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          Lieutenant Danko ground his jaws shut against the pain, shifted the weight of Roy's unconscious body across his shoulders and forced himself on.  If he could just stay on his feet a little longer he'd make it to the recon-location.  Hopefully, someone else would be there to meet him…

          How the hell could things go so wrong?

          Roy moaned softly as Danko stumbled and nearly fell.  He was close, he knew it.  Not much farther.  Just keep walking, he told himself, one foot after another, keep walking, Danko, just keep walking…

          Each step stretched out until they were beyond his reach, and Danko wondered if he was still actually on his feet.  The weight suddenly lifted from his shoulders.

          "Roy?" questioned Vern's concerned voice.

          Vern?

          The camp.

          I made it to the camp.  Thank God someone else got out alive…

          Hands reached out, supporting him as Danko felt his knees begin to buckle.

          "Lieutenant?"

          LeBec's voice cut through the deafening roar filling Danko's ears.  The blurred outlines of his men contorted in front of his eyes before darkness overtook him and the oldest second lieutenant in the United States Army collapsed into the supporting arms of what was left of the Dirty Dozen.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "He's coming around," Leeds whispered, and Sergeant Cutter scrambled over to where Danko was lying.

          "Lieutenant?" Cutter prompted, shaking the officer's shoulder.

          Danko groaned and forced his eyes open, only to find a worried stare returned in the First Sergeant's eyes.  He took a moment to get his bearings, then asked, "What's the situation, Sergeant?"

          Cutter's gaze scanned the camp as he spoke.  "Roy's unconscious, LeBec thinks it's a concussion from a graze.  Vern's fine, just a few cuts and bruises.  Farrell's a little beat up from the explosion, I think he twisted an ankle – at least, it doesn't seem to be broken.  Feke took a shot in the arm that grazed the bone, but he's on his feet.  LeBec took one in the leg.  No broken bones.  Leeds here lost some skin and blood from the blast, sprained a wrist, but he's intact.  Miller and Adams are dead.  Cartwright's missing, and the girl took a good graze along her side, cracked some ribs maybe, but she's holding up."

          "And you?"

          Cutter looked down at the burn on his leg.  "Just a burn, I'll be fine."

          "Looks like you're the worst off, Lieutenant," Leeds said with a half smile.  "Guess it comes with the rank, huh?"

          Danko shook his head and glowered ineffectually at the forger.  "Appreciate that, Leeds.  Anyone ever tell you that you've got a great bedside manner?"

          A larcenous grin cracked across the man's youthful face.  "As a matter of fact, Lieutenant, yeah."

          "Well, don't you believe 'em."

          Leeds dug into his pocket and pulled out what was left of a cigar.  Giving the half crushed stub a frown, he sighed, then looked up at Danko with a half-serious expression.  "Now, Lieutenant, ladies never lie."

          Danko turned his attention back to Cutter.  "We have to make the pickup in three days or they'll write us off and we'll be stuck here with no ride home.  Think they can make it?"

          Cutter tried to hide his real opinion as he drawled in his Arkansas best, "I don't see that we have a choice, Lieutenant."

          "No," Danko admitted.  "We don't."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "All right, you guys, listen up," Danko said from his position propped up against the rough trunk of an old oak tree. "We've got three days to reach our extraction point and meet a plane, or they'll assume we're dead and we'll have to walk out of here."

          "Just where are we, anyway, Lieutenant?" Feke asked, adjusting the makeshift sling that cradled his injured arm.

          "I don't know, exactly," Danko replied flatly.  He had balked at the mission from the start.  He didn't like the idea of parachuting into a totally unknown area with orders to raid an isolated country estate, rescue an old man, and return for a pick-up three days later using a map that lacked all details except a route to that location, but General Worth reduced it to a personal favor and Danko owed him.  Besides, when the general explained that it was so hush-hush that even he didn't know all the details, Danko's curiosity was aroused.

          "How are we goin' to find the pick-up location, then?" Vern asked, his gaze never straying far from his injured brother.

          "I have a map that'll get us to where we need to go, Vern.  The problem is going to be getting there in time."  Danko looked at the woman who had been added to the team for this mission.  "Catha, are those papers good enough?"

          "Yes, I think so," the young woman replied, her pale grey eyes studying the Lieutenant.  "Getting Haus out would have been better, but at least this should give the Allies something to go on.  Hopefully they can decipher what he was researching from these and go from there."

          He nodded.  "We'll head out at dusk.  I don't want to run into any Germans if we can help it.  There's no telling what's between us and where we're going.  The map shows no towns, just hills and one river that we have to find a way across."  His gaze shifted to the Dozen's medic. "How's Roy?"

          "We'll have to take him, and you, on stretchers," LeBec said.

          "I'll be fine, LeBec," Danko said, trying to push himself up.  He groaned and clutched at the bandaged side wound.

          "Here, let me take a look."  Lebec pushed the lieutenant's hand aside and watched as the bandage began to turn red.  "No, sir, whenever you move around that wound starts bleeding again.  You're going to have to ride this one out, Lieutenant."

          Danko watched the man, wishing there was a way around the situation, but there wasn't.  He wouldn't make it more than a mile.  He nodded, considering the curious thought that the Dozen's demolitions expert was also their quasi-official medic as well.  It made for an interesting combination.  "I bow to your better judgment in the matter," Danko told him quietly, drawing a smile from the French Creole.

          "That's a first," LeBec grinned.

          "Don't get used to it."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          The stretchers ready, the Dirty Dozen headed out as the sun slipped over the horizon and semi-darkness invaded the woodland.  Vern and Leeds carried Roy while LeBec and Cutter handled Danko's litter.  Feke kept them on track, navigating by the constellations and referring frequently to the map.  With injuries of their own, the litter-bearers rotated frequently to insure that no one was overtaxed.  Danko called a halt an hour before sunrise.

          "Lieutenant, you sure?" Cutter questioned.  "We still have a good hour of darkness we can use."

          "Sergeant, most of these men look like they're about to collapse, including yourself.  We'll rest now and push on early tonight."

          "LeBec," Leeds' voice echoed across the camp.

          "Coming."  He hobbled over to where Leeds sat with Vern, keeping an eye on Roy.  "What?"

          "He opened his eyes just a second ago."

          "You sure?"

          "I saw him, too," Vern confirmed, his hands trembling slightly as he reached out to adjust the jacket tucked around the smaller man's shoulders.

          LeBec reached out and shook the small, blond-haired man's arm.  "Roy?  Wake up, Roy."

          Roy blinked and opened his eyes, staring groggily up at the sky.  "Vern?" he slurred.

          "Right here, Roy," the large man said, reaching out to squeeze his brother's shoulder gently.  "You okay?"

          "How do you feel?" LeBec rephrased.

          "Like Vern's been beatin' on my head," he explained, pulling one arm free of the cover and shoving the bright blond hair off his damp forehead.

