Sam's War

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Chapter III

His fall was short, landing painfully in a tree. Tumbling, beaten, brutalized by its limbs, the chute cords stopped him, swung hard against its trunk. Still dark and hanging hurt, he looked down barely able to see his boots, no idea how high up he was. He pulled his knife from its scabbard, held it at his side and closed his eyes. Waiting, knowing it would soon be light, a throbbing pain throughout his entire body. Seconds turned to minutes and minutes seemed like hours. Finally, he opened his eyes and looked down. What he saw caused him to let a slight chuckle. His boots were only inches from the ground.

After cutting his cords and dropping to the ground, a sharp pain deep in his right ankle told him it was broken. Ignoring the pain and fear that seemed to hover like a storybook monster, he limped away from the tree. He traveled only a short distance before hearing movement in the maze of trees behind him, crouching low, ready with the knife. Suddenly he saw Cormac emerge struggling through the trees with his chute balled up under his arm.

“Peter,” Louis hissed.

As Cormac moved toward him, a pained, startled look on his face, Louis noticed his co-pilot was also limping badly.

“I broke my ankle when I landed in a field back there,” he said, motioning with one hand the direction he’d just come, the other clutching at his right leg, his eyes full of pain and fear.

“What?” balked Louis. “You’re kid’n?”

“Do I look like I’m kidding!?” Cormac said, livid.

As Louis was explaining that he too had a broken right ankle, more noises were heard from the direction Cormac had come. They moved as quickly as possible, unable to help each other because of the location of their injuries, now hearing voices through the trees behind them. After covering about a hundred meters, they came to a huge deadfall and quickly squeezed under the ancient tree’s five-foot-thick rotting trunk, overgrown with weeds and vines. Digging with their bare hands, as the voices grew closer, they packed dirt, grass, bark and leaves forming a loamy partition so they could not be seen. Within seconds the voices of several men could be heard speaking some Slavic language in urgent tones. Through the matted miry soil the two Americans could vaguely see the men as they passed searching the area only meters away. They were not soldiers but dangerous nonetheless. An angry team of men armed with shovels, hoes and pitchforks, growling, pointing, darting this way and that. After a while they went away, only to return again and again, until finally they were heard no more.

All that day they remained crammed together under the deadfall until it was dark again, Cormac, tight behind Louis like a couple of forgotten spoons stashed in a cubbyhole. When they finally emerged the night was very quiet and still. After making sure nobody else was around, they took a quick inventory of their supplies. They each had a knife, a compass, a small first-aid kit, matches and two packs of cigarettes, a can of beef stew, a can of pork ‘n beans and a can of turn, crackers and a chocolate bar. Allied airmen had been advised not to carry side arms for fear of summary execution by the enemy if they were captured, and Louis had allowed no pistols on any of his bombing runs.

They each made themselves a crutch from tree limbs wrapped in Cormac’s chute, then took a compass reading and moved south at a slow arduous pace. Every hour or so they would stop and rest, sharing a cigarette after a bite of chocolate. Talking little, they were constantly vigilant of any noises off. By first light, they were completely exhausted, and Louis figured they had covered about five miles. After finding a spot well hidden in the brush they shared a can of stew and a cigarette, then wrapped themselves in the chute and fell fast asleep. When they stirred it was dusk, ? a bite of chocolate and a cigarette before taking a compass reading and moving on.

For the next three days their routine was the same; travel by night, rest in a well-hidden spot by day. But soon they were out of food and down to their last few cigarettes, hunger stalking them like a mad devious villain as they plodded along scared hurt and wasted. By their fifth day they had resorted to eating bugs, roots and worms and were utterly famished

On their sixth night they were moving along the edge of a large field when they heard the loud distinct moo of a cow. In less than a minute they found the animal, a brown milk cow grazing near the tree line. Ever the farm boy, Louis immediately got down on the ground with his face turned upward beneath the cow’s udder and began squeezing milk into his mouth. Meanwhile, Cormac, who was almost insane with hunger, lunged at the cow biting hard on its neck like a ghoul in a horror show. When that failed to satisfy him, he pulled out his knife violently stabbing the docile creature’s throat, then slashing it with the razor sharp blade. The half-ton cow collapsed straight down on Louis, his head, arms and torso completely pinned under the animal’s belly and crotch.

