The next day started on a very sour note. Louis and Katia were sitting near a small group eating a breakfast of watery porridge, dried fruit and meal found earlier on a foraging run.
A strange man who’d been ambling about all that morning bent over and picked something out of a tall patch of grass, not thirty feet from the group. The man was obviously simple-minded, said to be the cousin of one of Prodki’s lieutenants. He began fiddling with the object, trying to take it apart as if it were some kind of small package or tiny lockbox, turning it over and over in his hands. At first Louis didn't think much of this as he casually looked at the man. Then, to his horror, he realized what the man had found was a hand grenade.
“What the hell!?” Louis said out loud, as the man babbled endlessly to himself, his hands working the deadly device, his eyes wide with maniacal glee.
“NO!!” Louis screamed just as the man pulled the pin from its setting, staring at with an ape-like grin, as the lever flipped with a chilling clink. “GET DOWN!!” Louis grabbed Katia and dove backward, crashing hard to the ground a half-second before the explosion.
The man was the only fatality, decapitated and his arms blown off, but several Partisans were injured, one quite badly. It would be the first of many times that Louis would witness Prodki’s wrath. In front of the whole camp the colonel kicked the lieutenant, the dead man’s cousin, in the crotch as hard as he could. Once he was on the ground, wailing in agony, Prodki grabbed a large metal pot, beating him almost senseless. Then Prodki pulled his sidearm and stood over the man aiming the weapon down at his face, hissing severe words of warning before finally walking back to his tent.
“They usually keep him watched someplace safe, away from anything dangerous,” explained Gustov to a stunned Louis. “But in all the excitement since your arrival our routine has broken down somewhat, and I’m afraid he’s gone about unchecked.”
Just two hours later, a man accidently shot his friend in the foot while he was wiping down his rifle. Louis stood by nervously looking for any carelessly held weapons as Gustov tended to the wounded man. Then the Frenchman told the American of another accident that happened just days before they arrived at the camp.
“One poor fool twisted his ankle while out on a patrol in the valley just south of here. Apparently he used his rifle as a crutch. Later he saw a rabbit or squirrel or something and shot at it. Of course the weapon blew up in his face, and killed him.”
Later that afternoon, with some trepidation, a target practice session was organized along the edge of the stream in the southernmost part of the glen. Running perpendicular to the stream for about 150 feet was a three-foot-high wall, also overgrown with plants, vines, weeds and grass. The loamy partition was probably hundreds of years old, a straight line of carefully piled rocks, long since reclaimed by the earth.
Targets made from discarded bits of furniture and damaged clay pots, had been placed on the wall, spaced ten feet apart. Nearly the whole camp had formed a large half circle, gathered to watch as Louis instructed fifteen of the lesser-experienced partisans. Each man held a rifle, standing in a line twenty paces from the wall, formed up in an amateur firing squad.
“Ready!” shouted Louis, standing off to the side with one arm raised high in the air. “Aim!....Fire!” Jerking his arm down.
A jerky crescendo of shots rang out, sounding to Louis more like 4th of July than target practice. The targets, each about a foot-and-a-half in diameter, sat untouched by the bullets.
“I don’t believe this,” said Louis, looking at the firing squad in disbelief. “Ya didn’t hit any of’m. What’s a matter with ya?” He looked back at the wall, slowly shaking his head. Then he turned and looked at Cormac, who stood behind the line of Partisans next to Prodki and his men. Behind them was Gustov and Katia.
“Easy, Sam,” whispered the co-pilot, motioning subtly with his hand. “Easy.”
Louis looked at the ground, letting out a long sigh, “Aw’right, let’s try it again.” He looked back at Gustov. “Tell’m to try aiming this time. It’s the middle part of the command, between ready and fire.
The Frenchman who seemed a bit embarrassed, nodded and turned to the twelve men, speaking in a very animated tone. Then he looked back at Louis and nodded again.
“Aw’right!” Louis shouted, raising his arm, glaring at the Partisans. “Ready!” The men raised their weapons. “Aim!” A wave of fidgets moved through their shoulders, arms and faces. “Fire!”
When the shots rang out Louis was looking at the wall. Nothing. Not one of the targets was touched, not even a nick. He looked back at the firing squad, fifteen tired, sad, scared-looking men, all of them forty and fifty-something years of age. Each one, he guessed, had never even seen a weapon up close until the Nazis came, let alone held and fired one. They all had the look of men who wanted to be somewhere else, sitting in a pub drinking beer of maybe even doing some kind of menial, mundane task. Anywhere, but standing with a rifle under scrutiny, shooting at immobile targets from a relatively close distance and missing.
Louis let his crutch fall to the ground, then turned back to the wall of targets, squaring his shoulders, standing tall and straight. Quickly, with speed that impressed even Cormac, he drew the nine millimeter Bereta from his belt and fired all eight rounds, scoring eight direct hits on the first eight targets.It was one of the weapons he’d taken from the older German, the man who’d beat him so badly, a man now dead, discarded from his thoughts. Keeping his eyes on the wall, not even looking at the pistol, Louis extracted the spent clip. His hands were a blur as he inserted another clip and chambered the gun. Then he squeezed off seven quick rounds, bulls-eyeing the last seven targets. A collective din of gasps, followed by an even larger murmur rose from the crowd of partisans.
