Sam's War

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Chapter V

There was now 26 of them, a hefty platoon of displaced farmers, factory workers and tradesmen, most of whom had never even fired a gun until war came. Each one of them had gone through the excruciatingly painful process of traumatic loss, bewildering denial and crippling grief. Then a bitter rage like the devil transformed them into men very different from what they had once been. In varying degrees they had all tasted the satisfaction of killing the enemy, some much more so than others. Yet even through the harsh existence that had been forced upon them many still clung to hope, and faith in God. These men had experienced a chance to show mercy, allowing them to heal and regain the ability to seek the grace of happiness. Some of these men still had someone to love, something to consider whenever they had the enemy dead in their sights, or under their knife.

Politically they were all communists now, but they’d all been raised Christian, mostly Orthodox, some of them Catholic. Many still prayed at night before they slept, asking God to forgive them of the terrible sins they’d committed. A good Christian never tortures; he kills quick and true. But some of them had no hope. They lived on hate, it gave them strength in what would otherwise be a vacuum of total despair. They were the ones who’d lost everything to the scourge of the Nazis. Middle-age men with a whole generation of dreams shattered by the Huns. These men did their best not to burden the others and to be cooperative in their duty, but the bitterness often showed through. The only god they prayed to now was the god of war.

Late in the afternoon they met up with another partisan patrol, raising their number to forty-one, another group of comrades-in-arms happy and surprised to see the Yang Keys. By early evening Louis and Cormac had covered nearly twice their usual nightly stretch. But once again their routine was broken. The week of rest and food had definitely strengthened them. Joining up with the Partisans, however, had kicked in their adrenaline and now they were utterly exhausted.

Their fractured ankles had healed, but even with the crutches walking was painful. The joint was very stiff and the calf muscle had atrophied some, cramping with every step. Soon they had to be assisted, the whole time urged on by the resistance fighters. The Partisans kept pointing up ahead, beckoning them forward with encouraging hoots and gestures, clapping their hands and nodding in approval, even singing songs for the Americans.

At one point Louis, who was almost delirious with fatigue, stopped in the middle of the trail, mouth open, panting like a dog. When he tried to take another step, he collapsed into Oleg’s ready arms. Cormac could also barely stand and now it took two partisans apiece to help the Americans, carefully walking them three-by-three down the trail.

Less than an hour later they topped the ridge of a pass between two high peaks. Down below in a beautiful narrow valley was a large encampment. Well over a thousand people mingled about a bevy of scattered tents and heaps of cluttered refuse, all arranged in haphazard disarray. Emboldened by the sight, Louis and Cormac began to walk unassisted again, the Partisans making gestures of celebration and joy amongst themselves, again singing songs.

It took nearly a half-hour to get into the camp itself. Along the way dozens of sentries gaped in wonder at the Americans as they passed, congratulating their comrades on the momentous find. Young boys of seven and eight, used as runners were sent ahead to spread the word through the camp, looking back over their shoulders as they sprinted off barefoot down the trail of switchbacks.

At the bottom, just around the finial bend, they waited in a multitude of exultant smiles and wild staring eyes. Thin, dirty and ragged, the survivors of Hitler’s terrible lightning war came forward to make a path, to glimpse the two men like rare majestic creatures from another world. Some were calling out what little English or American slang they knew. Their hands were outstretched to touch them, as if to be healed of some dreadful disease. They stank, but Louis and Cormac did not care, loving them like family, reaching out to grasp the hands of the ugly beautiful people. Their threadbare prowess showed in glimmers of stubborn reserve. Their gaunt drawn faces were weathered and sinuous and etched in tears.

There were very few able-bodied young men in the camp. They were made up mainly of women, children and old men with a sizeable minority of reasonably-fit middle-age men. Most of the young men were either dead, badly wounded or off in a labor camp somewhere. Many had been forced into German combat units and shipped to Russia, used as cannon fodder against Stalin’s massive wrath-of-God-like war machine now surging west through the Eastern stepps.

All the men they had traveled with were greeted by more than one woman. Many, including Oleg, seemed to have small harems of three or four. Several of the younger, more attractive woman were already positioning themselves close to Louis and Cormac. Then their group was approached by two men with an obvious air of importance, surrounded by a small entourage pushing their way through the crowd. One of them was short, only five-and-a-half feet tall and wore the torn, dirty uniform of a high ranking officer. At first Louis thought the man looked like Napoleon in rags, but the unflinching look in his eyes told him that it was Prodki, the bold Partisan leader Oleg spoke of back at the cave. The other man was very tall, almost a foot taller than the Napoleon look-a-like. He was thin and bookish-looking, and did not have the bearing of a military man at all, yet he possessed an obvious manner of influence. Oleg stepped from his women and spoke briefly with the two men, indicating Louis and Cormac. The tall man smiled pleasantly and extended his hand in greeting.

