Their daily vigil complete, Rudi and Louise returned to the plaza as the food line formed. When the old man spied them, he beckoned them into the line with him and his wife.
As they joined the old couple, the woman smiled. “Your parents sent you back here?”
Not wishing to lie, Rudi said nothing, but Louise burst into tears.
The old woman stooped, bringing her face close to Louise’s. “What’s wrong, little one? Did you see those nasty boys again?”
Louise sniffed, shook her head. “We lost our parents.”
The woman gasped, and her husband frowned as Louise described how the two lived while searching for their parents.
When she finished the old woman drew her close. “When you came home, you couldn’t find your mother, and your father is away in the army?”
“This is not right.” The woman turned to her husband, he nodded. “You both must stay with us.” She took Rudi’s hand, stared into his eyes. “Until we can find your parents.”
Ashamed for misleading the old couple, Rudi hung his head.
The old man patted Rudi’s shoulder. “There are lots of things you can help us with. I would be most grateful for the help of this fine, strong lad here.”
Once the man spoke, Rudi locked eyes with the man, squared his shoulders like a soldier coming to attention. “Yes, sir. I can help carry things and I’m good at finding useful things.”
“Good. You two will come and stay with us.”
Like a Sergeant giving commands, the woman addressed Louise. “You and I can keep your appointment with your missing parents while these two rascals loot and pillage, eh?” She gave Louise a wink. “Besides, women need intelligent conversation.” Nudged her husband, “This old fool never understands a word I say.”
With a chuckle, her husband shrugged. Once they received their allotment from the truck, the four journeyed to the old couple’s shelter.
A week later, Rudi trudged behind the old man, straining to keep the heavy food bag from dragging. With his cane tapping like a machine gun on the paving, the old man raced down the street. Rudi panted both from the pace and the weight he carried, desperate to keep the pace.
Rudi nodded. “Yes, sir. Wilhelm. But his friends called him Willi.”
The old man paused, turned back. “I knew a Kneldson. Hans was his name. Lived on Vasstrasser.”
Rudi grinned. “He was my grandfather.”
“You are his grandson?”
“Your father went to the Army?”
“He was a military policeman.”
“A good boy, your father. A policeman before the army. Don’t worry, he’ll show up. Every day more return. Especially those in the Wehrmacht.” He nudged Rudi. “And with luck, none of those SS or Brownshirt scoundrels will ever come back.”
He beckoned Rudi to follow. “Irene and Louise will have heated the water,” the old man said as he shuffled along. “If we want to have these potatoes cooked for tonight, we need to hurry.”
As promised, the food truck brought potatoes, along with a five-pound ham and a block of cheese. Informed of the vegetables the day before yesterday, his sister and the man’s wife stayed behind to boil water for tonight’s meal, while Rudi and the old man met the food truck. As they rounded a corner, the teenagers from the plaza blocked their path.
“Out of my way.” The old man brandished his cane like a charging cavalry man.
As the old man charged, Rudi set the food bag at his feet. The old man smacked the boy in the middle of the group across the kneecap, sending him tumbling to the ground. He then swung the cane in the opposite direction, striking the boy on the right across his temple, tumbling his backward. A boy on the left circled behind the old man, a brick in his hand. At that moment, Rudi drew the bayonet and lunged at the attacker with the brick. Instead of sinking in, the blade struck the boy’s shoulder blade. Enraged, he turned as Rudi thrust again, sending the knife into the attacker’s gut.
As Rudi struggled to free the blade, a teenager swung a board at Rudi’s head. Rudi ducked, but it slammed into his shoulder, numbing his hand, and the bayonet slipped from his grasp, still stuck in the teen’s stomach.
No longer supported by Rudi’s thrust, the stabbed boy fell forward on the blade. The old man whipped the air with his cane. As it circled his head, he hit the boy who struck Rudi full in the face, dropping him to his knees. The fifth boy grabbed the first, who still hobbled on his injured knee, and they fled. The other two staggered to the side of the road, then collapsed as if dazed.
As he leaned against his cane, panting, the old man’s jaw dropped as he viewed Rudi’s blood-soaked shirt. “Are you cut?”
His knees trembling, Rudi glanced down. Besides numbness in his arm, he felt no other discomfort. He shook his head.
The old man frowned. “Where did all this blood come from?”
Silent, Rudi pointed to the boy lying face down at his feet, the blood now pooled around the body. When the old man turned the boy over, the bayonet handle popped upright from where it had been smashed flat against the body as he fell. As he dropped, the boy’s weight jammed the blade downward inside, severing his intestines as it traveled through his body, propelled by the fall.
Rudi’s hands trembled as he withdrew the weapon from the body. Without a word, he wiped the blade clean on the unconscious boy’s shirt. Finished, he dropped to his knees, quivering, tears streamed from his eyes. “I was so afraid. I did not think. I did not mean to kill him.”
The old man took him into his arms. “You were very brave. They meant to kill us both. Come, the girls expect us. We don’t want them to worry, eh?”
Finished with the noon vigil, Louise arranged firewood in the stove. After lighting the fire, the old woman, Irene filled a kettle with water and placed it on the stove. Since the couple’s house had been flattened by a bomb exploding nearby, they now lived in the cellar. After discovering a wood-burning stove one day on the streets, the old man fashioned a chimney from salvage, which he ran out a window. Now they could cook indoors and have heat when the winter came.
The old woman shuffled to the entryway, peered up the stairway. “They should be back already. I hope they didn’t stay and gossip by the pump. Earnest always lets the time get away from him.”
The stove puffed smoke as the fire crackled.
“Mien Gott. Louise, open the damper!”
After rushing to the stove, Louise twisted the damper’s handle. Smoke stopped billowing into the room as the chimney’s deep-throated whoosh signaled its drawing.
Irene coughed as she placed a hand on her chest. “Come, child, let’s go above and wait for it to clear out in here. Hopefully, it won’t take long.”
Seated on the stone steps that remained from the house, they waited for the men to return.
As two figures rounded the corner, Louise leaped to her feet. “I think that’s them!”
As they neared the Irene gasped, struggled to her feet, Louise’s hand went to her mouth. Speechless, Irene pointed to Rudi’s blood-stained shirt. “Mien Gott, Rudi!” the old woman rushed to meet them with Louise trailing behind.
The old man, Ernest, caught his wife. “It is nothing woman. We just had an encounter with those ruffians we met at the pump last month. Herr Rudi ran them off, but not before he taught them a lesson.”
Silent, Rudi brushed past, his eyes downcast, carrying the bag to the entryway of the cellar with Louise scurrying behind.
As Earnest trailed them with his eyes, he placed his hand on his wife’s shoulder. “Ah, Irene, it was bad. Rudi killed one with the bayonet before the devil could hit me on the head with a brick.”
“What about the others?”
“We chased them away. Bullies are cowards.”
“Do you think they might try again, Earnest?”
Earnest leaned close, so the children would not hear. “I believe they wanted revenge for what happened at the pump, and now they may want it even more. Say no more about this for now. Let us enjoy a good meal. Rudi killed for the first time today. It weighs heavy on him.” Earnest shook his head. “We will get him through it.”
Lightning flashed overhead. As thunder rumbled, raindrops splattered all around. Earnest took his wife’s hand while they trailed the two children inside. “At least tonight we have shelter from these storms.”