“Kind’a like that,” Louis mocked, turning back to the firing squad. After returning the pistol to his belt, he picked up his crutch and began making his way back to his tent, Katia following close behind. “Peter, I think we’d be better off on our own.”
“Aw, come on, Sam,” said Cormac, also starting after Louis while Prodki berated Gustov, marching up and down the line of Partisans, spewing a plague of curses. “Give’m some time. We gotta be patient with’m.”
“To be honest with ya,” said Louis, looking back over his shoulder. “They might be better off without us. If we train’m too good, and they start go’n round knock’n off more Germans, it’ll bring a bunch’a trouble their way. I think it’s best that me and you take our chances on our own.”
“What?” yelled Cormac. “Are you crazy?”
“Have you seen what’s happened here today?” Louis stopped and turned to face his co-pilot, Katia standing close but giving the two men their space. “They’re dropping like flies. A guy tried to take apart a hand grenade, for Christ sake. Damn near got me and her killed. Then another guy shoots his buddy in the foot while he’s clean’n his weapon. And I heard the other day a fella got killed after he used his rifle as a crutch, then tried to fire it. And what really scares me is that they’re probably still wondering why it blew up in his face. And now this,” he threw out his arm motioning toward he wall. “They can’t even hit a target the size of a ripe watermelon from sixty feet with a rifle. That’s crazy.”
At that moment the two Americans looked up to see Gustov approaching them, followed closely by Oleg and Prodki, who were goading him on , urging him to say something. Behind them was nearly the whole throng of Partisans, a tightly packed mass of well over a thousand people following the little drama as it unfolded.
“Please, Captain Louie,” said the Frenchman flushed with exasperation. "They want to know how you do that. How to use a gun like that. How do you do that?”
Louis looked at Cormac, then his eyes began to scan the large Partisan crowd. “I grew up on a farm in Oklahoma!" he said in a loud voice. It was during the depression! It’s how we fed ourselves! The crops were pretty sparse back then! We didn’t have any money! Nobody did! But we had guns, so…!” He paused and shrugged, holding his hands in the air for effect. “……we had to hunt to put food on the table!”
Gustov hesitated, then turned and translated Louis’ words shouting in a loud clear voice for the whole crowd to hear. Immediately, Louis could tell by the blank expressions on their faces, they didn’t understand. After throwing his arms up, he turned and limped off, Katia trailing behind.
“Please, Captain Louie!” Gustov shouted after Prodki violently shoved him. “They want to understand! They want to defeat Hitler! They want to destroy Germany! Please help us, please!”
Louis stopped, at first just standing with his back to the crowd. Then, he slowly turned around, glaring at the people.
“I GREW UP ON A FARM IN OKLAHOMA!!” he shouted at the top of his lungs, his voice echoing across the valley. “IT'S RIGHT NEXT TO TEXAS!!”
“Texas,” said Gustov.
Suddenly the word Texas seemed to crescendo through the crowd. Quietly at first, then growing louder, rising to a chorus for the Lone Star State.
They began to say other words of American mystique, mispronouncing some of the names of popular western folklore.
“Buffalo Billy the Sundance Kid.”
When Louis heard his son’s name he thought of home. Then he thought of how he got to where he was now, suddenly realizing how foolish he was acting. He looked to his right. Katia stood by his side. She took his hand and smiled at him, a smile like he’d seen in the picture.
“Texas,” she said with a soft Eastern European accent.
Louis gazed into her emerald-green eyes, giving back a clear reflection of the mountains behind him, a witness to the girl’s awakening. His anger was gone. “Well now, are you gonna start get’n fussy with me too?”
Lifting her shoulders and crinkling her nose, she let out a soft giggle, briefly flaunting two dimples. She then leaned into him laying her head on his shoulder, looking at Gustov, Cormac, Prodki and the others, letting them know he was going nowhere.
Firearms had been such a major part of Sam Louis’ life growing up, he could not recall a time without them. He literally fired his first weapon on his 2nd birthday, a .32 revolver discharged with some assistance from dad as he sat in his lap, mom’s hands cupped over his ears. It was an old family tradition that was supposed to bring good luck, as long as the child didn’t cry. And of course little Sam didn’t.
Memories of guns were ingrained in his daily life. His father’s big Colt .45 revolver tucked into its thick leather holster, dangling from his hip as he returned home from a day of patrolling the countryside. The Browning 12-gauge pump and the 30-30 Winchester that hung from a rack in the back window of a black 1931 Ford pickup truck, a big gold star on each door, topped with a cherry-red light the size of a gumball machine. Loaded pistols and rifles were kept almost everywhere in the house. A double-barrel 12-gauge and 30.06 hung on the wall of the living room. Another .45 sat behind the clock on the mantle by the front door, and a .38 was kept next to Enola’s canned plum and fig preserves on the top shelf of the pantry by the back door. In the barn was another double-barrel and as old Springfield bolt-action that was usually left propped in the corner. Enola had herself a .22 pistol. She kept it out while she worked in the kitchen, occasionally sniping a fox or a coon creeping around the chicken coop. Sam’s first gun was a .410 single shot. As early as seven years of age he would get a scolding from his mother if he didn’t fetch a rabbit or a squirrel every day.