“Hello, my name is Gustov,” he said in perfect, yet notably accented English. “And this is Colonel Prodki, the commander of this part of the People’s Liberation Army of Yugoslavia. We welcome you.”

Prodki extended a small yet strong hand, saying nothing but giving a slight nod and what might have passed for a smile. Up close, Louis saw that only Prodki’s stature resembled Bonaparte. His facial features looked very much like a presidential Teddy Roosevelt, but without the winning campaign smile. He had a thick shock of dark hair that fit perfectly like a helmet around a square, oversized head. His bushy brow was lined by a pair of round spectacles sitting atop a nose that had been broken at least once. A thick mustache flecked with gray, covered the entire portion of his upper lip, running to the ends of a mouth shored by a prizefighter’s jaw that protruded defiantly from the center of a pair broad shoulders without even a trace of a neck. He had the steely-gray eyes of a cold-blooded killer.

“Did you say this part?” asked Cormac, looking around as if he’d missed something.

“Yes, well actually,” answered Gustov, “this is the 38th Provincial Mountain Battalion.”

“Oh,” said the co-pilot, still looking around. “I see.”

“You must be tired after your long journey,” said the Frenchman with a sympathetic smile, placing his large bony hands on the two Americans shoulders. “Come, we will tend to you.’

After some brief introductions, Louis and Cormac were helped to an isolated part of the camp for the higher ranking partisans. It was set up on the other side of a stream that ran through the valley from the north. In a haze of exhaustion they crutched through the camp, refusing the crude litters that were offered them, zigzagging through the little tent town. As they crossed a wooden foot bridge that looked to have been constructed of rough cut lumber and bits of discarded furniture, Louis looked back over his shoulder. Hundreds of the Partisans were standing at the water’s edge watching them cross. He stopped for a second and gave them all a quick thumbs-up, drawing a chorus of cheers from the Partisans.

Sam Louis met Topsy Murry in 1926 on the first day of kindergarten at the small public schoolhouse in Neetles, and they’d been an item ever since. In a child’s world they became enchanted with each other, innocently touching, playing and chattering like children do. From early on they became almost inseparable, intuitively gravitating toward one another, always smiling when their eyes met, utterly fascinated by anything the other one said or did. Little Topsy would huddle with her girlfriends, pointing and giggling as they watched Sam and his friends show off playing baseball or football. He always stood out as one of the little hard chargers. They were still very young in those days before the Great Depression, when the only real fuss was feeding chickens and milking cows. They’d both known struggle, but by their pre-adolescent years coping with daily life became painfully routine as the whole world plunged into economic decline. A methodical cycle of doing without.

When Sam was ten he pilfered a peck of apples and peaches from the Gilbert Farm, next section over. He toted the stolen fruit in Old Lady Gilbert’s nice gingham table cloth found hanging out to dry. At a spot where the local children sometimes gathered, Sam shared his little heist with a group of friends.

“Where’d ya get the fruit, Sam?” Topsy asked in pink pig-tails after biting into a peach, juice dripping down her chin as she grinned ear to ear.

“Oh, I kind’a bar’eed it from Ol’ Man Gilbert’s orchard.” Sam replied with a chuckle. “Dis here table cloth, too.”

Topsy’s stopped chewing as her sweet trade-mark smile vanished, changing suddenly into a dull stare. “You stole it?” she asked quietly with a slight pout.

“Well,” he said, his smile changing to a worried, pleading grin, “didn’t really steal it. I mean, they got a whole orchard.”

Topsy’s lips pressed together and the corners of her mouth turned down as her pout turned to a derisive frown. Holding up the once-bitten peach eye level, she flicked it at Sam, bouncing it off the side of his face before turning to run down the dirt trail that led to her home. He stood there trying to laugh it off in front of his friends, but it didn’t work. His disgrace began to show as he stared after her disappearing through the trees, even more smitten than the first day he saw her. It was then that Sam realized he was at a distinct disadvantage in his relationship with Topsy. It just wasn’t fair he thought to himself. She was in charge.

I took all that summer before she would speak to him again. Sam had not only gone to Old Man Gilbert and confessed his crime, he offered to paint his barn as soon as school let out. He told Topsy this, but for a while she acted as if she didn’t hear. Finally, after the Gilbert barn got a new coat of paint, Topsy saw Sam outside the post office one day and walked up to him, her pretty smile back where it used to be.