For a second Cormac stood there happy with himself, but when he heard his pilot’s muffled screams he looked down and saw Louis’ legs protruding out from under the dead cow. For several minutes Louis squirmed madly, his legs flailing and kicking as Cormac tried desperately to grab hold and pull him free of the massive bovine crush. Finally the co-pilot threw his body into the animal’s flank shoving with all his strength until it began to tip slightly. Then, as Louis’ legs literally ran in place beating the air, Cormac managed to take hold of the flight suit pulling as hard as he could.

It worked. First, Louis’ right arm popped out and began to push against the cow’s side. And just as he was freed birth-like out from under the dead beast, the tip of Louis’ boot crashed into Cormac’s nose knocking him flat on his back.

“You stupid son of a bitch!” screamed Louis.

“You okay?” bellowed Cormac. Just as he stood, bleeding from the nose, Louis punched him in the face knocking him back to the ground.

“You almost killed me, asshole!”

“I’m sorry,” Cormac sobbed lying there looking up at Louis, his face bruised and bleeding. “I just wanted to eat…”

For a long while neither man said anything, both of them breathing heavily looking at the dead cow slumped on the ground. A distant noise caused them to look up. Far across the field they saw the lights of a small house, dwarfed by a silhouette of mountains against the swirl of the Milky Way.

“C’mon.” said Louis, hopping to his feet, pulling out his own knife as he turned his attention back to the cow.

They began to cut off one of the animal’s hindquarters, Louis doing the knife-work while Cormac yanked and pulled on the leg. Voices and barking of dogs were heard moving toward them from across the field.

When the limb was finally severed they wrapped it in Cormac’s chute and headed back into the trees. Two banged-up American fliers quivering with hunger, limping through the woods on crutches, carrying a hundred pounds of bloody dripping cow leg. Dropping it often, they argued constantly on how best to carry it. First, side by side, with the leg between them. Then, up on their shoulders one behind the other, fighting over who got the heavy part. Then, back to the side by side method.

“This is far enough,” Louis said after nearly an hour of travel.

Cormac worked on the fire as Louis cut the meat into chunks, their hands shaking with anticipation. And soon they had fire roasted beef cooked on the tips of tree branches, grease dripping, sizzling into the embers. All around them was the delicious savory aroma of its charred salty essence, juices smeared on their fingers and faces as they ate, mumbling and moaning with pleasure.

“Hey, Peter.” said Louis, causing Cormac to look up from his beef. “Sorry I punched ya.”

“Don’t worry ‘bout it.” Cormac replied taking another bite. “I’ll get ya back later. You hit like a girl anyway.”

“The hell I do.”

“Yeah,” Cormac looked up with a greasy grin, “the hell you do.”

Soon both men were laughing very hard as they enjoyed their meat. After eating their fill they packed up and moved on, heading south.

For the next two days they ate beef and regained some of their strength. By the second night the meat spoiled and it was back to bugs, roots and worms.

Nine days after bailing out of Lil’ Butch they came to a river. All rivers go to the sea so they followed it.

“Do you think this is the same river we hit that bridge?” asked Cormac as they cautiously crutched its east bank.

“Could be,” said Louis, straining to look at the surroundings through the darkness. “Could be.”

They soon came to a bridge, a well-timbered trestle stretching 200 feet across the water. The river was taking a more easterly course and they needed to cross, but the bridge was out of the question. From a quarter-mile away, even in the dark they could see dozens of German soldiers covering the structure at both ends. Completely out of tobacco, Louis and Cormac stood there a moment yearning for a smoke as they took in the scene. Tiny orange cigarette dots glowed from the gray-clad figures ambling about in the moonlight, faint echoes of their idle chat.

“Let’s head on back a ways and find us a spot to crossover,” said Louis, looking at Cormac. “You can swim, right?”

Cormac nodded, looking nervously back and forth between the river and the Kraut-infested bridge.

After backtracking nearly a mile they took off their clothes, wrapped them securely in the chute and placed it on a large log. They then tied their crutches together, laying them across the chute to use as handles and waded into the chilling water with the log between them.

