ETO - London - 1943
Second Lieutenant Danko walked into General Worth's office. He immediately noticed a US Army captain standing at the back of the room – about Danko's size with light brown hair – but ignored him, marching up to Worth's desk and saluting. "Reporting as ordered, General."
"Good, good." The general smirked. "I have a little job for your band of misfits."
The captain came to stand next to Danko.
Danko glanced at him curiously before returning his gaze to Worth and raised an eyebrow. "Sir?"
"This is Captain Franklin Sheppard, leader of a specialized espionage unit, code-named Jericho." The general waited as each man nodded a greeting. "He's asked for the assistance of the Dirty Dozen. I've approved his request."
"And what is the mission?" Danko didn't appreciate being ordered around by another team.
"There's a radar installation in southern France we have to destroy," Sheppard said. "I need the manpower of your team to ensure our success."
A knock on the door interrupted them, and the general called out, "Enter." A guard escorted Janosz Feke and Dylan Leeds inside.
"Do these two belong to you?" the guard asked Danko.
Danko nodded. "Didn't I tell you two to behave?"
"Hey," Leeds defended, "I was sitting pretty when he," the forger jerked a thumb at Feke, "decided to see how far a button would roll on the marble floor."
"Well?" Danko looked to Feke, expecting an explanation.
Feke shrugged. "'Bout thirty feet."
Danko groaned. "Just sit down and shut up."
Worth signaled the guard to leave before demanding, "Why the hell are they here?"
"Well, General, my orders said to come immediately," Danko said. "The three of us were at the prison checking out a candidate – one of Leeds' former comrades."
"Will he be useful?" Worth asked.
Danko shook his head. "The only thing I can guarantee is that he'll kill Leeds at the first opportunity."
"So, not a great loss," murmured Feke.
Leeds adopted a hurt expression, but quickly ruined it by grinning widely. "What can I say, I'm loved by all."
Sheppard cleared his throat loudly. "Getting back to our mission, General…"
"Oh, yes." Worth looked at the two convicts. "You might as well stay, you'll be hearing about it soon enough."
The two cons saluted half-heartedly, retreating to the rear of the room.
"You'll have to infiltrate the facility, set charges, and destroy it," Worth informed Danko. "It's heavily fortified."
"That's where we come in," Danko supplied.
"That's where you come in," Sheppard agreed.
"Great," Feke mumbled. "We get to attack another fortress."
"Hey," Leeds said, "don't forget we're expendable."
"True. They can always get more cons."
Danko heard the muttered remarks but chose to ignore them. He knew General Worth hadn't heard them, or else the general would have yelled at the two clowns. Looking askance, he saw Shepherd react to his men's comments. Danko smiled internally. Let someone else get a taste of what he had to deal with all the time. He refocused on Worth.
"Will we have resistance help, General?"
"There are no partisan groups in the area," answered Sheppard, "but I've had an agent there for just over three weeks. He's been gathering information and says this is the time to strike."
"When do we leave?"
"Tomorrow," Worth said. "Sheppard and Lt. Gage will meet you at the plane. You will join your contact at the landing zone outside Grenoble."
"We'll be one man short, but Jericho should round out our number," Danko stated.
"Very well. You have your orders."
Lieutenant Nicholas Gage threw his bag into the plane's fuselage, and stepped back, allowing his companion to do the same. He noticed the somber expression on Sheppard's face – well, more somber than usual.
"What's on your mind, mate?" Gage asked in his light British accent.
Sheppard shrugged. "I'm not so sure about this group."
"But you agreed they were the best option."
"That was before I met the lieutenant and a couple of his men. They didn't strike me as rule followers."
"Think of the things they've been through, already," Gage said. "It's not as if they have much choice in the matter."
"Hmmph," Sheppard grunted noncommittally.
Gage smiled. "Besides, it's not as though we're strict with the military code."
"But we're trusting convicts – thieves, murderers – to watch our backs."
Shrugging, Gage said, "We'll just keep our eyes on them while they're watching our backs."
Sheppard nodded before turning to watch the arrival of a transport truck.
Gage observed the group as they jumped off the trucks and walked to the plane. The ones that stood out the most were a huge, almost giant of a man, walking closely beside a much smaller man, nearly the same size as Gage himself. The two men had the same coloring – blond, with almost Nordic features – but there the similarity ended. There was also a slim man with curly brown hair, laughing at something his companion – a dark-haired European – said. Gage was studying the rest when an MP rounded them up and pushed them into the plane.
The camaraderie of the group was strong. They certainly seemed chipper for embarking on such a dangerous mission. A few of the men were pushing and teasing each other. It reminded Gage of the way he and André worked. While Sheppard liked to remain serious and professional, the other two members of the Jericho team tended to be more relaxed. Although he knew the tasks they performed were important – life and death, in fact – he couldn't allow himself to get maudlin. It would be like surrendering his soul to the enemy.
Introductions were made as everyone climbed on board. Danko and Sheppard sat toward the front of the plane while Gage found himself seated between Vern and Farrell. The two men sat on either side of him, obviously trying to intimidate him with their larger size. Gage was unaffected – he was used to André's stocky six foot two frame.
Five miles outside
They landed in a slightly scattered group. Danko quietly ordered the parachutes buried and started to gather his own. As he bent over, a voice from behind nearly had him jumping from his skin.
"Goddammit!" Danko whipped around, seeing a huge shadow.
"We must move," said the shadow in a French accent.
Danko tried not to stare. How did a guy that big move that silently?
"André," Gage said, smiling.
"Bonsoir, mon ami."
"Everything okay, André?" Sheppard asked.
"Oui, but I worry for French eyes that might warn our enemies."
"How strong is the enemy?"
"Less than we are used to. With so many sympathizers, the Germans have few patrols."
"Well, let's not take any chances," Danko interjected. Silently he counted his men, making sure he had all ten. Once the parachutes were hidden, he said, "Lead on."
Lieutenant Jean-Gaston André led the group to a small barn. After changing into civilian clothes, the Dozen and Jericho gathered around a map. André pointed out their present location and the position of the targeted radar installation. Giving a detailed report, he relayed the number of guards and their stations, shift changes, and communications. Danko and Sheppard each had questions that André answered easily.
"Seems to be a straightforward assault," Sheppard said, leaning back from the map.
"There is one hitch," announced André.
The Dozen groaned.
"What kind of hitch?" Danko asked, voice loaded with dread. They were all used to things not going as planned, often resulting in loss of life – usually by his men.
"We have to steal a sword," André stated, staring at Sheppard.
"A sword," Sheppard slowly repeated.
"Napoleon's sword… from Waterloo. It's here."
"You're mad, mate," Gage said. "That bloody thing is on the Duke of Wellington's estate. It's been there for over a hundred years."
"It should be, oui, but it is not," André stubbornly insisted. "I know this for certain. I have seen it."
"Where is this supposed sword?" asked Danko.
"It's on display at Nazi headquarters in Grenoble."
Feke laughed. "There's no way to get into a place like that."
"Yeah," agreed Roy. "I ain't risking my neck for some stupid sword."
"It is not stupid," argued the Frenchman. "It's very valuable."
Leeds perked up. "Just how valuable are we talking?"
Gage nodded. "If André is right, it has great historical value, both to the English and the French. It must be saved from the looters of the Reich."
"Listen up, guys." Sheppard held up his hands to end the discussion. "We have our mission: blow up the radar installation. We can't afford to waste time on a sword."
"We can do both," André assured his leader. "It may be retrieved with just three or four men."
"I have been studying the building that holds the sword," André said. "The safest way inside is to go in from the roof." He looked pointedly at Gage.
"I'm in," Gage volunteered.
André said to Danko, "I would need one of your men. Someone able to bypass security and get into an armed display case."
Every one of the Dozen turned to look at Leeds.
Leeds smiled widely. "I knew I was indispensable."
"And as we are already going to be there, we can blow that place as well," André added. "It's the only backup for miles. The nearest German division is four to five hours away."
"Sounds like you'll need a demolitions man," Lebec said.
Danko was not surprised to hear Lebec volunteer. Extremely proud of his French-American roots growing up in New Orleans, he would be more than happy to show his Creole pride.
Feke whined, "That's not fair, Lieutenant. We're gonna be dodging bullets when Lebec and Leeds are going on a fucking picnic?"
"Both missions have their dangers," protested Lebec.
Leeds grinned and added, "Yours are just more apparent."
Danko stopped the argument before it could escalate. "No one's doing anything for sure yet."
Sheppard agreed. "Danko and I need to discuss this before anyone goes anywhere."