          "Concussion," Leeds explained.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Danko tried to sleep, but sunlight, sneaking through the leaves and racing across his closed eyelids, made it impossible.  He felt a cool cloth being laid across his forehead, and opened his eyes to find Catha there.  "What are you doing?" he asked, feeling his cheeks color slightly.

          "Your fever's climbing," she said by way of an explanation.

          "I'm sorry, I—"  Danko's apology was cut short when Leeds nearly slid into them from a dead run.

          "German patrol, about a mile north.  They're moving this way."

          Danko forced himself up to his elbows.  "Looking for us?"

          Leeds thought a moment.  "I don't think so, they looked awfully relaxed."

          "What now, Lieutenant?" Farrell asked and Danko looked up to find the unit gathered around, drawn in by Leeds' hasty arrival.

          "How many?" Danko asked.

          "Fifteen, and a real young lieutenant in command."

          Danko looked around at the low rolling hills, still covered with relatively thick woods.  "All right, we'll spread out along the washes and hope they take the easiest route through here."

          "Which will put 'em right in the middle of a crossfire," Feke said with a wicked smile as he glanced at the two washes.

          "Bingo," Farrell said softly.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Danko lay belly down on the ground, wishing he could ignore the throbbing in his side.  A thick, sticky ooze of blood slid out from under the bandage, soaking his trousers.  They were in civilian dress.  If they were caught there would be no doubt they were spies, and spies were shot.

          The soft call of a dove echoed down the wash.  Roy.  The Germans were almost there.  Danko looked over at LeBec lying several yards to his left.  His gun was ready, a knife lying on the ground nearby should he have to use it.  Glancing to his right, he studied the calm yet intense expression of ex-Captain Catha McClelland, newest member of the Dozen.  Danko hadn't been excited about taking in another woman, but Catha had proven herself capable in every situation, and he hoped that this one would be no different.

          The sounds of the Germans approaching drew his attention back to the level ground between the two washes and the remaining eight Americans.  The Nazis moved calmly along, obviously not expecting trouble.

          Well, you're in for a surprise, Danko thought as he raised his revolver and centered the sights on the young German lieutenant's chest.  He squeezed.  The man fell onto the thick layer of accumulated leaves with a soft thud.

          The German soldiers looked about frantically, grabbing for their guns as the Dozen opened fire.  Less than a minute later the firing stopped.

          "Get their weapons and ammunition, and take the officer's uniform and a couple of the others," Danko instructed LeBec.  "Catha, check for any identification, or something to tell us where the hell we are."

          She nodded and moved off as silently as a cat.  He watched her go, wondering just who the hell she really was.

          "Here you go," Feke said, holding out a bar of chocolate to Danko.  "They're carrying rations."

          "Well, then, I guess it's chowtime."

          "Lieutenant," Catha said as she approached the wounded man.  Danko's face was drawn, and no matter what he said, it was quite clear that he was in considerable pain.  "The lieutenant was carrying a map of this area, very close to yours, and this…"  She handed him a piece of paper.

          "What is it?" he asked, handing what was obviously a flyer of some kind back to her.

          "It's an invitation," she explained as the other members of the team began to close on the pair, curious about what she'd found, "to a local dance being held in honor of Hitler's birthday."

          "Local?" Danko asked, the lightheadedness increasing as the blood drained from his face.  He didn't want to hear this.

          "From the looks of it, we're smack dab in the middle of Northern Germany."

          "What?"

          "I'd say that estate was no more than seventy-five miles outside Hamburg, and our pick-up is waiting for us just over the border, in Holland."

          "Who the hell was that doctor?" Feke asked no one in particular.

          "I wish I knew," was Danko's tired reply.  I just might be responsible for getting us all killed, he finished silently.

          "So, what now?" Leeds asked, since it didn't look like anyone else was going to.

          "We keep going," Danko said.  "If we miss our ride, we'll be swimming the Channel to get back to London."  A chorus of chuckles and snorts met the remark.  It was too real a possibility to actually laugh.

          They set out again as the last traces of daylight evaporated, the forest growing denser as they headed further west.  "No wonder they didn't expect us to run into patrols," Farrell said as he adjusted his grip on the lieutenant's litter.

          "I wonder if there's any bears out here," LeBec commented idly, looking left and right.

          "Bears?" the Californian asked nervously.

          "He's just harassing you, Farrell," Danko told the young man, smiling at the panicked tone of his voice.

          LeBec grinned back at the injured man.  "You're supposed to be resting, remember, Lieutenant?"

          "Yeah, well, I'm sure not doing much else lying here."  Danko closed his eyes and listened to the quiet but steady progress they were making.  He was proud of these men.  They might have had run-ins with the authorities, but every one of them was worth his weight in gold.  And they were making better progress tonight. Roy was walking under his own power, with a little help from Vern, which freed them up somewhat.  With only one litter to worry about, the men could rotate more often and make up the distance they'd lost the night before.

          Damn.  I wish the hell I was off this thing, Danko cursed to himself.  I'm supposed to be leading these guys, not being wet nursed.

          He felt the litter change hands.  Leeds and Cutter.  Feke would still be on point.  LeBec stayed close by, watching him.

          He takes this medic role too damn seriously sometimes, the officer concluded about the Creole.  I'm going to have to have a chat with him about that.

          Catha was nearby as well.  Danko didn't know how he knew that, but he did.

          If we get out of this mess, I'm going to request that she be made a permanent member of the Dozen, he thought.  She handled herself perfectly at the estate.  I would've been dead for sure if she hadn't killed that guard.

          The flash of the bayonet appeared in front of his eyes, and Danko forced it away.  Her docket had said Catha was an expert marksman; the guard was Danko's proof.

          They must have known we were coming.  That's the only thing that would explain it, but I don't see how.  If General Worth didn't know the whole ball of wax who the hell did?  Who would sell us out?  It doesn't make sense… unless we were supposed to be caught.  Unless we were supposed to play the lambs in this little sacrifice.

          Haus, the man they had gone in to find had been dead for over a week… someone had to know that…  Goddamn…  We were set up.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Near daybreak the litter jerked to a stop and Danko tried to sit up.  "What's going on?"

          Feke emerged out of the darkness.  "I spotted a small farm half a mile on.  It looks quiet.  No sign of Nazis."

          Danko contemplated the news.  They could all use some fresh rations.  "Take Farrell and Leeds, see if you can talk them out of some fresh food."

          "Ask if they have any clean cloths, too," LeBec added.

          "No," was Danko's immediate reply.  "I don't want any suspicions about wounded men wandering around in the woods if the Nazis should stop by after we're gone."

          "Lieutenant, I need to keep clean bandages on that wound or you'll end up with an infection that could kill you."

          "We'll ask," Farrell assured LeBec.