The current was swift, swifter than first thought and in their weakened state quite treacherous. Louis was clearly the stronger swimmer, having to hold himself back so they did not get turned around. When they finally reached the other side, both men were so exhausted they could barely pull themselves up on the riverbank. By the time they put their clothes back on and wrapped themselves in the chute, falling into a heavy soundless sleep, morning had broken.

Someone was kicking him. At first Louis thought it was Cormac. He saw the face of an ugly man well into his forties, up close, screaming at him. The foul stench of his breath hit Louis in the face like a sewage wind. He then realized the screaming seemed to have an echo to it. The world was knocked off kilter as he was punched in the face again and again. Kicked very hard in the stomach with boots. Then kicked in the ribs. In the groin. His vision blurred. He suddenly realized he was vomiting. Someone else was also screaming. He turned his head. Cormac was being beaten by another man, a much younger man. Germans had found them.

How long the first round of beatings lasted, Louis did not know. He passed out at least once. When he came to he noticed the younger man was beating on him. They were taking turns, switch hitting. Finally they stopped for a while to rest. Then came the double team. One would hold Louis’ legs apart, while the other kicked him hard in the crotch. His screams echoed through the trees as the Nazi’s boots dug deep into his loins, quieted only by his vomit. Then it was Cormac’s turn. Louis was forced to watch, helplessly retching as the two Germans took turns holding and violently kicking his co-pilot. This went on until they were out of breath again, sitting on a log speaking in sharp guttural phrases.

The Germans were both very well armed. Each had a rifle, a machine gun, a pistol and a few grenades. A nickel-size swastika decorated the handles of their daggers. Louis noticed a white piping running on the lapels of their filthy gray uniforms. Wehrmacht infantry. The older man had triple chevrons of a sergeant on his sleeves. The young German, who might have been eighteen, bore no indication of rank at all. Downy blond peach fuzz covered his cheeks and his eyes were a dazzling blue. Both were over six feet tall and had large frames, but were thin from lack of food and the vigorous life of a soldier. Vicious looking brutes, scowling with contempt for the two Americans.

They stood and jerked Louis and Cormac to their feet, shoving them toward a trail that led away from the river. When Cormac motioned for the crutches, the older German struck him hard across the face knocking him back to the dirt.

“Forget it, Peter,” said Louis, reaching down to help Cormac to his feet.

“I can’t hardly walk.”

“Yes you can! Now move!” snarled Louis, noticing the sergeant was actually poised to shoot Cormac.

As they hobbled side-by-side in front of the two Germans, bleeding and battered, Louis whispered quietly to Cormac. “Keep go’n a ways, then fall down.”

“What?”

“Shut up and keep go’n.”

At that moment the young German jammed the end of his rifle barrel into Louis’ lower back sending a sharp bolt of liquid pain down his legs, through his whole body. It was the kind of pain that would’ve sent most men home for the day.

They limped down the trail knowing there would soon be more Germans, beatings and maybe worse. Louis guessed these two were part of the same outfit that guarded the bridge they’d seen down river, sent on a routine patrol. About two hundred meters from the river the trail turned sharply to the left in the direction of the bridge, a mile or so away.

Fifty feet passed the turn, Louis stumbled and fell letting out a loud groan as he held his leg. As the two Germans began to protest, shouting, kicking and jamming their weapons at the fallen pilot, Cormac slumped against a tree and slowly slid down its trunk to the ground. Again, both Americans were kicked and beaten, given the boot, the fist and the rifle butt.

“WE NEED OUR CRUTCHES, YOU BASTARDS!” Louis screamed looking up at the the Germans in defiance, pointing back the way they’d come. “OUR LEGS ARE BROKE! WE CAN'T GO NO FURTHER!”

The two Germans looked at one another for second, then back at Louis and Cormac. They began to laugh. The older German said something to the younger one, causing them to both laugh even harder. They pointed at the Americans, mocking them, feigning compassion and sympathy, ridiculing their plight. For several minutes they bantered back and forth in German making sport of the situation. With hands on their bellies, they laughed uncontrollably, occasionally stopping to sigh long and hard. Then they would make a few more jeering comments before snickering and giggling into another brazen orgasm of laughter.

Finally they began to quiet down. The young German spoke disdainfully at Louis and Cormac. He seemed to be saying they would have to do without their crutches. That they would soon have little need for them. However, the older German seemed to object, calmly at first. But when the boy argued, the sergeant raised his voice, pointing back toward the river.