The two leaders left the barn, walking far enough away to avoid being overheard.
"This is ridiculous," Sheppard snapped.
"It might be farfetched, but I think the Allies could use a morale boost," Danko countered. "Finally, we'll be able to publicly say we put something over on the Nazis."
"At least one of us should go, then."
"We can't. Without Lebec, you're the only one that knows where to place the charges."
"And you need to be there to control the Dozen," Sheppard stated perceptively.
"I don't like it."
"Neither do I, but it looks like we're stuck."
Sheppard sighed. "Let's go tell them the good news."
Every eye was on them as they walked back inside.
"All right," Danko announced, "both missions are a go."
There was a round of cheers and smiles of satisfaction.
"But—" Sheppard looked at the four men who would be stealing the sword. "—if there is trouble, any trouble, you get the hell out of there. Frankly, your mission is secondary. The radar tower remains the priority and nothing can or will jeopardize that."
"Yes, sir," chorused the small group.
Sheppard moved over to his men. "I don't like you guys going off without proper backup," he said to André and Gage.
"Don't worry, I'll look after 'em," said Leeds, sidling up and putting his arms around the two Jericho agents.
"Now I'm worried." Gage shuddered.
"All right, you eight balls," called Danko. "Let's get some rest. We go in tonight."
"That's it?" Leeds eyed the building with a skeptical eye. "And just how are we gonna get in there?"
"Like this." Gage smiled and moved stealthily to the brick building. André followed and clutched his hands together, forming a basket. Gage put his foot in the basket and, on a silent count of three, André lifted the smaller man as high as he could. Finding hand- and footholds where another could not, the Englishman scaled the side of the building.
Leeds and Lebec stood below, staring in awe. "Oh, my God," Lebec said, "he's a flipping chimpanzee."
André grinned widely. "You have no idea."
The three continued to watch Gage's progress until he reached the rooftop. The former aerialist disappeared from view, and then a rope cascaded down from above.
"A rope?" Leeds mouthed to Lebec who shrugged in reply.
"After you," the Creole said, sweeping his arms to the side.
"What a gentleman," Leeds scoffed. As he approached the rope, he sent a gaze heavenward, as if to remind the Almighty that he was doing this as one of the good guys. He grabbed tight and started his ascent.
Lebec was next. Watching Leeds above him, he turned back to André. "Gage does know how to tie a proper knot, right?"
André merely smiled again. "Come, mon ami, we fall behind." He gave the con a not-so-gentle nudge to get him moving.
Taking a deep breath Lebec clutched the rope. "Just don't use the word 'fall,' okay?" he called over his shoulder.
Once all four men were topside, André led them to a hatch on the southwest corner of the roof. One by one they lowered themselves into a storage room.
"There are four guards that patrol periodically throughout the building," André whispered. "We must set the charges before we recover the sword."
Carefully avoiding the guards, the four men placed timed explosives at the locations selected by Lebec. After setting the seventh one, the Creole softly said, "That should do it."
André nodded. "Follow me." He quickly led them back up to the top floor and made short work of a locked door. Swinging it open, the Frenchman led them into the room. A large glass-sided display sat in the center.
Leeds let out a low whistle when he saw the sword in the case. It was nearly three feet long, with a scabbard of red leather. The hilt was gold, decorated with neo-classical motifs. "Now that's what I call a priceless treasure."
"Can you open it?" André asked, his accent heavy in concern.
Leeds shot him a look of contempt. "With my eyes shut and both hands tied behind my back."
"No fancy stuff, Leeds," snapped Lebec, "just get the damn thing out."
"Touchy, touchy." Leeds gave a salute and scanned the room. As his eyes happened upon what he was searching for, he smiled. The forger marched over to the alarm box on the far wall. Checking it first, he opened it and studied the connections inside.
Lebec, André, and Gage took positions around the room. Anxiously they watched as Leeds played with the wires.
André checked his watch. "We have only nine more minutes," he said in a loud whisper.
"Which is eight more than we'll need to get outta here," answered Leeds, turning in triumph. He sauntered over to the display case, lifted the lid, and grabbed the sword.
No alarm sounded.
"Good going, Leeds," Lebec complimented.
Swinging the sword in his hands, Leeds scathed, "Nazis always take the easy way out. They didn't even bother routing the system through a shuttered cable."
"Pat yourself on the back later, mate," Gage said, "we need to get out of this building."
André held his hand out to take the sword, but Leeds held the weapon to his chest. "I'll carry it."
"No," André argued, "I think I should carry it."
Gage grabbed the sword, silencing the bickering men with a look. "I'll carry it."
"Children." Lebec rolled his eyes. "Can we please leave before we're rubble?"
"Good idea." Leeds gave a last longing look at the sword in Gage's hand, before following Lebec out the door.
André and Lebec descended from the roof first, and waited at the bottom. Lebec watched as Leeds began to scale down the building. The forger was about two-thirds down when a shot rang out.
The Creole watched in horror as Leeds flinched, losing his grip on the rope. Leeds fell the final twelve feet, his body colliding heavily with the ground. Lebec barely noticed when André killed the German guard; he was too intent on finding out whether his teammate was still alive. Gage hastily slid down the rope and met him at his fallen friend.
Hesitantly, Lebec reached forward, intending to check for a pulse when the body in question groaned.
Leeds opened his eyes, staring up at the dark sky. "Shit," he gasped. "That hurt."
"Are you all right?" Gage asked.
"Of course I'm not," Leeds snapped. "I was shot and fell off a building!"
"Okay, Leeds, stay still," Lebec commanded.
Lebec carefully lifted Leeds' shirt, doing his best not to aggravate the bullet wound as he did a cursory inspection. "Well the good news is the bullet went straight through."
"And the bad news?" Gage asked.
André answered, "We have about three minutes before the place blows."
Yells and movements could be heard.
"Less than that, mate, before someone investigates that shot," Gage said.
"Leeds, you'll have to wait 'til we're in the clear," Lebec said. "Then I can fix you up."
Looking very unhappy with the situation, Leeds said, "Looks like I got no choice. Help me up."
André and Lebec each grabbed one of Leeds' arms and, with hurried care, lifted him up.
As soon as the forger tried to put weight on his legs, the left one buckled. Cutting off a moan, Leeds said, "I got some more bad news… my leg's broke."
"Two minutes," Gage nudged.
"Hold on, Leeds," Lebec warned as he and André drew Leeds' arms across their shoulders and linked their hands under his legs.
They had gotten about fifty feet when the explosives blew. The blast almost knocked them down, but they managed to keep their feet. Pushing on a little farther, they reached a secluded spot where they could safely stop and tend to their wounded man.
Lebec was on the side with the broken leg and bullet wound; he had tried not to hurt Leeds any more than necessary in their mad dash for safety, but by the time they set him down, Leeds was shaking profusely and sweating.
Using a light touch, the Creole felt carefully along the damaged leg. It was a simple fracture, but any injury added on to the bullet wound was serious. In the field, even a minor injury could turn deadly, and a broken leg would definitely slow them down.
"Where's the sword?" Leeds asked suddenly.
"I still have it," Gage said, holding it up.
Lebec glared at the weapon. "We should dump it."
"What? Are you crazy?" André asked.
"We're gonna have a hard enough time getting him to the rendezvous on time and in one piece," protested Lebec. "We don't need our hands full of a worthless artifact."
"Worthless?" André was clearly offended.
"Come on, André," soothed Gage, "it's not as though Napoleon used it. It was found in his carriage at Waterloo."
"Don't you dare let that damn thing out of your sight," Leeds snarled, ending the argument. "I got shot for it – we're keeping it."
Lebec groaned at his friend's stubbornness. "You're losing blood, we have to—"
"I have an idea," Gage softly interrupted. Three pairs of eyes turned to look at him. "Couldn't the sword be used as a splint?"
Lebec grinned. "It's perfect."
"We're going to use a treasured historical weapon as a medical device?" André asked.
"Yep," Lebec said, "that's exactly what we're going to do."
Nazi Radar Installation
Danko glanced back at the smoldering remains of the installation before looking around in surprise. Every one of his men was still alive. Barring a few injuries – he noticed Feke cradling a slashed arm and Roy limping beside his brother – his men had all survived the assault.
Now he just wanted to meet up with the rest of his men and get the hell out of France before their luck ran out.
"We'll have to make this fast," Lebec warned, "or we'll miss the rendezvous."
"Just do it," Leeds gasped.
"I'm going to bind the bullet wound first." Lebec asked Gage, "Could you prop him up?"
