scream that echoed briefly through the zone. And hissing. For a second Pol thought he heard hissing.
He looked up. To the east the outline of trees was beginning to show against the dark purple sky. Very soon it would be daylight. He thought about sending Louko or Taga into the outer sector. Then decided to go himself.
After telling Taga and Louko to stay put and be alert, Pol moved out of the hiding place. Keeping along the boulders, he found that if he crawled on his right side he could move quite easily, making very little noise. As he veered away from the boulders, toward the center of where the zones ended, he heard another muffled cough. It was close, not twenty feet to his right. In his left hand was a knife, in his right was a 9mm German Lugar. He was straining to see, as low to the ground as he could get, pushing himself along with his elbows.
He stopped. For a long moment he stared in the darkness trying to make out the shapes before him. Finally one of the shapes moved. Just a twitch, only a foot or two from his face. He slowly reached out with his knife hand, index finger extended, gun hand pointed at the shape. He touched it. A boot. The worn sole of a boot, heal down, toe pointed up. Then, just to the right, he saw the other boot. He jumped slightly as they both twitched again. Slowly he crawled forward grabbing the boots. A dead German soldier lay with his throat cut, eyes wide open, staring sightless and the gray dawn. Pol knew of only one person who might be capable of performing such a feat, possessing both the skill and cold determination to kill with this type of ease.
Lying across the chest of the still-warm German, Pol scanned the brush as the new day eked through the trees. He had just looked to left, then back to his right when he realized that a knife blade was at his throat, turned upward, its razor-sharp edge extended across his Adam’s apple. The iron grip of someone’s hand suddenly had him by the tuffs of his hair. Slowly he was pulled to the left until the familiar face of Pavlov came into view.
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