A few years after that, their true courtship began with chaperoned social gatherings, Sam on his best behavior. On a hayride one autumn evening she let him hold her hand, and soon it was kisses at the same spot where she’d pegged him with the peach two years earlier. Nate and Enola both adored Topsy and she was invited over to the house at least once a week for a visit. After dinner Nate would take the long way to Topsy’s house three miles down the road. He would drive slow as the two youngsters sat side by side in chairs put in the back of his Ford pick-up truck. And even though she was a girl of wholesome repute, it was Topsy that Nate and Enola feared had put the twinkle in Sam’s eye the day he returned from his first flying lesson with Milo.

At first Topsy was terrified of Sam flying, but she soon learned that adventure and any type of daring stunt was a very close second to her. By the time she was blossoming into a woman, there wasn’t a girl in the tri-state area that was near a threat of taking Sam away from her as that “darn airplane.” And like every red-blooded American girl who was betrothed to a strong handsome young beau at the time of Pearl Harbor, she knew he would soon be taken from her to go off and fight in the war.

After a short honeymoon in the Ozarks, she settled into their small apartment at Barksdale making friends with the other pilot’s, wives while Sam continued his advanced flight training. When he finally left for Europe she prayed diligently that it would only be for a season, but the war seemed to grow even more dreadful. And when word came that lonely June day that his plane had been shot down, all she could do was hold her new born child to her breast and weep and pray and pray.

That night she dreamt a long sequence of aerial disaster, vestigial silhouettes crowded in a junked up dreamscape, audible and foreboding as she tossed and turned. Then she could see him standing in his flight suit, a soft glow all around. One hand was holding tight to something above his head, while the other seemed to motion for her to be strong. An old Cherokee signal from their childhood, a palm-down salute presented horizontally across his chest. She then noticed he was hanging from a tree, a pack of wild dogs swarming below nipping at his boots. The dogs suddenly split into two groups fighting against each other in an undulating frenzy. Just as she woke, Topsy thought some the dogs looked like wolves.

Louis and Cormac were each given their own tent and told to rest, more talk would come later. The women then took over, pampering and fussing over the two Americans like noblemen. The ladies actually argued and fought over some of the more personal, intimate duties. After Louis was bathed, shaven, given a haircut and clean clothes to wear, one of the women sat on a large pillow close to him, gazing sadly with bright emerald-green eyes. Louis guessed she was about his age. She looked very tired and drawn, something almost feral in her eyes, but still she was quiet beautiful.

“Hey,” Louis said, quietly.

She moved her mouth as if to speak but stopped suddenly like she’d forgotten what to say, making no sound at all. At that moment another woman, well into her thirties, walked up and shoved the girl off the pillow with her foot, sat on it herself and gave Louis a big grin. At first green-eyes did nothing. Louis adjusted his view to look at her, sprawled on the tent floor behind the woman. Their eyes met, both embarrassed. The older woman then grabbed Louis’ face pinching his cheeks as she turned it back to her giving him a hard wet kiss.

Suddenly green-eyes let out shriek, a cat-like scream, and lunged at the woman, grabbing her by the hair jerking her off the pillow. Yelling and screaming, violently thrashing the woman’s head side-to-side, she dragged her from the tent, punching and kicking her until she lay senseless on the ground. Then green-eyes came back in the tent and chased the other women away with a broom, furiously swatting and jabbing it at them until they left.

Now alone with Louis, she stood there looking both defiant and embarrassed, gathering herself yet still lost in her little victory. She was tall, maybe only an inch shorter than Louis. Thin with long, wavy auburn hair, high prominent cheekbones and full pouty lips that still seemed to be trying to say something. She straightened the pillow and again sat next to Louis, who now looked somewhat aghast as she looked back at him with her sad green eyes.

“Well,” said Louis. “I guess that’s your seat, huh?”

For a moment she held his gaze and Louis noticed the sadness in her eyes seemed to abate slightly. Just as Louis thought that she might be simple-minded, she looked down and pulled a locket the size of a silver dollar out of her frock. She opened it and held it up with both hands for Louis to see. Inside was a small photograph of her with a handsome young man and two children, a girl about two and a boy still very much a baby. Louis took note of the smile on her face and how fine and happy she was then; the picture must have been taken just before the Nazis came. When Louis looked back at her, tears were forming in her eyes, spilling out shimmering pools of green caught in the ambient light of the tent.

He reached out and closed the locket, then gently brushed away the tears. She slowly crawled forward, almost childlike, into his arms not saying a word, just lying against him. Several times she tried to speak, but could only cry and softly moan. Louis later found out her name was Katia. From then on, she rarely left his side.

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