Gage kneeled in order to assist the injured man while André remained alert as a sentry. Carefully, the Englishman helped Leeds sit up. "Good thing you brought your pack," he commented as he watched Lebec remove his medical supplies.
"I didn't think I'd need it since Roy went with the other group." Lebec referred to their perpetually injured teammate.
"Didn't want it to go to waste," Leeds joked through a grimace.
"Always thinkin' of me, aren't you?" After putting sulfa on the bullet's entry and exit wounds, Lebec tightly wound bandages around Leeds' abdomen. "Hopefully this will hold your insides in until we can get you some help," the Creole teased lightly.
"Yeah." Leeds gave a harsh cough, groaning as the movement pulled against the wound. "I'd hate to get your nice white bandages all bloody."
"Now comes the fun part."
"That wasn't fun?" Gage asked in mock surprise. He held the trembling man, and knew the two men were trying to keep their spirits high for what was about to come.
"Nah," the forger said, "you should see us on a Saturday night in the barracks."
"It's a regular hootenanny," Lebec agreed. He turned away to call softly to the Frenchman standing guard. "André."
"I don't have enough bandages to fix the splint," Lebec said. "I'll need everyone's undershirts."
André and Gage took off their jackets and shirts, handing over the long-sleeved undershirts to the medic. Lebec did the same, tearing the three shirts into long strips. He looked up at the Jericho agents. "I'll need you to hold him when I set the leg."
"I'll be fine," Leeds protested.
Lebec ignored him, reaching into the forger's jacket to snag one of his prized cigars. He held it up in front of Leeds' face.
"What's that for?"
"It's for you to bite when you want to yell."
"No way." Leeds shook his head. "I'm not wasting one of those. Besides, who says I'm going to yell?"
"Stop playing the tough guy for once."
"Playing?" Leeds adopted a hurt tone.
"Leeds…" Lebec warned.
The two friends stared at one another until Leeds glanced away and snarled, "All right, give me the damn cigar." He snatched it from Lebec's hand and popped it into his mouth.
Gage continued to hold Leeds' upper body while André placed his weight and strength on the inured man's upper legs, keeping them stationary.
"Ready?" Lebec received nods from Gage and André, and a grunt from Leeds.
Lebec took a deep breath, grasped Leeds' left ankle and – with a quick prayer – pulled with all his might. His friend bucked; the hands holding him were barely able to retain their grips.
Leeds' jaw clamped down, nearly snapping his cigar; he struggled to stop the scream of agony being ripped out through his clenched teeth. Knowing their position was precarious, he refused to give them away.
"It's okay, Leeds; I'm almost done."
Struggling against the pain, Leeds managed a jerky nod.
Making a last adjustment, ensuring the bones were properly aligned, Lebec placed the sword flush against the leg and wrapped the torn shirt strips around, securing it. Finally the torture was over for both Leeds and Lebec.
"You did good, kid," Lebec said, patting his friend's face. "Now you rest for a bit while we figure stuff out."
Leeds nodded weakly, laying his head back. Lowering the forger to the ground, Gage and André followed Lebec, moving away from the exhausted Leeds.
"Let me see your hands," Lebec ordered Gage.
"They're fine," the Englishman answered.
"Right." Lebec snorted. "I saw how fast you came down that rope. Let's see 'em."
Reluctantly, Gage held his hands out, palms up. They were red and raw from rope burn. Quickly cleaning them, Lebec smeared salve and wrapped them with the last of the shirt strips. "That should keep them clean," Lebec said. "What now?"
"The Germans won't be getting replacements for five hours, assuming they sent out a distress," André offered.
"I'm betting they did," Gage said.
"Me, too," Lebec agreed.
"We only have two hours to make our rendezvous with the others or we'll be stranded," André said. He looked over at Leeds. "Can he do it?" he asked.
Lebec snarled, "I ain't leaving him."
"We never asked you to," Gage assured. "We're just trying to figure a way out of this."
Lebec relaxed, letting his anger dissolve
"Then we must get started," André said. "We'll have to take a circular route – we will stand out too much if we run into sympathizers, and we certainly won't be able to outrun the enemy."
Danko's group ducked into the relative safety of the barn.
Sergeant Cutter peered around the small space. "All right, where are they?"
"Relax, Sarge," Danko said, "we're earlier than we planned."
"They still should've beaten us," Feke said.
"Not if they passed any pubs," added Roy with a smirk.
Vern asked, "Should we go look for 'em, Lieutenant?"
"No." Danko shook his head. "We'll give 'em another hour."
Sheppard agreed. "We should be safe here for a short time. But we'll need to clear out before dawn."
"Everyone relax, take a load off. Cutter, you, Graham, and Davis are on first watch," Danko ordered. "I want to know about anyone coming within a mile of our position."
"Yes, sir." Cutter saluted.
Danko tried to take his own advice, but he couldn't. Even as he was smoothing his men's ruffled feathers, he had his own feeling of trepidation. Something was wrong. He glanced at his watch for the second time in as many minutes. As soon as an hour was up, if the other team had not shown, they were going to find out what happened. He hadn't lost any men on this mission so far, and he wasn't planning on letting that change.
Trudging along after André, a mere shadow scouting the area ahead, Lebec forced himself to focus on the ground in front of him. Leeds was getting weaker. Little by little, more weight was being placed on his and Gage's shoulders as the forger relied more heavily on their support. There seemed to be nothing Lebec could do to stop the shock creeping over Leeds.
The best thing for Leeds would be warmth and rest. They couldn't afford to do the latter and Leeds had adamantly refused to accept Lebec's jacket, insisting he had already received "the shirts off their backs." The only thing left was to get Leeds to the rendezvous site and help as quickly as possible.
André set an almost impossible pace, adding to Lebec's ire. The Frenchman was the one who had come up with the mission, it went bad, and he didn't seem to care that Leeds was dying.
Twenty minutes into the hour, Danko stood up. Enough was enough. No one was relaxed; no one was resting. It was as if they were all aware their teammates were in trouble. Danko knew everyone watched his movements as he marched over to where Sheppard stood. He saw a flash of hope appear in Feke's and Farrell's eyes.
"All right, we're going to look for them," he announced.
"It's about time," Vern said.
"Let's go," agreed Roy.
"And when I say we, I mean Sheppard and me." Danko disregarded his men's reproach. "Cutter, you stay here and make sure everyone catches that plane. If we aren't back in three hours, leave without us."
Danko could see his sergeant's reluctance to obey, but military training won out. "Yes, sir."
Feke stepped forward. "Lieutenant, don't you think—"
"Sheppard is fluent in French and German," Danko supplied, knowing what the multi-lingual Hungarian would argue. "I want every one of you on that plane. I'd hate for Sergeant Cutter to have to shoot you."
Ignoring the grumbled protests of his men, Danko and Sheppard quickly gathered supplies and headed west.
"They're in trouble," Sheppard said tonelessly once out of the group's earshot.
"How do you figure on finding them?"
"We'll hike in a straight shot toward the target and hope we stumble across them."
"Excellent plan," Sheppard said. "Well thought out."
"I thought it had some merit."
"Your men don't seem too happy."
Chuckling softly, Danko replied, "Whenever they are happy, I get nervous."
Each groan from Leeds tore through André's gut like broken glass. He wasn't used to feeling anymore – at least not about anyone but his own teammates.
André glanced back at the man being supported by his partner and the Creole. He knew it was his fault Dylan Leeds was injured. For some kind of national pride, he had taken a chance with three men's lives. Somehow historical significance seemed to pale before the pain of the suffering man. André couldn't fail to notice the dirty looks being sent his way by Lebec. Apparently the medic was thinking the same thing.
Perhaps he should reevaluate his priorities. In this hellish war there was enough life being wasted – André didn't want to add to that total.
"Wait up," called Lebec. "Leeds needs to rest a minute."
André turned to see them lower the forger to the ground. "We're not making good time," the Frenchman announced, "we won't make the rendezvous."
"What do you suggest we do?" asked Lebec scathingly.
"Leave me behind," offered Leeds.
"No way," Lebec snapped. "Don't even think like that."
"It's your… only chance," Leeds argued, almost out of breath.
"He must be delusional," Gage said. "Blood loss, most certainly."
"I agree." Lebec frowned.
"That is not an option," André stated confidently. "I will switch places with Gage."
"Are you casting aspersions on my ability to lend proper support?" asked the Englishman.
"Non, non, merely that my longer legs eat up the distance more quickly." André's eyes twinkled as he needled his teammate.
"I'll remember that, big man, the next time you ask for my help."
They started again, with Gage in the lead.