          "I said, no.  And that's an order."

          The three soldiers exchanged looks and headed off.  When they were out of Danko's hearing range Farrell queried his two companions, "We'll ask, right?"

          "Right," Feke agreed.

          Leeds nodded.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Danko knew they'd disobey his order, but he couldn't force himself to get mad about it.  Besides, the pain in his side was getting to the point that little else held his attention for long.  LeBec had arranged a lean-to of sorts, and the lieutenant rested fitfully under it.  Occasional shafts of sunlight pierced the cover and he tossed his head to escape the brightness.  It looked like fire… fire…

          The estate was on fire.  They had to get out.  The sounds of gunfire reached Danko as he supported the injured Roy with one arm and tried to hold the Luger he'd taken off a dead German in the other.  A third explosion rumbled up from below.  It was a trap.  If they stayed inside they'd burn to death, and outside the Germans were waiting to shoot them down.

          Catha appeared through the smoke.  She was carrying a satchel stuffed full of papers.  "Haus is dead.  He's been dead a week.  I took what papers I could find."  She reached over and helped Danko support the unconscious man.

          "We're trapped.  Did you see LeBec and Feke?"

          "I haven't seen anyone except Miller.  He's dead."

          "Great."  Danko felt his knees buckle when the shot ripped through his side.  He fell, pulling Roy and Catha down as well.  The pounding footsteps from one of the guards bearing down on them throbbed through his mind, matching the beat in his side.  He shook his head to clear it, but it was no use.  He watched the blurred outlines of the woman as she took the Luger from his hand and fired at the man who was about to finish off his work.  His face exploded.

          Danko felt himself struggling to his feet, lifting Roy over his shoulders.  "Run," he heard a voice yell, realizing only later that it was his own.

          Catha looked at him, concern and confusion showing plainly on her face.  "Run!" the voice commanded more fiercely, and she did.

          Danko couldn't remember getting through the house, just the choking rawness burning his throat, and the blinding fire in his side.  The sounds of gunfire had stopped when he reached the side door.  Visions of the entire team, burned alive or shot down at the front of the house, swam through his mind.  Roy moaned.         "Easy, Roy, easy," he told the injured man as he kicked the door open and plunged out into the coolness of the night air.  Run, Danko, run… run…  "Run!"

          A comforting hush drifted over him, followed by the coolness of a damp cloth wiping the sweat from his face and the memories from his mind.  Danko tossed on his litter, fighting back the horror that twisted in his fever-ridden brain and struggled to reach the voice.

          "Lieutenant, please, stay still."

          Catha.  Catha was alive, she made it out.

          "He's delirious."

          LeBec?  Alive?  LeBec and Catha were alive, they made it out... they made it out.  Damned if he'd let his men be sacrificed…  Sacrificed… burnt offerings…

          "Lieutenant?"  LeBec shook him, popping the blue eyes open.  "Lieutenant, can you hear me?"

          Danko allowed the weaving vision in front of his eyes to settle back into place before he answered.  "Yeah, LeBec, I hear you.  Are they back?"

          "Several hours ago," the Creole told him as he changed the bandages.  "You've been out of it, sir.  That fever's climbing, and, well, I'm no doctor, Lieutenant, and you need one."

          "When we reach the pick-up," Danko said through gritted teeth.  Catha placed a second cloth on his forehead.  "And tell those three they're on report when we get back for disobeying my order."

          "I'm sure they'll be pleased," she told him, and he smiled beneath his grimace, sure they would be.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "What do we do?" Farrell asked the assembled group.

          "There's nothing to do but move out and hope we get to the pick-up by daybreak," Catha said from her position seated next to Danko.  His fever had continued to climb steadily all day, and he finally drifted off in the early afternoon, LeBec unable to wake him.

          "I'm afraid the trip's going to be too rough on him," the Creole said.

          "If we don't reach the pick-up he isn't going to get to a doctor, and he'll die anyway," Catha reminded.  "The trip's all that can save him."

          "Let's do it," Cutter said, ending any further discussion.  With Danko unconscious, he was in command.

          The soldiers nodded.  Feke stood, unfolded the map, set his direction with the emerging stars and headed off.  Leeds and Vern lifted Danko's litter and followed the Hungarian, while the rest of the team fanned out to watch for patrols.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Movement…  The boat was moving.  The stench of sulfur reached Danko and for a moment he was fifteen and back in the trenches of France again, and men were screaming.  He heard a laugh.

          Forcing his eyes open, Danko stared disbelievingly at the figure draped in a black cowl, slowly poling the rocking boat in which he lay.  "Who are you?" Danko asked.

          The faceless figure turned toward him and a second chuckle ran out from beneath the hood.  Danko struggled to rise, but he was chained to the bottom of the small boat.  The laugh grew louder.

          It was also growing hotter, the rough wooden planks shifting under the lieutenant, becoming metal, searing hot metal.  He screamed and fought against the chains.  The figure raised the pole from the water, liquid flames dripping from the tip.  He raised it above his head and sent it crashing into Danko's face.  The world erupted in shards of flame and cutting pain, then settled once more into blackness.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "I hate to do that," LeBec mumbled to himself, rubbing his knuckles.

          "I hope we make that pick-up," Vern said quietly.  "I don't think he's gonna to make it."

          "He'll make it," Catha told them.  She sounded sure.

          Cutter raised his clenched fist and the team dropped down into the shrubbery to wait.  Moving in a low crouch, he joined the remainder of the Dozen and whispered, "Looks like part of a patrol.  There's only six of 'em, but I don't want to draw any attention to us if I can help it.  We're about an hour from the pick-up, and the last thing we need is a patrol of krauts chasing off the partisans.  Feke, you and Vern hop into those German uniforms and see what you can find out."  The two men nodded and moved off to change.  "The rest of you, fan out and, if we have to, we'll take them out hand to hand.  No shooting if you can help it.  McClelland, you stay here with the lieutenant and make sure he stays quiet."  The woman frowned at being left out of the action, but nodded.  "All right, move."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          The six men sat casually around a small clearing.  Several large boulders made adequate chairs and the trunk of a fallen tree provided for the rest.  Feke led the larger of the Beaubuff brothers around to the roadside of the clearing, and then marched boldly into the clearing.  The Germans grabbed instinctively for their weapons, but lowered them immediately upon seeing Feke's rank.

          "So, what do we have here?  Is it your normal custom to spend your time sprawled on rocks and trees?" the Hungarian accused.

          "No, sir," the oldest member of the patrol responded as they all climbed hastily to their feet and stood at attention.  "We were just taking a rest, Herr Lieutenant."

          "A rest?  There is a war on!  You do not take rests!  Who is your commander?"

          "Lieutenant Gotting, Herr Lieutenant."

          "And where is he?"

          "Sir, we are just a small, local detachment.  The lieutenant is in Hamburg.  Every day we come out and patrol five miles of the border, but there is never anything out here."