‘This is good,’ thought Louis. Not only did it imply other Germans were a long hike away, it was also an inception of a basic age-old military tactic: Divide and conquer.

The dispute continued, the young German gesturing derisively at the Americans, even spitting on them. Again the sergeant pointed back toward the river, shouting at his subordinate who hesitated, refusing to obey the order. The older man then became enraged, violently shoving the boy, using his rifle for incentive. The young man then began to reluctantly move back down the trail, casting a baleful glance at Louis and Cormac.

'Get ready,' Louis mouthed silently to Cormac as the sergeant continued to yell back down the trail, his head turned away. Cormac nodded, his eyes full of fear and rage.

After a moment, when the young German was well out of sight, Louis began to slowly rise. He kept his hands in view, eyes closed, grimacing in pain, half-expecting to be knocked back down. When Louis got to one knee, he looked up at the German sergeant only five feet away, glaring down at him. His rifle was held ready, but pointed up, finger off the trigger. His machine gun was slung across his back pointed down. Louis glanced at Cormac again, who was still slumped against the tree but in a good position to move. He then casually shifted his eyes to the German’s legs, hoping Cormac understood.

“Will he get both crutches?” Louis asked the German as if he understood English, motioning down the trail with his left hand. He slowly rose to a crouching position, clutching his ankle with his right hand. The sergeant frowned at Louis, then turned to glance back down the trail.

Back in Oklahoma, Sam Louis had been notorious for his arm wrestling prowess and fighting skills. He had regularly won championships at the state fair, plus a few amateur boxing titles.

The moment the German turned, Louis lunged at him. He quickly snaked his right arm around the man’s neck and jerked back as if he were a yearling calf. Then Cormac dove at the enemy soldier’s legs. The man was strong, bucking and thrashing madly about the width of the trail. With his left hand, Louis grabbed his right fist which was jammed into the German’s throat His right shoulder crushed into the back of the man’s neck choking off his wind. Down below, Cormac squeezed and violently twisted his body, causing the man to fall backward. His head crashed hard to the ground, his helmet bouncing off to the side. The German tried to cry out but the attempt was feeble, a meager strangled yelp. Cormac released the man’s legs and grabbed a rock the size of a grapefruit and began smashing the sergeant in the head as Louis choked him with all his strength. Soon the German’s forehead was completely bashed in, blood and gore splattering the Americans as they overkilled their enemy.

“C’mon,” said Louis, acting quickly. “We gotta hurry.”

They pulled the dead man off the trail into the woods, arming themselves with knives and a pistol. Then they moved back down the trail taking cover behind a large tree at the turn.

“Just the knives,” whispered Louis tucking the pistol, a nine millimeter Beretta, into his belt. “There could be Germans everywhere. Are you ready?”

“I’m more than ready,” hissed Cormac, his knife clinched tight in a bloody fist.

It wasn’t long before they heard him. The other German was probably high school-age, mumbling to himself as he came back up the trail. They were both down low, up tight against the tree when he passed unaware carrying the two crutches.

Louis stuck first with a short underhanded thrust plunging the blade deep into the boy's liver. The German let out a quick grunting shriek. Cormac immediately followed up with a hard stab to the chest piercing into the right lung. A coughed spray of blood misted the American’s faces as the German was tackled to the ground. Again came the overkill. Each blade found its mark over and over. Just before he stood, Cormac spit in the German’s lifeless, staring eyes. It was done. They were now killers, up close and personal.

After hiding the bodies as best they could, they put on the German uniforms. Then they moved away from the trail, now armed with guns, knives and explosives.

For the rest of the day they spoke little as they plodded along slow and deliberate, keeping about forty meters apart, one ahead of the other. If they were ambushed maybe one of them would survive to tell what had happened. Every few hours, whichever one walked the point would stop and turn, motioning that it was time to switch out. He would then silently trudge passed to the lead position, both focusing all their fading energies on the terrain around them.

They didn’t dare go down any trails or roads. Instead they kept far off to the side watching for the enemy as they traveled, paralleling the roads and trails. Several times columns of uniformed Germans marched by as they crouched low waiting for the danger to pass. Each time they held their weapons close, ready to go out with a fight, determined to never be taken alive again.