André leaned down, speaking in low tones. "I feel I must apologize to you."
Lifting a confused face, Leeds asked, "For what?"
"For your injuries," André said. He thought it had been obvious.
Letting his head droop once more as if he had expended too much energy raising it in the first place, Leeds countered, "You didn't shoot me, and Lebec said you killed the Kraut that did."
André wasn't willing to let it go. "Yes, but it was my idea to go on this foolish mission."
"Haven't you heard?" Leeds chuckled weakly. "The Dozen specialize in foolish missions."
André was relieved Leeds harbored no ill will, but he felt far from guilt-free. "I promise I will do everything in my power to make sure you and your friend get home."
"I appreciate that. But if I don't make it—"
"Leeds," Lebec interrupted angrily.
"I'm just telling it like it is…. If I don't make it, make sure this guy stays outta trouble."
André and Lebec exchanged a glance over Leeds' head.
"On my honor," André pledged.
Leeds nodded, satisfied.
Danko's worry increased. He and Sheppard had already traveled more than half of the distance from the rendezvous to the target building, and there was no sign of their men. Danko could see the smoke rising from the burning building in the distance so he knew at least that part of the mission had been successful. But now he was beginning to think his men might not have made it out of the building.
Ducking down for the umpteenth time, he and Sheppard listened to the sounds of the countryside. It had remained surprisingly empty considering what had transpired over the night. But then, Danko figured, most people worked hard to avoid any conflict.
Hearing a stick snap, Danko stilled. Sheppard's head whipped in the direction of the sound; he'd heard it as well. Drawing his weapon, Danko signaled Sheppard to circle left while he went right. Soundlessly slipping through the flora, Danko used his military training to approach the area stealthily. Muffled voices drifted over to him, and he nearly called out in his excitement. Reason returned quickly, allowing him to cautiously reveal himself to the group.
Danko breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Leeds flanked by Lebec and the two missing members of Jericho. A low whistle alerted them to his presence and they whipped around, directing their guns at his location. Holding his hands out, Danko said, "Easy, boys." Realizing Lebec and the Frenchman were supporting Leeds, Danko analyzed the forger. Noticing the sword splint, he raised a brow. "Nice accessory, Leeds."
Leeds gave a faint smile. "You know me, Lieutenant, always on the cutting edge of fashion."
Danko smiled at the lousy pun. His relief turned to alarm when Leeds collapsed in front of him. Lebec and André barely managed to keep their hold on him, gently maneuvering him to the ground.
"What happened?" asked Sheppard, stepping from the bushes and joining the group.
Danko was glad the American agent asked the question; he had been rendered momentarily speechless. He knelt beside Leeds, startled at how pale the young man looked… and how much blood marked his shirt.
"We had a little trouble," André admitted.
Gage quickly recounted their successes blowing up the installation and rescuing the sword. Lebec told of Leeds' misfortune.
Danko finally found his voice. "How is he?" He could see his concern mirrored in the Creole's eyes.
Lebec shook his head in frustration. "Not good; he's bleeding and I can't get it to stop. He needs help."
"We'll carry him to the rendezvous."
"Lieutenant, he won't make it," Lebec argued.
"What's our alternative?"
"We need to find a doctor."
"I know someone who might help," André said.
The Jericho members remained silent during the discussion, except for André's offer of a doctor. They knew it was not up to them to decide the fate of the other team's man.
Danko hesitated. "We'll miss our rendezvous. Stuck in occupied territory with no way home."
"Sir," Lebec pleaded, "could you live with yourself if Leeds died because you wouldn't take that chance?"
Danko looked down at Leeds. Against his better judgment, he'd grown attached to the smart-mouthed forger. Lebec's question was dead on; there would be nowhere safe from his own guilt if he didn't do whatever he could to save his man.
"All right." He stood and asked, "Where's this doctor?"
"He is located on the south side of town," André said. "I will take you there."
"No, just tell us where he is. You all better hustle if you want to make it to the rendezvous."
The Jericho team shook their heads as one.
"We are not leaving," André stated.
Sheppard agreed. "We're in this together."
"Don't be stupid," Danko snarled, "there's no reason for you guys to take the risk. Remember, we're expendable."
"Not to us," Gage countered.
Danko tried to stare them down, but none of their gazes faltered. He sighed. "I know when I'm beat. Let's go." He and Lebec reached down, picking up Leeds. The forger gave an unconscious groan.
Using as much care as possible under the circumstances, they changed direction, heading back to town. André was in front, followed closely by Gage. Sheppard remained a short distance behind them all, covering their six.
Lebec whispered, "Sorry for not doing more for Leeds."
Danko shook his head. "You did enough – he's still alive."
Outskirts of Grenoble
Warily eyeing the neighborhood, Danko followed the Frenchman up a walk to a small, white cottage. Two quick taps on the door and André stepped back, waiting. After a very long pause, the door opened a scant few inches.
"Oui?" queried a voice.
"Bonjour. Je cherche Jeandeau de Médecin."
"Il n'est pas ici." The door began to shut.
Unable to understand the dialect, Danko couldn't decipher what had been said save for the doctor was named Jeandeau, but he knew what a closing door signified. "Please…" he called out, stopping the door's momentum with his outstretched hand. "My friend is hurt!"
The door stopped its advance. "American?" asked a soft feminine voice.
"Yes." Danko nodded. "We need help."
A quick and quiet argument transpired behind the door in muffled French. Danko had no idea if his cause was winning or losing until the door opened wide. A young woman stuck her head out and looked around. "Hurry, bring him."
Danko wasted no time, afraid the offer would be rescinded. He turned and signaled the hiding men. As inconspicuously as possible, the injured forger was transported into the house.
"My father is waiting in the back room," she said in accented English.
Lebec and Sheppard carted Leeds to the directed area.
The doctor looked up when they entered. He motioned them to place Leeds on the long table. In fluent French, Lebec described his friend's injuries. The doctor nodded, examining Leeds at the same time. He noticed the men standing around and called for his daughter to show them out. Only Lebec was allowed to stay in order to assist.
"Please come and wait downstairs," the young woman said. "We cannot take the chance of wandering eyes seeing any of you."
Danko let himself be led away after shooting a glance at Lebec. The medic nodded his understanding; he would look after Leeds.
The men from Jericho trailed after Danko and the girl. She took them down to the cellar. It was dank, but clean. A pile of boxes had been stacked haphazardly in a corner. A partition of flat wood sat on top of a tall box to improvise as a table. "I will bring you some food and water," she said from her position on the stairs. "We don't have much, but we will share what we can."
"Merci, Mademoiselle Jeandeau," André said with a bow.
She blushed, ducking her head. " Mon nom est Adeline."
"Oui, Adeline." André smiled.
She smiled back and walked up the steps, closing the door behind her.
Huddling around the solitary bulb, Sheppard assessed their situation. "We won't be able to stay here long," he said. "The Jerries will swarm all over this town."
"We'll see how Leeds is first," Danko replied.
Sheppard had always been prepared to make hard choices in the war. "We might not be able to wait."
Hoping to avert the argument that was about to start, Gage stepped between the two men. "The point is moot until we have more information. Once we find out about Private Leeds, we'll scout the area, get a heads up on the situation."
"That is a good idea," added André, also wanting to keep the peace.
Sheppard and Danko reluctantly agreed, retreating to "neutral corners." Danko, now that he'd found his men, wasn't keen on abandoning one to save his own hide – not that he could blame Sheppard for wanting to protect his team. But he also couldn't forget it was because of a Jericho team member that one of his men had been seriously hurt. In his head he knew Jean André was not to blame, but it was hard to reconcile that knowledge in his gut.
Standing, Danko paced around the small cellar. He caught the sympathetic glances shot back and forth between the Jericho teammates. It didn't help to assuage his anger or anxiety. The second lieutenant felt alone. His two men were upstairs, and he was stuck down here. No telling how long the surgery would take – and no guarantee on the outcome. Normally during a mission he didn't have the time to think. Or to worry.
Danko didn't like it.
Eight miles outside Grenoble
Janosz Feke felt the fuselage shake as the airplane lifted off.
"I can't believe we left them," Vern lamented.
"I didn't want to leave any more'n you," Cutter reminded him, "but I had my orders."
Hurting from his wound and the fact he'd had to abandon his companions, the words were out of Feke's mouth before he could stop them. "Spoken like a true Nazi."
Cutter reeled as if he'd been punched. He knew exactly how much contempt the Hungarian held for the Third Reich. The MP excused himself and moved to the front of the plane, away from everyone else.
Farrell watched Cutter's retreat. "That was pretty harsh."