          "I see.  So since there is nothing out here you are free to act like civilians?  I will have a talk with your Lieutenant Gotting.  Perhaps we can find some action for you... in Poland or Russia perhaps."  The men shifted uneasily.  "I suggest you take your men and return to headquarters.  I have a squad of men who are due to arrive here at any moment to begin a sweep of the countryside.  There have been reports of partisan transmissions coming from this area, and we will find out where they are coming from.  You and your men would only be in the way… unless…  Feke looked pointedly at the young man, making plain his suspicions that the Germans themselves were a part of the resistance.  The man paled.

          "Yes, sir!" he shouted, and called the remaining five into marching formation. "We will report our impropriety to the Lieutenant, sir!"

          Feke and Vern watched them go, the Hungarian forcing his face to remain neutral.  When the Germans were well on their way the remainder of the Dozen joined the pair in the clearing.  Feke grinned at Farrell.  "Do you think that, perhaps, there is a chance for me in Hollywood?"

          Farrell smiled and nodded.  "You could get an Academy Award, Feke, an Academy Award."

          "Let's get a move on, ladies," Cutter interrupted.  "We still have an hour of travel ahead of us."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          The unmistakable sound of rifle bolts being drawn back reached the Dozen.  They froze in place, watching as several men emerged from behind trees and shrubs.  "Are you the Americans?"  The voice spoke Dutch.

          "We are looking for a stolen goose," Catha replied in the same tongue.

          "I see.  Most of them have flown south for the winter, but we can find one for you, I'm sure," the man replied to complete the code.  He shifted to broken English. "Welcome.  We were worrying you would not arrive."

          "We have an injured man," Catha explained.  "Do you have someone who can look at him?"

          "No, we do not.  I am much sorry.  I escort you to the landing field before plane leaves.  Follow me."

          The Dozen set off at a trot behind the leader of the Dutch resistance group.  The remainder of the partisans followed them, their weapons ready in case the Americans should turn out to be Nazis.

          "They're more paranoid than we are," Leeds whispered to no one in particular.

          "Guess they have more reason to be," Roy whispered back.  "They got krauts as neighbors."

          "There," the resistance leader pointed to a waiting aircraft sitting on what looked like a short runway.

          "Thank you," Catha told him.  The man nodded, then left, his men disappearing after him into the gloom of the thick woods.

          The team boarded quickly and strapped themselves in, except Catha and LeBec, who began working on the still unconscious Danko.

          "Hand me that medical kit," LeBec asked her as they felt the plane begin its taxi for takeoff.  Catha slid the heavy metal box over alongside the litter and opened the lid.  LeBec pointed to several items that she passed to his waiting hand as they lurched from the runway.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          General Worth frowned at the message he held.  Looking up at his aid, he rose and snapped out the orders harsher that he intended.  "Get a medical team to the airfield before the Dirty Dozen land, and I want those who can walk in my office as soon as possible."

          "Sir!" the young lieutenant snapped a crisp salute to his brow and waited for the general to return the gesture before turning on his heel and marching out.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Several nurses busied themselves treating the remainder of the Dozen while General Worth paced the large treatment room of the hospital.  "What the hell happened?"

          "I don't know, sir.  Why don't you tell us?" LeBec hissed through gritted teeth as a nurse poured antiseptic over his leg wound and began digging out the debris and dead tissue.

          "That's just it.  I don't know."

          "Dr. Haus has been dead for over a week," Catha drawled in her western best, adding a belated, "sir."

          "Dead?"

          "Yeah, like stone cold and buried.  You know," Leeds said.

          "But that's not possible.  Our intelligence—"

          "Stinks," Feke said, cutting the general off.

          "Watch it," Cutter threatened from where he lay nearby.

          "That's all right, Sergeant," Worth said, his gaze sweeping over the injured soldiers.  "I can understand your feelings, all of you.  But I wouldn't have sent you in if there'd been even a hint that Haus was dead.  It just doesn't make sense."

          "Have you considered that you might have a leak in your intelligence group?" Catha asked.

          "I'm beginning to, but it doesn't seem likely.  No one was in on the whole operation except a few of the allied commanders.  I didn't even have all the details, as I'm sure you know."

          "That's what the Lieutenant told us," Farrell said, adding, "General, can you find out how he's doing?"

          Worth's voice was gentle.  "I'll see what I can do."

          The Dozen watched the general leave, each with his own thoughts about their future if Danko died.  The nurses continued their work in silence.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          General Worth followed the finely sculptured nail on the nurse's index finger to one of the physicians emerging from behind double doors.  "Thank you," he mumbled absently, heading off to intercept the man.

          "You're welcome, sir."

          "Excuse me, Doctor," the general said, stepping up to block the man's progress down the sterile white hall.

          "May I be of help to you, sir?"  He was British.

          "Yes.  The nurse told me you're taking care of Lieutenant Danko?"

          "Yes, yes I am.  We just finished up in the surgery and the lieutenant is in recovery."

          "How is he?" the general asked, checking his anxiousness in the face of the man's British proprieties.

          "Quite well, sir.  Quite well, all things considered."

          "Would you give me a few more details?  I have to go back and face eight worried commandos in your treatment room."

          The doctor's face cracked into a small smile.  "Quite.  Why don't you accompany me to my office, then, General.  I'll be happy to explain the lieutenant's condition."

          General Worth followed the man to the small, Spartan office and took a seat across the desk from him.

          "Tea?"

          "No, thank you," he said, not having developed a taste for the British custom.

          "Now, as to your lieutenant," the doctor poured himself a small cup, added sugar and milk and stirred before continuing.  "It seems he's developed a mild peritonitis from the wound he suffered.  Given the conditions, I'm actually quite surprised he lived.  Your men took right proper care of him.  We removed the debris and did what we could about the infection.  The next twenty-four hours will tell the story.  His fever is still quite high, but we're keeping it under control with ice packs."

          "What are his chances?"

          "If he can fight off the fever, his chances are quite good for a complete recovery and a return to action.  If the fever persists as high as it is, however, he will, quite probably, die.  As I said, the next twenty-four hours should tell the tale."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Danko skulked through the damp dungeon corridors, searching frantically for a way out.  He could hear the sound of jackboots moving down the neighboring corridors, searching for him.  He grabbed at one of the doorknobs and twisted it frantically.  The brass knob came off in his hand, the door swinging open silently.

          Fog belched from the room, enveloping Danko and drawing him in despite his attempts to flee down the hall.

          Danko was swept into a world of confusion.  Fire and ice hung from the walls in great writhing curtains.  He spun, trying to find the door again, but it was gone.  Distant voices echoed in the large cavern, and he tried to make out the words, though it was a futile effort.