At one point they stumbled upon the bodies of two dead men, thinking for a moment they had come full circle finding their on handiwork. But these men had obviously been dead for days, their corpses grotesquely bloated, the sickening odor, a vast legion of flies swarming in protest. They stood staring at the bodies not saying a word, only guessing that they were German, but not sure. The scene had been thoroughly pillaged, no weapons, no clothes save their undergarments, nothing of value save for the flies.

Finally Cormac slowly stepped forward and drew his knife. Then he punctured the enormously swollen belly of the closest corpse. A large poof of foul, noxious gas emitted from the dead body as it deflated like a macabre balloon. Both Louis and Cormac vomited, but not food, just the water they’d been drinking.

It was almost dark before Louis mentioned that their routine had been broken. They had walked all that day, a time when normally they would have slept. Both had actually thought of it. But the trauma of having been so badly beaten, the whole ordeal with the Germans had put them in a kind of senseless stupor.

Just before finding a safe place to lie down that night, Louis shot a small rodent he saw scurrying in the bushes, some kind of badger or coon. After quickly skinning the creature, they sat waiting as it roasted over a fire. They hung the German uniforms on tree branches hoping to hide the light from the flames, knowing it would do little good.

Even after the meager meal, sleep eluded them. They each gazed silently at the dark shadows of the trees all around them, listening to the eerie sounds of the night, wondering what else they would have to do to survive, wondering if they would survive.

For almost twenty-four hours they stayed at the spot, sleeping and resting, talking very little and smoking German cigarettes. Louis was able shoot a gray squirrel from the trees, another light meal for their much needed nourishment.

Occasionally they were startled by noises off in the distance, far away gunshots, shouting and the mechanical whir of an engine. Sometimes their eyes would meet, not as a form of communication, just a curious gaze at one another’s freshly brutalized features, warped and bent into a solemn expression.

At dusk the following evening, they moved out feeling only a little rested and still very, very hungry. It was a painful trek, at times literally forcing themselves to keep moving, one doing what he could to encourage the other in moments of weakness.

By the end of the night’s travel they were following a small creek, staggering along its bank until it led to a small pond. It was just daybreak and fish could be seen swimming on the surface of the water, cobalt-blue flashes of yellowish-silver darting back and forth, reacting to the movement above. They stood their silently sharing the last cigarette, staring at the images like a bizarre earthen cinemascope.

Not taking his eyes off the pond, Cormac handed Louis the cigarette as he broke the silence. “What do you think’ll happen if I throw one of these grenades in that water?”

“Bet it would kill them fish, huh.” said Louis, looking suddenly a bit animated, also keeping his eyes on the pond. It was the most they’d said each other since killing the Germans.

After a quick look around to make sure the area was clear in all directions, Louis gave Cormac the nod. Standing back a safe distance, Cormac pulled the pin of a grenade and tossed it in the center of the pond. Seconds later, ripples circling to its edge, the pond exploded in a sheet of water that drenched and pelted them with dead fish.

“Holy shit!” roared Cormac. “Look at that!”

“C’mon!” yelled Louis, laughing as he started to pick up the fish. “Let’s get’m an’ get the hell outta here! Fish for breakfast, buddy!”

Both men were laughing so hard they could hardly stand, staggering about in gleeful mirth as they filled a German ammo bag until it spilled over with fish. Then they fled the area as quickly as they could. After finding a safe place a mile or so away, a fire was built, the fish tossed into its flames.

“What the hell kind’a fish is this anyway, Sam?” asked Cormac through a mouthful of the flakey white meat.

“Dunno,” said Louis, shrugging his shoulders as he licked his fingers. “Taste kind’a like brim to me.”

“What the hell’s brim?”

“Little fish we got down around where I’m from.”

Cormac nodded and continued with his meal. When they were done, it was the first time they’d been full and satisfied since the cow.

They were now able to sleep better, regaining some of their strength to travel at a much quicker pace at longer intervals.