"Oh, he knows I didn't really mean it," Feke said. "I'm just pissed we deserted the lieutenant."
"What about Leeds and Lebec'o?" Roy asked. "They ain't replaceable like the new guys." The weasely little man jerked his thumb at the latest recruits.
"Thanks a lot," said Graham, the most recent con to join them.
"No offense." Roy shrugged with a smirk. "We just know you guys don't last long."
"It's a miracle you three are still alive," Vern agreed.
"Nice," said Davis. "We risked our butts and now we get shit on."
"It's not as if we want you to die," added Vern, "it just happens."
"That'll bring a lot of comfort to my mother."
Trying to deflect the tension, Farrell asked, "What if the lieutenant doesn't make it back?"
"We go back to the slammer," Feke said matter-of-factly.
"That's not fair," Roberts objected, "we've done our part."
"You mighta done your part, but you haven't done their part," Roy sniffed.
"He's right," Graham said. "We'd better pray they make it."
Farrell stated, "I hope they all make it back because they're my friends, not because it'll save my butt."
"Well said." Feke gave a mock toast. "Perhaps we may learn from our comrade's compassion."
The others guiltily agreed.
"I only meant—" started Graham.
"We know what you meant," Vern said. "It's okay."
"We'll talk to Worth when we get back," Farrell said. "Go back and rescue them."
Feke snorted. "I wouldn't hold your breath."
Nervously, Lebec watched as the doctor performed a detailed check of his friend's injuries. Tapping the sword lightly, Jeandeau mused, "I assume this has something to do with the explosion in town?"
"Yes, sir. Something to do with it."
"It is… special." It was not a question.
"Yes." Lebec nodded.
"Then I suggest you keep it safe – not strap it to a leg."
"It was the only thing available, Doctor."
"Hmm. You did well setting the leg; it can wait. We must repair the damage from the bullet first."
Lebec took a deep breath. "All right.
"Have you done this before?"
"Then you must do exactly what I say when I say it."
Although the forger had remained unconscious, Jeandeau administered ether to ensure Leeds slept through the procedure. Per instructions, Lebec cut Leeds' shirt and washed his abdomen. The wound started to bleed freely once again.
"No matter," Jeandeau said as Lebec worked to stop the flow. "Use those sponges to soak up some blood; I'll need to see what I am doing." Placing a tray of surgical tools beside Leeds' head, the doctor chose a sterile scalpel and proceeded to cut an incision at the wound. Lebec worked to keep the area clear enough for Jeandeau to work.
Jeandeau motioned for another sponge. Lebec complied, but froze when he heard the doctor curse softly. "Merde."
"What? What is it?"
"The bullet nicked his kidney. Now be quiet and let me save your friend's life."
Fear in his throat, Lebec watched the doctor's skill. He prayed it would be enough to save Leeds. Seeing him sliced open had affected the Creole more than he thought it could. Usually, as the team's unofficial medic, he patched up relatively small wounds. Or, unfortunately, his skills were too little, too late – the Germans tended to be good shots. To see a friend in this position struck a little too close to home.
At last it was over. Jeandeau sutured the wounds closed. Removing the sword, he rewrapped the leg to keep it immobile until they reached a hospital to place a cast on it. Lebec helped transfer Leeds to a nearby bed, setting him up slightly tilted, in order to relieve pressure to the wounds.
"I have done all I can; the rest is up to him."
Lebec nodded, taking in the doctor's words. "What are his chances?" he asked, half-afraid of the answer.
Washing his hands, the doctor nodded at Leeds. "Is he strong?"
Lebec thought about it a moment. Dylan Leeds was no one's idea of a muscleman, but his strength of spirit had carried him further than Lebec would've thought possible. "Yeah," he answered, "he's strong."
"Then he has a chance." Herve Jeandeau shrugged. "It is all I can say."
It would have to be enough. Jeandeau's daughter came in to watch over the patient, giving him directions to the cellar. Lebec thanked her, picked up the sword, and left. He paused outside the cellar door, unsure of what he would say. "No news is good news" didn't fit this situation. Taking a deep breath, he opened the door and stepped down onto the landing, carefully closing the door behind him.
The Creole heard the terse question as soon as his foot hit the stairs. He looked down and saw the Jericho team sharing a meal around a small table. His lieutenant stood at the base of the stairs, looking up expectantly.
"Well?" Danko asked again, softer.
"We'll know in a few hours," said Lebec. He set the sword down. "Doc says he's got a chance."
"A chance," Danko scathed.
"It beats being dead," Sheppard reminded.
During Leeds' surgery, Adeline had not only brought down some blankets, bread and cheese, but had treated and bandaged Gage's rope-burned hands.
Lebec moved over to the table and snagged a sandwich, making short work of it. "I'll go back up and keep an eye on him," he said with his mouth full.
"Take a break," Danko said. "I'll go up." He wanted to trust the doctor since he had saved Leeds' life, but…. Times were hard, and enemies were everywhere. He didn't like the idea of leaving Leeds unprotected. Danko climbed the stairs, exiting the cellar.
Lebec accepted another sandwich from Sheppard as Gage prepared a makeshift bed. Utterly exhausted from their narrow escape and the stress of the surgery, he collapsed on the blanket in the corner and was sound asleep within seconds.
Danko watched from the doorway as the young Frenchwoman washed Leeds with a cloth. He didn't want to disturb the scene.
"You may come in," Adeline called softly. Without turning around, she added, "I could use some help."
Hurrying to her side, Danko asked, "What can I do?"
"Talk to him."
"What?" That was the last thing he had expected to hear.
With a light accent, she said, "Your man must make a choice."
"What kind of choice?"
"Whether to heal or let the pain win."
"That sounds awfully… spiritual… coming from a physician's daughter."
"My mother died when I was five. Since then I have helped my father tend to his patients. I have seen many men with minor wounds die, and many with grave wounds live. I believe in the strength and resolve of the injured. They choose whether life is worth the fight." Pausing in her ministrations, she raised her head to look directly at Danko. At that moment, she looked older than the twenty years her body suggested. "You must help your man decide it is worth the fight."
Danko was a practical man. He didn't know what to think of her declaration. "I don’t think I'm the man to do that," he hesitantly offered.
Shaking her head, Adeline resumed bathing Leeds' face and chest. "Then I am afraid for your man."
She had turned to wring out her towel when Leeds flailed, striking out in his oblivion. Startled, Danko grabbed him to keep him from aggravating his injuries. In a panic, he shot a questioning glance at the girl.
Calmly, she stated, "His fight has begun."
A few hours later, Leeds had yet to regain consciousness. Watching from the corner of the room while the doctor examined his man, Danko couldn't tell if Jeandeau was pleased at Leeds' progress. After checking Leeds' leg, the doctor examined his torso, shaking his head and muttering. He left the room after speaking to his daughter.
"What did he say?" Danko asked.
"He said your man is not as he would like."
"What does that mean?"
Adeline sighed as she turned to face him. "It means he is losing the fight."
Danko was stunned. He thought once Leeds got to the doctor everything would be all right. Admittedly it was naïve, but he couldn't bring himself to imagine anything else. Now he was confronted with a stark reality – something a man in his position knew all too well.
"What do I do?"
"I have told you that already," she answered. "I need to rinse these out." Adeline gathered the wet rags and left the room, closing the door behind her.
Talk to him. That's what she'd said. What the hell was he supposed to say? "So, Leeds…" Danko cleared his throat. "Dylan." No, he never called him by his first name. "Leeds." Was he just going to repeat his name over and over? He sounded like an idiot. Well, he may as well go for it, whole hog.
"We're all getting pretty bored just sitting around waiting for you to get better. Maybe you can help it along, huh? Poor Lebec is getting his ass kicked by that Limey in poker. It's pretty embarrassing. I'm sure you could give him some pointers, he could really use 'em." Danko realized he was rambling, but how could he be expected to have a coherent one-sided conversation? If he was lying there, he would fully expect Leeds to carry on for hours – the man never seemed to shut up. Oppositely, Danko was a man who chose to speak only when he had something to say. But in this situation, he was not being given a choice.
Summoning his nerve, he started to regale Leeds with tales of his raucous youth. After an hour or so, he paused to quench his dry mouth. Downing a glass of water, he muttered, "I wish you would just wake up, Leeds."
"If I do will you shut up so I can get some sleep?"
Danko jerked his head and looked down at a smiling Leeds, his eyes half-mast. "You son of a bitch. How long have you been awake?"
"Just long enough to hear your lie about dating a Rockette."
"That was a fact."
"Uh-huh… pull the other one, sir."