          He felt a constriction about his ankles and looked down to find a large snake encircling them.  He kicked savagely to dislodge the creature, but it smiled up at him, fangs dripping a deep red poison.  Men grabbed him, and Danko jerked his head up, finding two SS men holding his wrists, tying him to large pillars of ice.  He struggled, but they laughed at his feeble efforts.  One removed a lighter and flicked the flame to life.  He waved it dangerously close to his face and Danko ground his eyes shut, fighting against the restraints.

          When he opened his eyes, Danko was surprised to find Otto Hendricks standing in front of him, holding an ancient German spear in his hands, smiling.

          "You killed my men, Danko.  You killed me.  Now, now I can kill you."

          He thrust the spear forward and Danko watched it pass through his side.  He cried out, but Hendricks just laughed and twisted the shaft.

          "Don't die.  Please.  You promised."

          Danko looked to his right to find Marco standing there, tears running down his fifteen-year-old face.  "You told me Flash Gordon never dies!  You lied, just like my brother!"

          "I'm sorry, kid, I'm sorry…"

          "It's not so bad, Lieutenant.  Bein' dead, I mean."

          Danko looked to the left.  "Muskovitz?"

          "Yeah, it's me.  We're all here, wherever the hell this is."

          Danko noticed Brody and the Mexican, standing just beyond the Jewish hitman with their arms around each other's shoulders.  They waved.  Bobby Miller emerged out of the darkness, smiled and nodded, giving Danko a thumbs-up sign.  Dana stepped out from behind him, still wearing the nun's habit she'd died in.

          "Hang on, Lieutenant," she told him.  "It's not your time, but you have to fight.  Tell LeBec I'm watching out for him, and the rest of you."

          "It is time to die!" Hendricks yelled and yanked the spear free.  Danko screamed.

          "Yes, it certainly is time to die, Lieutenant Danko."  It was Pendl.  He raised the Luger he held and fired.  Danko felt his knees buckle and he fell, although his body remained suspended between the pillars of ice.

          "It is just a delusion, Lieutenant."

          Danko looked frantically to his friends, and watched as Angus strode up with the men from the McKindrick's Island home guard.  "Fight, sir.  Lord Halliwell would be most saddened to learn of your death."

          "Forget it!  You will die, Danko!" Pendl yelled, but Danko didn't look back.  He studied the faces of the men and Dana, knowing he was responsible for each of their deaths, and yet here they were, helping him, caring about him.  The thought gave him strength.

          Marco walked up to him, carrying the stuffed dog he'd saved from the rubble of his childhood under one arm.

          "Marco, you're not dead," Danko said through gritted teeth as Hendricks thrust the spear into his side a second time.

          "I died in the last bombing of London," he explained.  "But you're not supposed to die."

          Danko studied the boy's face.  "Flash Gordon never dies, son."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "What was that?  What did he say?" General Worth asked, moving from a chair to stand next to Danko's bed.

          "Flash Gordon, sir," LeBec said from where he sat next to the bed, watching as Danko fought the fever out.  "Ask him about it sometime, sir."

          General Worth scowled at the creole momentarily, then realized that LeBec had shared a number of experiences with Danko that would undoubtedly feel like an invasion of privacy if shared with him.  "Maybe I will.  Sounds like a good story."

          LeBec smiled sadly.  "It is, sir.  It is."

          Using the tray she carried to push the door open, the nurse entered the room.  She frowned at LeBec.  "I swear if it isn't one of you, it's another.  As I told Mr. Leeds, and Mr. Feke and Mr. Farrell, you'll have to return to your own room."

          LeBec pushed himself to his feet and smiled at the woman as he passed.

          "How many others can I expect to find before I'm through?" she asked.

          "Three or four, lovely lady, just three or four," the Cajun said, tipping an imaginary hat and slipping out the door.

          She smiled and shook her head as the door closed on his retreating form.  "Lieutenant Danko's men certainly care a great deal about him."

          "Yes, they do.  Are you going to chase me out as well?"

          "Oh, no, General.  You're not injured."

          The nurse gave Danko an injection, checked the ice packs and took his temperature.

          "How's his fever?" Worth asked.

          "It's still just above 104."  She recorded the information on Danko's chart and turned to go, saying as she did, "I'll be back in half an hour to chase the next one out."

          General Worth sat back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest, trying to figure out who could have tipped the mission to the Nazis.

          The door cracked open and he watched the two Beaubuffs peek in to scan the room as best they could.  "Come on in, boys, you've got half an hour."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Danko looked back at Pendl and Hendricks.  They stood ready to take his life, but the men he'd lost were moving in on them.  Marco and Dana cut the bonds that held his hands while Angus pulled the spear from his side.  The dead Dirty Dozen fell on the two Germans, beating them down to the ground.  Dana stood on her tip-toes and kissed his cheek.

          "Time for you to go, Lieutenant."

          Danko smiled at her and kissed her forehead.  "I'll pass your message along to LeBec."

          "Thank you."

          He knelt down and folded Marco into a hug.  "You watch out for Dana, okay?"

          The boy looked up at the young woman.  "It won't be so hard a thing to do."

          Danko smiled.  "You're a kid after my own heart, Marco."

          He stood and walked to the door that Angus held open for him.  He shook hands with the older gentleman.

          "Sir, please tell Sergeant Cutter and Mr. Leeds that the fishing is quite good here.  I'll even save a few of the big ones for them."

          Danko nodded and stumbled out into the hall of the dungeon.  The sound of jackboots were close by, and Danko moved quickly down the corridor.  A deep rumbling echoed up from beneath the floor of the passageway, the shaking nearly knocking his feet out from under him.  Gunfire greeted him and when Danko reached the stairs.  He took the steps three at a time, heading for the sounds above, and emerging into the same thick smoke and confusion that had existed at Haus' estate.

          The smoke grew thicker and the walls began to close in, increasing the heat from the fires that burned all around him.  Danko squinted, tears rolling down his cheeks, trying to find a way through the smoke and fire.  He coughed and choked.  Flame leaped out for him, grabbing like hands at his side, and he felt his energy slip away.

          Looking down, Danko watched the blood running freely from the tear where Hendricks had speared him.  Clapping his hand over the wound, he tried to staunch the flow, but it continued to run through his fingers and over his hand.  He knew he was watching his life dripping away.

          Where were Dana, and Angus?  Marco?  Why weren't they there, helping him?  There's no place to go!

          "Flash Gordon can't die, remember?"

          Danko looked up to find Catha standing over him.  She reached out and helped him to his feet.

          "Are you dead?" he gasped.

          "Not hardly," she said, wrapping one arm around his waist and lifting the other over her head.

          "How?"

          "Lieutenant, right now we have to get out of here, or you are going to be dead.  Now come on."

          Danko allowed her to lead the way, trying as best he could not to be a burden on her.  The fire grew hotter and hotter as they moved along the corridor.

          "You will die, Danko," Hendricks' voice echoed out of the flames.