Depression and drought had all but wrecked the Louis farm. Most of Nate’s meager pay was needed to help keep the bank from foreclosing on the land. Hardly anything grew and hunting was their main source of food. Sam’s uncles and cousins were all seasoned outdoorsmen. Large family hunting excursions always preceded holidays and special event.
Several times Sam proved his marksmanship ability while on these outings. He once dropped an eight-point buck that was running at full stride from about 200 yards, leading the animal perfectly. Another time he literally saved his younger brother Pat’s life, gunning down a wild hog that suddenly rushed from the bushes, stopping the beast only feet before it slammed into him.
Of the three Louis families, Sam’s was the smallest at five. The other two had seven apiece. With the various in-laws that occasionally stayed on the property, there was sometimes over thirty mouths to feed. They might’ve all gone hungry sometimes, but none of them ever starved. They always shared whatever meat or vegetables they had with each other, often swapping out whenever the need arose.
And if good luck is truly the residue of hard work, then they deserved every little bit of prosperity that seeped from their toil. On more than one occasion, Nate struck a deer while driving at night. Without hesitation, the animal was thrown in the back of the truck to be taken home and cleaned for the big family road-kill feast the following evening. One cold winter night not long before Thanksgiving, Nate’s brother, Dustin, woke to see a huge buck standing twenty feet outside his bedroom window. Without even lifting his head from the pillow, he reached for the pistol on the nightstand and shot the big deer right through the glass, scaring the Bjesus out of his wife and children. The window stayed boarded up all that winter, but the venison roast was the hit of the Louis family holyday dinner that year, with plenty of leftover stew lasting till Christmas. Even Sam’s baby sister, Pam, helped out. The precocious seven-year-old saved every penny, nickel and dime she could find one spring. That summer she bought the winning raffle ticket for the prize steer at the state fair, making for a very happy 4th of July barbecue.
Within his community Nate Louis was a man of larger-than-life qualities, but he also seemed to possess the good fortune of being in the right place at exactly the right time. One summer two men killed a guard while escaping from a jail in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Two days later, Nate was driving on a lonely stretch of road and noticed a car pulled over on the side. Behind it, tussling in the dirt, were two men fighting. Nate had seen this kind of thing before. Two companions, brothers perhaps, on a long road trip and they get tired of each other’s company and start to argue. Finally things get too heated and they decide to pull over and duke it out, just like this. The two brawlers never even heard Nate as he parked, got out and swaggered casually toward them with a smile. It was quite amusing watching men in such a fury who really couldn’t fight that well. Just as he was reaching to pull them apart, one of them said something to the other that reminded Nate of a state-wide bulletin he’d read the day before.
“‘Cause’a your dumb ass,” snarled the man, “we’re wanted for murder. That guard was aw’ready out. Whad’ya hafta keep hit’nm for. Ya bashed’es brains in. An’ now I’m gonna do the same to you.”
It’s funny how the double-click of a .45 will quiet almost any kind of hubbub.
“Howdy, boys,” said Nate after the two men turned to him in surprise, staring down the business end of his gun. “Would ya mind repeat’n that?”
Because he was a lawman, Nate didn’t qualify for the $1000 reward offered for the capture of the men. But as a gesture of appreciation, gifts flowed in from the Fort Smith area, some in the form of cash, giving the Louis family a much needed bonus.
During the crime wave of 1935-36, spurred by the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machinegun Kelly and John Dillinger, Nate was issued a Thompson sub-machinegun. It fired the same .45 caliber round as his sidearm, but could spit out thirty bullets in five seconds. He gave his family a demonstration, letting young Sam fire the weapon, riddling an old abandoned shack with bullet holes. Nate was also issued an extra pistol, a Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum revolver. It fired the same rounds as a .38 but was much more powerful, especially made for puncturing the engine block of a car. Sam’s wrist and hand ached for days after firing this powerful handgun.
Although he had been born into a very hard world, very little was hard for Sam Louis. He could literally plow a field from sunup till sundown, smiling all the while. He excelled in both athletics and academics. By his late teens, he was pretty much an expert with firearms and had mastered all aspects of outdoor life. He could take apart an automobile engine and put it back together before supper time. He could do fine carpentry work and complex electrical wiring. He was experienced in agriculture and animal husbandry. His math skills were far above average and his interest in science was endless, always reading what could on the vast curriculum. He made friends easily and was well liked the different communities of his home. His laugh and smile were contagious and his rugged good looks caught the eye of every girl that happened his way. And he could fly an airplane.
But from the moment he made his first and only parachute jump, life became very difficult for Sam Louis. He could no longer run and he could barely walk at all. His head ached and his body was constantly be in pain. What little food he did get, he was now having trouble keeping down. And though he enjoyed Katia’s company, he missed Topsy so much, it hurt whenever he thought of her. In the space of a month he was becoming very much aware of an emotion that up until now had been utterly foreign to him: Fear.