So glad to hear Leeds' smart mouth, Danko didn't have the heart to bust him for his insubordination. "How're you feeling?"
"Like a five-day-old piece of gum on the sole of a marine's boot."
Danko chuckled. "It's good to hear your voice; Lebec was starting to fret."
"I tried to tell 'im you're too cagey to die, but you know how he worries."
"Yes, sir." Worn out, Leeds was starting to slur his words.
Danko patted him on the shoulder. "Why don't you get some sleep? I'll let him know you're fine."
"All right." The forger barely got the words out before he was sound asleep.
Smiling, Danko leaned back and slapped his hands on his knees.
"You should be happy."
Danko whipped around.
Adeline Jeandeau stood in the doorway. "You have made your man decide fighting is preferable to dying."
"I didn't do anything," Danko protested.
"Believe what you will. I have a bit more food for you and your men." She lifted the plate she held. "I'm sorry it could not be more, but with the rationing…"
"We appreciate everything you are doing for us," Danko assured her.
Adeline waved the gratitude aside. "I thought perhaps you could take the food down and let your men know of Mr. Leeds."
Danko hesitated. "I… I don't want to leave him alone."
"I will stay. His dressings will need to be changed." She handed the tray to Danko before he could protest further.
"I can see I'm in the way here," Danko said, taking the offered food and leaving.
Doctor Jeandeau entered moments after Danko left. "You should not raise their hopes, daughter."
"And why not?"
Jeandeau nodded at Leeds. "He is not yet clear of danger."
"None of us are, father. But isn't that the best time to have hope?"
The doctor grunted in response. Gently peeling back the bandages, Jeandeau poked around the wounds, studying them. After he was satisfied with the inspection, he waved his daughter forward to redress them as he washed his hands.
"His wound looks better," the doctor said. "Perhaps he will make it after all."
"Watch out, Father," Adeline said with a grin, "you sound hopeful."
Danko watched the men devour the cheese, bread, and apples he had brought.
"So he's going to be okay," Lebec asked around a mouthful of food. He swallowed, taking a gulp of water to wash it down.
"Adeline seems to think so," Danko acknowledged.
Lebec grinned wildly; the smile faded when he looked over at the Jericho team.
Danko caught the involuntary exchange. "All right, what's going on?"
Sheppard nodded at André. "Tell him."
"I went upstairs to check around and overheard an argument between Doctor Jeandeau and Adeline," André said. "The Germans are certain the saboteurs had inside help. They will be conducting house-to-house searches."
Danko felt ill. His heart dropped to his stomach. "When?"
"They'll start tomorrow," Gage reported. "We don't know which part of town."
"Which means we have to leave tonight," Lebec added. "We've got about seven hours."
"That's not enough time," Danko argued. "Leeds is barely conscious."
Sheppard shrugged. "I'm afraid we have no more time."
"We can't stay here, sir," Lebec said. "After all the Jeandeaus have done for us, we can't repay them by risking their lives."
Danko sighed in frustration.
"Leeds wouldn't want anyone else hurt," Lebec added.
"I know, dammit!" Danko strode up and down the confined space. "We'll have to have a vehicle."
"I know where to find one," André said.
"I'll go with you," offered Lebec.
Danko continued to recite his mental checklist. "And we'll need a better map."
"I have one."
All eyes flashed to the stairs. Adeline quietly walked down to stand before them.
"It's impolite to eavesdrop," Danko uttered feebly.
"I can say the same to you," she countered. André had the good grace to look embarrassed. "And if you are planning on taking Mr. Leeds, I would rather he had a chance of surviving the trip."
They spent the rest of the afternoon gathering what little they had and studying the map. Between André's knowledge of the area and additional help from Adeline, they decided to take a southern route from the city before backtracking northeast – heading for Switzerland.
"Switzerland's neutral," Lebec commented. "They'll inter us for the duration."
"They'll try." Gage smirked.
Before the sun went down, Lebec and André headed out to secure the vehicle. Danko left Sheppard and Gage downstairs, and checked on Leeds. Opening the door, Danko saw Leeds struggling to get out of bed.
"What do you think you're doing?" Danko snapped.
"Aren't we leaving tonight?"
"Well," Leeds said, "I'm getting ready." He tried again to get up, grunting with pain.
Danko gently pushed him down and held him there. "How about you let us worry about that. You concentrate on keeping alive," the second lieutenant ordered. "Have you finished the papers?" André had pilfered a set of travel documents, allowing Leeds to forge a manifest covering their route.
"Yeah." Leeds jerked his head at the bedside table where the papers lay. "Piece of cake." Giving up, he laid back and relaxed. "Did we get the truck?"
"Lebec went with André to acquire it."
"You mean steal." Leeds smiled, enjoying the opportunity to tease his lieutenant.
"Steal is an ugly word."
"War is hell, sir. Don't look now, but I think we're rubbing off on you."
"Perish the thought." Danko mock shuddered. "You rest and I'll be back for you when we're ready to go."
Leeds nodded. Closing his eyes, he fell asleep almost immediately. Watching the slumbering figure, Danko wondered whether Leeds would have the strength to live through the journey ahead. And whether Danko could live with the consequences if he didn't.
Cautiously, Lebec entered the house behind the Frenchman. Danko waited with the other Jericho members.
"Time to go," André announced.
Lebec said, "The truck is parked just down the street."
"We'd better split up," Sheppard suggested. "Less likely to get noticed."
"I agree," Danko looked at Lebec. "You and I will flank Leeds."
Lebec nodded his agreement and followed Danko back to the sick room to help Leeds. Adeline had finished re-bandaging the forger's torso. Leeds looked up when they entered.
"Time?" he asked.
The young Frenchwoman helped Leeds into his shirt. "You must be careful not to pull your stitches," she said. "And stay off that leg."
"Come with us," Leeds said suddenly.
"I cannot leave."
"Your father can come, too," Leeds insisted. "You saved my life; we can't leave you here."
"Leeds—" Danko scowled.
"Sir, there's room in the truck." Brown eyes pleaded. "Besides, what if someone noticed we were here? They could get turned in to the Krauts."
Adeline smiled and stroked Leeds' face as if comforting a child. "My father is the village's only physician; he needs to care for his people." She sighed. "And I cannot abandon my country, even when it is making an enormous mistake."
Leeds frowned down at his hands.
"No, I shall stay and fight in my own small way. But…" she trailed off, waiting to continue until Leeds looked at her. "If you would hurry and defeat the Nazis, I would be most grateful."
The forger smiled ruefully. "I'll do my best."
"Then my father and I have been repaid." Adeline motioned Danko and Lebec forward. "You must help him; he cannot put his full weight on his leg – not until it has been properly fixed."
"Yes, ma'am," Danko replied automatically.
The lieutenant and Lebec pulled Leeds up and placed his arms across their shoulders, displacing his weight between them. Slowly, they moved out of the room and toward the front door where André and Gage waited.
"Sheppard's gone ahead to make sure the truck's clear," Gage stated. He cradled a pistol in the crook of his arm in deference to his bandaged hands. If they ran into trouble, Lebec knew the Englishman wouldn't hesitate to use it, no matter the pain it would cause.
"We will follow a few minutes behind you," André said. He had strapped the sword's hilt to his waist and it hung down his leg. He'd wrapped cloths around it in order to disguise it.
Lebec reached for the doorknob, but then turned to Adeline. "Would you tell your father it was an honor working beside him?"
"I will be glad to do so." Adeline Jeandeau smiled widely. "And don't you give up on learning medicine. With a bit more training, you could work miracles."
Leeds snorted. "Just think of all those nurses, Doctor Lebec."
Ever mindful of his friend's wounds, Lebec nonetheless gave Leeds a gentle kick to his good leg. "I'll remember that next time you get shot."
"I was kidding. Jeez."
Danko ordered Lebec to open the door. "Thank you," he called sincerely to their hostess. She smiled and nodded in return.
Even with the measured pace Danko and Lebec were keeping, their short journey to the truck was obviously taking its toll on their injured friend. Lebec cursed the fact they'd had to leave so soon, knowing a day or two under the doctor's care would have made a huge difference in Leeds' recovery. Along the way, Lebec saw a few people, though none were wandering – they all seemed to have specific destinations and hurried toward them. With the increased German presence and suspicions mounting, it was best not to dawdle. Any attention was negative attention, no matter your innocence.
Lebec hoped his small group wasn't as conspicuous as he felt. They didn't need someone innocently commenting to questioning Nazis on the three strangers leaving town – one of them hurt. Finally, the trio reached the truck. Leeds leaned heavily against the vehicle, drawing breath into his starving lungs. Lebec knew his friend was feeling bad – he hadn't made a smart-ass comment the entire way.