          "Don't listen to him," Catha snapped as Danko felt his legs stiffen.

          "I can't help it," he gasped out, nearly collapsing as the pain in his side increased.

          "Die, Danko, you will die!"  It was Pendl's voice.

          Danko felt his legs give way, and he fell to the floor.

          "Get up!"  Catha yelled at him.  "I can't carry you out.  You have to walk out. You have to want to."

          I just want it to end, he thought as an angry fist closed on his side, knotting it into an agony he had never known.  It's so hot, I'm burning up… burning… why doesn't my skin burn away?  I just want to–

          "No!"

          Catha?  Catha… you're dead, too?  I didn't want you to die…

          "I'm not dead!  John Paul Danko!  Get up!"

          He looked up at the woman and forced himself to his feet.  She caught him around the waist, running with him as best she could.

          Where are we going?  I can't breathe…  I'm burning up…  Can't breathe…  Maybe Flash Gordon can die, kid.

          Catha kicked the door open and they staggered out into the cool night air.  Danko fell heavily onto the wet grass, sucking in the cool, fresh air…  Cool… cool, thank God…

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "Catha?"

          General Worth walked back into Danko's room just in time to watch Catha McClelland collapse to the floor from where she'd been standing, her hands on Danko's side.  He moved over and helped her to her feet, noting the paleness of her face and her sweat-drenched clothes.

          "Catha?" Danko whispered, his eyes still closed.

          Worth helped the woman into the chair next to the bed, then moved to the door and stuck his head out, yelling, "Nurse!"

          The same nurse who'd been tossing out the various members of the Dirty Dozen all day long ran down the corridor and entered.  She checked Danko first, turning to the general, amazement showing on her face, "My Lord, the fever's broken.  That's impossible.  I checked him less than twenty minutes ago."  She turned to Catha, who remained motionless in the chair, and checked twice before she was sure that the young woman was still breathing.  "I'll get the doctor."

          Worth watched the nurse leave, unsure what he should do.  He watched Catha take a deep breath and open her eyes.  She looked around the room, momentarily confused.

          "Are you all right?" the general asked, moving to her side.

          She looked up at him.  "Yes, sir.  I just need to get my bearings."

          "What the hell happened?"

          Catha smiled.  "You wouldn't believe me if I told you, sir, so I won't even try."

          The doctor entered and, after finding nothing apparently wrong with Catha, turned to examine Danko.  "I don't understand it.  I've never seen a fever peak and break so fast, and I can tell you quite honestly I was beginning to think we were going to lose the good lieutenant."

          "Well, then, we'll just be thankful for the occasional miracle," the general said, looking down at Catha and feeling that she was somehow responsible.

          "Catha?" Danko mumbled.

          "Right here," she said as the door burst open and the rest of the Dozen descended on the room.

          "Now, just one moment here…"  The doctor began before he realized that it was a losing battle.

          Danko forced his tired eyelids open, finding his hospital bed surrounded by his men in various states of hospital dress and bandages.  He smiled at the comic vision.  "What are you men doing out of bed?" he asked quietly.

          "Huh, we…  We, uh, we thought we saw a German spy enter your room, sir," Roy explained.

          "Bull."

          "Well, that settles it," Leeds said with a casual wave of his hand.

          "What?" Danko asked.

          "You're goin' to live."

          The Dozen burst into relieved laughter.  Danko looked at Catha, who was laughing with the rest of them.  Their eyes met and she nodded slowly.  Danko winked at her.  "Flash Gordon never dies."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Two weeks and the hospital was beginning to look like Marston Tyne Prison to Danko.  He paced around the foot of his bed, silently cursing whoever had taken his clothes, leaving him only the less-than-modest hospital gown.  The door opened and he scowled at General Worth as he entered.  "Sir, I want to talk—"

          "You're leaving today."

          "I'm what?"

          "You're being discharged as we speak."

          Danko sank down on the bed.  "Thank you, sir."

          "Don't thank me, thank that rag-tag collection of excuses for soldiers—"

          He grinned.  "Have the Dozen missed me, sir?"

          "Missed you!  I'll have you know they've—" General Worth caught himself, realizing what Danko was up to.  "Let's just say that three good officers have recently asked for combat transfers."

          Danko fought back the smile that he knew was spreading across his square-jawed features.  "I see."

          "I'm sure you do."  The general took the bundle he was carrying under one arm and tossed it to Danko, who untied it and smiled appreciatively at the uniform.

          "Thank you, sir.  I was getting a little tired of the draft."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "…So, the original tip as to Haus' location at the Hamburg Estate came through the Dutch underground.  The name was red-flagged and the information was channeled straight to Eisenhower and Lieutenant General Safford.  They removed the lieutenant who carried the message, shipped him stateside, then I and three other Allied generals were briefed.  Safford suggested this unit after the success of the Montgomery mission."

          "So, except for the resistance leaders, no one but Eisenhower, Safford and a few generals knew the details?" Danko asked, leaning back in the comfortable leather chair.  General Worth's office was nothing if not comfortable.

          "That's correct, and none of us had the whole story, except Eisenhower, General Safford and one of Eisenhower's aides.  That's why I can't believe the leak came from this side."

          Danko paused, hating himself for the question he knew he had to ask.  "What about Catha?  You put her in the unit for this mission.  How much did she know?"

          "Nothing, beyond that fact that she was being given a pardon if she would join the Dozen and participate in a high priority intelligence mission that might require her expertise in languages and mathematics."

          Danko nodded, glad she was cleared.  I knew she wasn't the leak, but it's still nice to hear it confirmed.  Now, if I could just figure out who the hell she is…

          The general continued, "I'm afraid that it looks like the resistance is the most likely source of the leak."

          "But they didn't know when we were conducting the mission."

          "True, but they did know when to expect you for extrication.  The Germans could have been waiting for you since before Haus died."

          "What does G-2 have on their leader?"

          "Franz Mersen," the general read from an open file, "Born in Germany, his father's Dutch, a merchant, mother German-Jew.  They fled back to Holland when Hitler rose to power.  He married a young German girl, but she was killed as they tried to escape the country.  He joined the resistance three years ago, and, when his father was killed he took his place.  Their record is spotty since he took command, but nothing to indicate he's a German plant."

          "Nothing to indicate he's not either."

          "True."

          "General," Danko began, knowing he was going to be stepping on his commander's toes, "I don't suppose you could tell me just who the hell this Haus was?"

          The general cleared his throat uncomfortably.  "Danko, if I do that I would be up before a court's martial."

          "Forget I asked, sir."

          "As a personal favor, Danko.  Let's take a walk."