The next day after they walked all night, stopping once to eat the rest of the fish, they found a nice place to rest within the branches of a large thicket. They were just about to fall asleep when they heard a strange noise off in the distance, a loud roaring whoosh from out of the sky. Intrigued, Louis and Cormac looked at each other, got up and crawled out of their hiding place to see what it was. Off in the distance was a clearing where a large V-shaped portion of sky could be seen. A single, fluffy, white cloud was nestled beautifully in the lush, green cradle of two mountains. As the gushing noise moved closer, an aircraft the likes of which neither had ever seen streaked across the sky at an incredible rate of speed. It whined as it passed, banking hard to the left like some wicked wasp-like insect. Then it was gone, leaving only the echo of its sinister shrieking engines.

“What the hell?” Louis gasped quietly to himself, knowing all along exactly what it was, but not wanting to believe what he’d just seen.

“It didn’t have any props, Sam.” said Cormac. “Did you see that? A rocket plane.”

“It was a jet, Peter.” Louis said, his eyes still on the sky, almost hoping the weird craft would return so he could get another look at it. “They told us about’m at Lackland. Remember?”

“Yeah, I remember,” said Cormac, his eyes also fixed on the sky. “But hearing about it and seeing it are two different things.”

“Wonder how fast that thing goes?” Louis pondered aloud.

“Had to be doing over five hundred, wouldn’t ya say?” Cormac said as he looked around. “Think there’s anymore of’m?”

Louis shrugged and the two men just stood in the trees, their eyes searching the sky, both of them wondering what a whole fighter wing of such planes could accomplish. They discussed this as they walked back to the bushes to rest, the grim possibility of a squadron of large jet bombers accompanied by jet fighter escorts streaking across the sky at untouchable speeds, laying waste to everything before them. Before they slept the conversation continued about the strange things devised by man in the years since the war began.

“Think we’ll ever make it to the moon, Sam?”

“Hope so. Get’n awful crowded down here.”

They were now out of cigarettes. While not a necessity like food, it was something constantly on their minds. Tobacco calmed their frayed nerves and curbed their incessant hunger.

Shortly after sunrise the morning after witnessing the jet plane, they came to a tree stump next to a large clearing where a small camp had recently been made. Nearly a dozen tiny cigarette butts were scattered by the edge of a four-foot-wide circle of ashes, the blackened remains of a dead campfire. In a nicotine fit they began to gather up the snipes, salvaging each bit of the scavenged tobacco. Cormac was sitting on the tree stump facing the clearing as he rolled up a small pen-size cigarette. Louis was facing Cormac, his back to the clearing. He lit a match and held it up for his co-pilot.

Suddenly, just as the smoke caught alight, Louis noticed Cormac’s eyes bulging out like golf balls. He turned to see a column of over a hundred German soldiers marching across the opposite side of the clearing, moving away but in full view.

“Oh, shit,” gasped Louis, still holding the burning match.

“What the hell do we do?” asked Cormac as he stood, the freshly lit cigarette dangling obliviously from the corner of his mouth.

“Nothing,” said Louis, “don’t move a muscle.”

“What if some of’m come over here?” Cormac said, his voice broken with panic, turning to Louis. “I mean, they’re gonna know we’re not German as soon as we start talking. They’ll kill us ‘cause we’re in German clothes, no matter what.”

Louis thought for a moment as they both stood motionless, staring across a hundred-and-fifty meters of clearing at the heavily-armed company of enemy soldiers. So far, they were marching away from them, turning their heads to look at the two disguised Americans the way a traveler might glance at passerby.

“I don’t know,” said Louis, looking around. “Hopefully they’ll only send over a few of’m. Then I guess we wait till they realize we’re not Germans, then shoot’m. Use the machine guns. Then high-tail-it fast as ya can into the woods. We still got five grenades so, maybe we’ll get lucky and get away.”

“Sounds good to me,” replied Cormac, caressing the handle of his machinegun, “’cause I’m not going through that hell again. No way. I’d rather die.”

Just then, one of the Germans raised his hand and waved lazily at Louis and Cormac from across the field. Without a word the two Americans each raised a hand and waved back, almost involuntarily. This caused more Germans to nonchalantly wave at them. For the next few minutes Louis and Cormac, and the column of German soldiers waved at each other like a small town parade until the enemy troops disappeared into the woods. For a long time afterwards, Louis and Cormac just stood there staring across the field at where the Germans had been.

“Let’s get the hell outta here,” Louis finally said.

“Yeah,” said Cormac. “Good idea.”

But they just stood there staring a while longer, not believing there luck.


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