After greeting them, Sheppard helped load Leeds into the back of the covered truck. By the time the team had successfully maneuvered him inside, Gage and André had arrived. They wasted no time, lying Leeds down on the simple bed they'd set up and leaving the area.
Sheppard drove the first shift with Gage at his side as an extra set of eyes in the coming darkness; Lebec, Danko, and André sat in the back with Leeds. Using the directions from Adeline, the group slowly traversed the route away from the village. Necessity demanded a quick departure from the immediate area.
After the sun went down, they switched drivers every half hour to avoid eyestrain – the headlights remained off to avoid detection. Gage was exempt from driving because of his wounded hands, and Lebec as well because he was watching over Leeds. By midnight, they felt they were far enough away from Grenoble to allow a short respite until dawn. Parking the truck off the road, the group covered it with branches and foliage to camouflage it. Gage volunteered for guard duty since he would be able to sleep while the others drove the next day. Getting as comfortable as possible, the five men slept.
Danko's internal clock woke him about six am. Stretching, he took stock, seeing the men of Jericho waking as well. Gage jumped in the truck, informing them that nothing suspicious had occurred while they slept.
As the truck shook with their movements, Lebec woke, immediately checking on Leeds. Danko watched for a moment, before following the others out of the truck. The men quickly removed the camouflage, cleaning the truck off to avoid unwanted questions.
André was chosen to drive the first shift. Willing to chance a straightforward route, confident in their forged travel papers, they would stay on the main roads. They hoped to avoid suspicion as well as make faster progress toward their goal. According to their calculations – owing to the slow speed they would have to maintain in order to preserve their limited fuel – they would reach the Swiss border by the end of the day, as long as they didn't run into any trouble.
Danko, Sheppard, and Gage climbed back into the truck, the Dozen's leader shuffling to Lebec's side. Leeds was still asleep.
"How is he?" Danko asked.
"His temperature is up; he's fighting a fever." Lebec leaned against the wall and sighed heavily. "Probably the walk out in the cold last night did it. What he needs right now is to get someplace safe and it's the one thing we can't give 'im."
"And it won't help once this tin can gets hot in the sun," Danko added.
"No, sir," Lebec agreed.
"Will he be okay?"
The medic shrugged. "I can't answer that."
That wasn't what Danko wanted to hear. But the only thing he could do for his men was to get them to the safety of neutral Switzerland.
"We'll make it," Gage stated confidently, intuitively guessing Danko's fears.
The engine turned over and the truck eased onto the road. Everyone took a seat, unconsciously favoring the positions they'd held the night before. Lebec stayed next to Leeds at the front of the truck bed; Danko sat nearby with his rifle; Sheppard and Gage sat on opposite sides of the rear, weapons at the ready.
Trapped in the back, unable to see anything, Danko had to rely on the Jericho team members to get them to their destination safely. He was not a man accustomed to relinquishing control, yet he found himself doing just that time and again on this mission. He clutched his rifle tightly, unwilling and unable to give up control completely. If necessary, he would go down fighting in order to protect his men.
Making excellent time, they stopped only once mid-morning at a German checkpoint. André finessed his way through using his charms and Leeds' manifest. Breathing a sigh of relief as they continued their journey, Danko lowered his rifle. "I think it's time to switch drivers," he said, checking his watch.
"I agree." Sheppard nodded. "André and I will switch off."
Under normal circumstances, Danko would have protested Sheppard's presumption, but since he would feel more comfortable staying in the back with Leeds, he remained silent.
A coded knock on the cab wall instructed André to pull over, allowing Sheppard to take his place. The truck took off again, and the Frenchman described the checkpoint, smiling when he told of the success of the counterfeit documents fooling the Germans. His smile disappeared when he learned of the forger's fever.
Lebec continually applied compresses to Leeds' forehead, hoping to control the rising temperature.
Danko started to wonder if they had saved Leeds' life only to sacrifice it for their escape. Perhaps they should have taken the chance of getting Leeds to the original rendezvous. At least the rest of them would have gotten out alive. But Lebec had nearly guaranteed Leeds' death in that circumstance – this way the boy still had a chance.
Danko shook his head to clear it. There would be no second-guessing his actions; it never helped. One thing was certain, if Leeds ever made it back home to the Field Punishment Camp, Danko was never going to let that scrawny forger out of his sight. The kid seemed able to find trouble in a water closet.
Looking down, Danko saw the subject of his concern looking back at him. In the dark interior, he saw Leeds' eyes shine with fever.
The forger looked around, getting his bearings. Lebec didn't pause, continuing to wipe wet rags across Leeds' face and chest.
"Cut it out, I'm drowning," Leeds croaked, feebly trying to knock Lebec's hand away.
Danko caught the flailing limb, pushing it down. "You leave him alone, Leeds. He's trying to help your fever."
"Can't he do it without getting me all wet?"
"Great, now the guys'll never let…" Leeds' voice trailed off as he returned to a restless sleep.
"Keep it up," Danko ordered Lebec.
The drive was slow, but consistent and steady. If Danko had it figured right, they were in an open stretch of land with no towns around. With luck, they would also be free of checkpoints. The droning of the wheels on the road threatened to put Danko to sleep – the monotony overpowering. To shake himself from his stupor, Danko caught Lebec's eye, silently asking after Leeds' condition.
A disheartened shrug was his reply.
Half an hour later, Danko found himself wishing they had tried to make the rendezvous after all. The forger, burning with fever, had grown delirious, mumbling and shifting around. Lebec was doing all he could, but everyone could see he was fighting a losing battle. Without the resources to treat him, Leeds' condition had drastically worsened.
When Sheppard stopped, André resumed the driving duties. He drove cautiously to conserve the last of their precious fuel, as well as striving not to draw the suspicions of any Germans.
Marking their position on a mental map, André estimated in another fifteen miles they would be home free. Seeing another checkpoint ahead, he slowed, pulling to a stop in line behind a German staff car. Hands tapped a staccato rhythm on the steering wheel, broadcasting his uncertainty. Although confident in their stratagem, he was used to things going wrong. The Frenchman hated to admit his apprehension now that they were so close to their goal. He felt responsible for young man lying wounded in back. All he had to do was keep his cool, and it would be fine.
Once the staff car had moved on, André put the truck in gear, sliding it easily alongside the guards. Reaching for the manifest, he handed it over. Just as the papers passed hands, there was a thud from the rear of the truck.
André tried not to react to the noise, but he saw the nearest German grow instantly alert. He glanced sharply, raising his gun. The reaction drew the notice of his fellow guards.
Knowing he had no choice, André floored the accelerator. The truck lurched forward, the tires spitting dirt as they spun before finding traction. He heard bullets hit the truck, and he prayed the metal would protect his companions.
André rammed through the wooden roadblock easily, swerving to smash two motorcycles and a car. Hopefully, that would slow down any pursuit. Just as he thought they were free and clear, a sharp pain flared in his left shoulder. Ignoring the burn and the flow of blood down his back, the Frenchman focused his energy on keeping the truck on the road and the gas pedal depressed.
Gritting his teeth, André struggled to hold the wheel steady with his right hand while his left lay useless in his lap. Blood loss was slowly taking its toll, but he vowed to keep going as long as he was able.
Gage held his breath as they slowed for the checkpoint, not surprised to see the others doing the same. Everyone took care not to make any noise.
Suddenly, the fevered Leeds thrashed, his foot connecting with the side of the truck with a dull thunk. Moving too late, Danko and Lebec threw themselves on top of Leeds to hold him still. Time seemed to stand still as they waited to see if the sound had been heard.
The abrupt movement of the truck was their answer; the steady ping of bullets merely cementing the fact. They held on as André crashed through the barricade, being tossed about when he hit something else. Danko and Lebec protected Leeds the best they could, while Sheppard and Gage prepared to defend themselves. Fortunately, the vehicle continued on, and the cacophony of guns faded away.
The Englishman knew exactly what André would be doing in this situation – getting them to the border as quickly as possible, hoping to beat the radio reports of the encounter and fugitive vehicle. No longer needing to save gas or remain incognito, Gage was surprised when they started to slow down. He exchanged a confused look with Sheppard.
Once again they braced themselves as the truck swayed side-to-side, crunching over something before rolling to a stop.
Sheppard called to the Dozen, "Wait here," as he and Gage jumped out, weapons at the ready.