          The pair rose and walked silently out to the small gardens that decorated the rear courtyard of the Allied Command in London.  The general turned to Danko, hoping he was right about his ability to trust the man.  "Haus was a physicist.  He was doing research for the Nazis in the area of rocket weapons.  His wife and daughter were being held in Hamburg to ensure his cooperation, but he was able to make contact with the resistance.  He was willing to risk their lives to get the results of his research to the allies."

          Danko nodded.  He had heard enough about the theoretical possibilities of rockets to appreciate the situation.  "Did the papers we found help?"

          "I don't know.  They were written in his personal shorthand.  The cryptology boys are working on it now."

          "Why would the Germans leave his work there like that if they were expecting us?" Danko mused aloud.

          "I don't know, unless they were so cocksure that they had you they didn't worry about it."

          Danko cursed softly.  "I'll bet those papers are fakes."

          "They might be.  It doesn't seem likely they'd leave Haus' papers sit for a week after his death, considering the nature of the work.  The whole thing was a waste, Danko, a goddamn waste that nearly got you and the rest of your men killed."

          "Yes, sir, it does look that way."

          "Well, I for one would like a rematch."

          "Yes, sir, so would I."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "You mean we almost got killed, for, nothing?" Vern asked when Danko finished briefing them.  General Worth coughed and looked away.

          "Not exactly.  If we're right, we and Haus were important enough to force a German mole to raise his ugly head."

          "Just far enough for us to shoot it off, right, Lieutenant?" Roy asked.

          "Right."

          "So, how do we bait this critter?" LeBec asked.

          Danko smiled slowly.  "We give them another shot."

          "Another shot?" Farrell asked.  "What if they get better with practice?"

          "Then we have to get better as well, my friend," Feke told him, a cold glint in his eye.

          "Yeah, but it would be nice to stack the odds a little in our favor."

          "And we will, Leeds, we will," Danko told him, letting his arm circle the man's shoulder.  "We're going to use their plan, on them."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "Are you up to this, sir?" Catha asked as the Dozen busied themselves in last minute preparations.  Weapons were cleaned, double-checked, ammunition loaded, kits prepared and checked, all to the accompanying chatter of pre-mission nerves.

          "I'm fine, corporal," Danko responded, watching her bristle with the use of her new rank.  She glowered at him, then grabbed a jump kit and shrugged it over her shoulder.  "Just a minute, Catha."

          "Sir."

          "I was wondering, how did you get inside my head when I was in the hospital?"

          "Sir?"

          "You know what I mean."

          She smiled sweetly at him.  "No, Lieutenant," she drew the rank out slowly over her lips, "I'm sure I don't."

          "Hey, Lieutenant," Leeds called.

          "Yeah?"

          "What happens if we get there and Mrs. Haus and her daughter are gone?"

          "Well, I guess we dress a couple of you girls up and parade you in front of the resistance, see if any of them takes a shot at you."

          "The way these boys look," Catha commented, loud enough for all of them to hear, "I don't think you'll have to worry."

          A chorus of groans drowned out Danko's agreement and several pillows flew in the ex-captain's direction.  "All right, all right.  You sound like you're ready to go, so let's get it in gear.  We have a date with a mole."

          "Sounds like your kind of girl, Leeds," Feke teased.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Danko held his breath and savored the sensation of free fall until the catch hit and the parachute exploded silently open.  He drifted in the darkness, watching Farrell pull in the lines to regain control of his descent.  The beauty of the darkened fields, moon shining off the ice and dew, captured his attention.

          You could forget there was a war going on, he thought.  Until you land.  Then it's all too real again.  He heard a soft chuckle and twisted in his harness to see Catha several feet off his left shoulder.

          "It's beautiful."

          "Yes," she agreed.  "Like falling from a dream into a nightmare."

          Danko shivered at her words.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "All the chutes are buried," Cutter reported.  "Team's one-hundred percent." He paused.  "Seems a little strange not to have rounded it out again, sir."

          "Couldn't take the chance, Sergeant.  Nine's a good number."

          "Yes, sir, but I was just getting used to twelve."

          The rest of the Dozen finally joined Danko and Cutter.

          "All right, G-2 said that their latest news is Mrs. Haus and the girl are back on their property, in the servant's quarters, so we're going back to the estate.  Tomorrow, they'll pass along to the resistance group that we'll need a pickup in four days.  They'll be told that we have Mrs. Haus, the girl and some very important papers.  Now, we don't want to disappoint them, so we are going to take the Haus's out.  We'll be at the pick-up a day ahead of schedule, though.  The Germans are going to be a day behind, so Mersen is going to have to delay us.  Once he does, we'll know we have our man."

          "And if the entire group is on this?" LeBec asked.

          "Unlikely, but, if they are, well, we'll just put this one particular group of freedom fighters out of commission.  Now, let's move."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          The woman's eyes flew open wide and she choked back a scream.  The hand over her mouth would have made it a futile effort in any case.

          "Shhh," Danko said.  "Do you speak English?"  She nodded.  "Good, we're Americans," he explained, nodding to Catha, who stood at the foot of the bed.  "We came to take your husband out, but we were too late, he was already dead.  We're taking you to London, understand?"  She nodded again.  Danko slowly removed his hand from over her mouth.

          "My daughter?" she whispered.

          "We're taking her, too."  The woman nodded and pointed to a dress that lay draped over the dresser.  Danko helped her up and discretely turned his back while she dressed.

          When she finished the two Americans moved to the door and cracked it open far enough to look down the deserted hall.  Four German guards were permanently out of commission, but they were unsure if the men were rotated and when that rotation might occur.

          Danko watched Feke and LeBec emerge from a second bedroom with a young girl of fourteen.  She was scared, but the thrill of adventure glowed on her cheeks.  "Let's go," he told Mrs. Haus.

          The girl silently embraced her mother, then followed as they were led downstairs to join Cutter and Farrell in the living room.  The girl gasped at the four dead Nazis that lay on the rug.

          "Any other guards?"

          Cutter shook his head.

          "Why are they still holding you?" Danko asked.

          "They found out that the papers in my husband's study were phony.  He had made them up just in case something like this happened."

          "Phony?"

          "Yes, Papa would never help the Nazis," the girl said proudly.

          "Where are the originals?" Danko asked, his heart racing at the thought.

          "I don't know, only Otto knew."

          "I know, Mama."

          "Emma, how can you?"

          Danko studied the girl's face while she explained.  "He didn't tell me, but I used to follow him when he would sneak out of the house.  I'd sneak out of bed and go and watch him in the study while he worked.  Sometime I'd follow him outside.  I know that's where Papa would take the papers."

          "Can you show us where that is?" Catha asked the girl.  She turned bright blue eyes on the woman and nodded enthusiastically.

          "All right, let's go.  Farrell, round up the rest," Danko turned his attention back to the woman and her daughter.  "Will there be other guards arriving?"

          "Yes, just before daybreak."

          "That's about an hour from now," Cutter said.

          "It won't take that long," Emma assured the sergeant.