They were at the side of the road. Seeing nothing amiss save for the truck half in the brush, Gage scurried to the cab and pulled open the driver's door. André was hunched over the wheel, blood coating his back. "Sheppard!" Gage called, slinging his rifle over his shoulder. He pulled André back, searching for the exit wound. There was none.
"I went as far as I could," the Frenchman slurred, stirring under the movements.
"Apparently too far," Gage snapped.
Sheppard agreed. "You should've stopped before it got this bad."
"I'm fine." André slid out of the seat, groaning as the landing jarred his wound. He started to tilt to the side.
Sheppard slapped André hard, rousing him. "If you pass out, we're leaving your French ass on the side of the road. There's no way we can get you up in the truck."
"You would desert me?"
"That's what you get for being such a Goliath," Gage said. He and Sheppard led André to the rear where Danko helped lift him into the back.
Lebec turned his attention to André, cutting off his jacket and shirt in order to tend to the bullet wound. Gage stayed close, helping when he could. He listened with half an ear as Danko argued with Sheppard.
"It doesn't matter if I can speak the language – it's not as though we'll be stopping to chat," Danko insisted. "Now it's simply a race. We'll have to slam through the border."
"Non, non," André argued, struggling to sit up. Gentle hands pushed him back down.
"You aren't in any shape to do more than lay there," Lebec snapped.
André shook his head. "There is no need to break through the border."
"Why not?" Gage asked.
"I have recalled a different path, one that bypasses the official border." André squinted his eyes shut, as he described, "When you are near, you will see a covered bridge to your left. Turn right at the next dirt road and continue until there is a handmade sign selling jams. Take another right, passing the house and continuing on. Once you see a firehouse, you will know you are in Switzerland."
"And you're just remembering this now?" Sheppard asked, incredulous.
André grimaced. "Apparently the bullet shook the memories loose."
"That better be all it did." Sheppard added, "I would still be the best one to drive."
Danko shook his head. "You need to take care of your man; there's only one thing I can do for mine."
Obviously reluctant, Sheppard agreed. Danko jumped out and Gage held on as the truck started on the last leg of its journey.
Danko adjusted his aching body again. Hard, uncomfortable chairs were the same in every waiting room, no matter the country. Captain Sheppard had taken the sword and gone to talk with the authorities, explaining how they came to be in Swiss territory. Two Swiss military men stood guard at each door to the waiting room, keeping watch on the three uninjured men.
The second lieutenant sighed. They had been waiting for word on Leeds and André for at least three hours. "Seemed too easy," Danko murmured absently.
"Easy?" Lebec asked.
"Getting through the border," Danko clarified.
"You were looking forward to your kamikaze run?" Gage looked aside in surprise.
"Not exactly, but after we had so much bad luck…"
"It's hard to accept the good," Gage finished.
"Yeah," Danko sighed, "something like that."
"Well, I think we were due for some good luck," Lebec said. "We were owed big."
"Huge," Gage agreed.
"Let’s hope it's time to collect." Danko squirmed again, looking for that comfortable spot, yet unable to find it. He rose when he spotted a doctor walking toward them.
"You are in charge of the two men?" the doctor asked in a heavy accent.
"Yes, I am," Danko replied easily. He would argue the technicalities later if it became necessary.
"I'm Dr. Karlsson," he introduced. "You will be happy to know both men are well."
Danko felt something loosen in his gut. "Thanks, Doc."
"We have set Mr. Leeds' leg and given him antibiotics to help with his infection. You should thank whoever tended to his bullet wound. They did an excellent job and, in fact, saved his life."
Gage asked, "What about André?"
"Mr. André was a bit more difficult. The bullet had lodged in his shoulder blade, but we were able to remove it and minimize the damage. With hard work, he should have full use of his arm and shoulder."
At Gage's side, Lebec followed his superior along the corridor, ignoring the soldiers leading them. At the entrance to the room, the soldiers camped out on either side, giving them access to the door. Danko exchanged a look with the Creole before he quietly entered, obviously not wanting to disturb the men if they were resting.
They needn't have worried. Both Leeds and André were awake and smiling at their entrance. Gage walked over to stand next to André's bed, Lebec moved beside Leeds, while Danko stayed at the foot of the beds.
"'Bout time you showed up, sir." Leeds attempted to lift his head, but was too weak. He settled for asking, "When do we leave?"
"Let's wait until you stop bleeding, shall we?" Danko responded.
André nodded. "I am willing to remain here until completely recovered."
Gage narrowed his eyes as he studied his friend. "You have a great-looking nurse, don't you?"
"You better believe it." Leeds whistled appreciatively.
The men laughed, looking over as Sheppard entered, closing the door behind him. The American agent clapped his hands together. "Everything's been arranged for us to stay for the duration."
"You're happy we're stuck here?" Gage sounded incredulous. "I thought you'd be chomping at the bit to get back in the action."
"Oui," André said. "Mon ami, you must get us back home."
Sheppard grinned. "Well, I just happened to contact our superiors, and they let me know they wouldn't be averse to Jericho returning to England to continue our missions."
"So, they'll set up a way back?" Gage surmised, punching Sheppard for leading them on.
Sheppard rubbed his arm. "As soon as André here can be moved safely."
"What about us?" Danko asked.
Turning to face the lieutenant, Sheppard shook his head. "They don't seem to think you three are vital to the war effort."
"So much for our reputation," Leeds said, snidely.
"Of course," Sheppard continued, "I convinced them of their error."
Lebec prompted, "And?"
"And you will be returning with us," Sheppard finished.
"Damn," Lebec said, "I was looking forward to a Swiss vacation. I love their chocolate."
"What about the women?" Leeds asked.
Lebec waggled his eyebrows. "Well, I was gonna cover them in chocolate."
Field Punishment Camp
Janosz Feke lay in his bunk, fingers laced behind his head. It had been almost three weeks since they'd returned to England without their teammates, and there was still no indication what would be done with the remaining group.
Officially, they were on "standby" until it was decided to disband the Dirty Dozen or get a new commander. Three weeks of absolutely nothing to do. Feke wasn't good at nothing. He ached to get back in action, to do something for Christ's sake.
Sergeant Cutter had been bunking in Danko's room at the rear of the barracks in order to keep an eye on them. He needn't have bothered. Feke couldn't remember when he had seen a more listless group of men. It was pathetic.
Through the haze of self-recrimination, the Hungarian heard a vehicle approach. Glancing around he saw his fellow cons were indifferent to their visitor: Vern and Roy were talking softly across their bunks, Farrell was sleeping or pretending to, Cutter was entrenched in the back room, and the "new guys" were gathered at the table playing cards. They had pretty much stuck together the past few weeks, an act of defense against the animosity of the original Dozen members. Not that they had deserved it, Feke thought, but there had been no other direction for the anger to go.
A strange thumping sound caught Feke's attention. He lifted his head, catching the confused glances of his teammates. The front door was pulled open.
Leeds ambled through, his crutches making steady thunks on the floor. Danko and Lebec appeared behind him.
"Have you ever seen such a sorry bunch of lazy asses?" Leeds asked, smirking.
"Not lately," Danko admitted.
Lebec motioned at his companions. "And after all the work we did to get back here."
The paralysis broke and the Dozen rushed the new arrivals, welcoming them home with wide smiles and backslapping.
Feke couldn't stop the stupid grin from attaching itself to his face. "How'd you guys do it?"
"Didn't Cutter tell you?"
Heads swiveled to glare at the sergeant. Cutter smiled. "Oh, yeah, I knew there was something I'd forgot to tell ya," he drawled.
"You redneck son of a bitch!" Roy cried. "Why didn't you say anything?"
"Just remember this the next time you're standing in front of our loaded weapons," Feke added.
"I ain't that stupid." Obviously pleased with himself, Cutter added, "'Sides, I wanted to make sure they made it 'fore I got yer hopes up."
Feke saw Danko blanch. In the months they had been serving together, Feke had seen only a few things visibly affect their superior. Each time it had been connected to the success or near-failure of a mission. Since their initial goal to destroy the radar installation had been successful, there must be another cause for Danko's reaction. Considering the older man continually glanced at Leeds, Feke deduced the forger was the cause.
"So what did you guys bring us?" Farrell asked, breaking into Feke's thoughts.
"We had chocolate, but it was confiscated," Lebec lamented.
Leeds grinned. "André did promise to send me a case of French champagne."
"Well, that should be enough for me," Roy said, "what about the rest of you?"
The banter continued, but Feke tuned out the words, letting the camaraderie flow over him. Whatever Danko was worrying about, he would have to work it out on his own. Right now, Feke was just content to be part of a team again.
Until the next mission.