          "I sure hope not, sweetheart, 'cause we don't want to be here when they come."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "There," Emma said, pointing to what Danko was sure was a rabbit hole.

          "Roy, see if you can get in there and see what's going on."

          "Yes, sir," the small blond man said, dropping down onto his hands and knees and scrambling through the small entrance.  "There's a door, Lieutenant," he called back out.  "It's locked."

          "I don't suppose you have the key," Danko asked the woman.  "I didn't think so."  He reached down and removed his sheathed bayonet and tossed it into the hole.  "Try prying your way in."

          Several minutes later Roy's voice echoed up again, "Got it!"

          The team waited nervously until the little private emerged, carrying a satchel bulging with paper.  "I got it all, sir."

          "Good job, Roy."

          "Guess it can pay to be a little guy," Farrell teased.

          Roy frowned.

          "Hey," Vern said ominously.

          "Just kidding, guys, just kidding!"

          Mrs. Haus shook her head.  "If the Nazis had known, Emma, if they had known…"  She trailed off, hugging the girl to her.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          The three day trip to the location where they'd been met by the resistance before was uneventful, and Danko was happy to keep it that way.  They traveled by night, stopping when Mrs. Haus or the girl needed to rest, avoiding the outlying farms.

          They arrived at the check point with twenty-four hours to set their plan into motion.

          "It's going to feel funny, taking a resistance group captive," Farrell said as he helped LeBec bury one of his mines.

          "I know.  The lieutenant doesn't know how much convincing on our part it'll take to make them believe Mersen is a German plant, though.  This is our insurance."

          "Kinda makes me feel like a Nazi."

          "You guys finished?" Cutter asked as he joined the pair.

          "We are now," LeBec said.

          "Let's move, gentlemen."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "Okay," Danko whispered to the assembled group, "this is it.  We should see some action about daybreak."

          "Do you think Mersen will call the Germans in on this?" Catha asked.

          "I thought no, or he'd compromise his position, but since they know the papers are phony and we've come back, it might be important enough to take a few risks.  We might be in for a more interesting time than we'd planned on."  He paused and scanned the faces of his men.  "I want to say something to you, but I don't want any questions, is that clear?"  Eight heads nodded.

          "While I was in the hospital I had… a few dreams, I guess you'd say.  I saw some old friends and they told me to pass along a few things.  Leeds, Cutter,"  the two men looked intently at the lieutenant, "Angus wants you to know that he's looking forward to fishing with you one day, and he was saving a few of the big ones for you."

          The two members of the Dozen exchanged puzzled looks.

          "Thanks, Lieutenant," Leeds said, unsure if he was really all that happy about the news.

          "LeBec," Danko said.

          "Sir?"

          "Dana asked me to tell you that she was watching out for you… and the rest of us."

          LeBec couldn't stop the shiver that rattled down his spine or the reflexive glance over each shoulder as he crossed himself.  The rest of the men chuckled nervously, several casting covert glances into the darkness.  "Yeah, thanks, Lieutenant."

          "And, Muskovitz wanted me to tell you guys that he'll personally kick the next Dirty Dozen butt that he sees over there."

          "Lieutenant—" Feke began, but he was cut short.

          "No questions, gentlemen."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          The Dozen lay silently among the shrubs and undergrowth, waiting.  The low drum of a twin engine plane broke over the hills and circled in toward the makeshift landing strip.  Danko released the mental breath he'd held, glad that Mersen was making this as real as possible.  The idea of walking across Holland to get back to London wasn't high on his list of exciting ways to spend the war.  He watched the plane drop down and taxi to a stop at the far end of the runway.  No one exited.  Good, the crew probably aren't in on this.

          The soft sound of men moving through the woods reached him moments before the soft dove coo.  The resistance group was a hundred yards off.  A second call echoed through the early morning stillness.  They were alone.  Maybe our luck'll hold after all, he thought.

          Danko watched the resistance move across the level path that served as a runway and toward the woods where the Dozen lay in wait.  Mersen led the way.  As soon as the small band of fighters entered the trees several of the Dozen rose from their cover, guns ready.  The Dutch froze, looking about in confusion.

          He motioned to Farrell, who quickly escorted Mrs. Haus and Emma to the plane, where they boarded.  Mersen watched with a scowl.

          "What is this?" he asked Danko.

          "We're a little ahead of schedule, Mersen," Danko said.

          "I see.  We did not expect you for several hours."

          "No injuries, we moved faster."  Mersen nodded, looking around at his men, agitated.  "Guess you'll be able to go home early."

          "I do not understand the guns."

          "Sorry," Danko said, lowering his weapon.  The men who were standing did the same.

          Mersen waited until it appeared the Americans were relaxed, then swung his gun up, aiming for Danko, and fired.  There was a simultaneous shot from the trees and Mersen looked down at the growing circle of red on his chest.  Catha strode out from her position, gun ready should any of the others decide to fight.

          The remaining members of the Dozen left their hiding places, LeBec carrying the mine detonator in plain sight, his finger ready to use it should they need to.  Mersen looked from his injury to the woman.

          She smiled coldly at him, "Good-night, Nazi," she said quietly in German.

          "Bitch," Mersen choked out as he fell forward.

          The resistance members stirred restlessly, confused.

          "Catha, explain this to them as best you can," Danko commanded as he inspected the graze along his upper arm.  She nodded and launched into a rapid fire explanation in Dutch.  When she finished one of the men nodded and looked at Danko.

          "There was suspicion, but no proof," he said in Dutch, Catha translating.  "We chose to think the best.  My apology.  His father was a courageous fighter.  We thought the son from the same cloth."

          Danko nodded and extended his hand to the man, who promptly took it in a firm handshake.  "Safe journey," the man said in broken English.

          Danko smiled and nodded toward the plane.  The Dozen moved to the small craft in pairs, the others keeping a wary eye on the resistance and surrounding countryside.  Danko and Catha had just started toward the runway when the sounds of gunfire tore through the early morning silence.  Danko turned to watch the man collapse, blood spreading across what was left of his face.

          Answering fire from the doorway of the plane was drowned out by the engine coughing to life.

          "Run!" Danko yelled.

          Catha fired a burst into the trees, then ran for the open door of the plane, zigzagging in a low crouch and sending sporadic bursts into the approaching line of German soldiers.

          The resistance fighters laid down a covering fire and Danko emulated Catha's broken run for the plane, which had begun a slow taxi up the runway.

          Catha reached the open door and hurdled herself in, aided by several helping hands.  Danko fired another burst toward the woods as he crouched on the runway and watched the plane taxi closer from the corner of his eye.  The resistance was keeping the soldiers from advancing on the field and Danko knew that he was safer crouched where he was than in the open moving for the plane.

          As the plane neared, Danko rose and ran in a low crouch toward the door.  Tossing the gun inside, he reached for Vern's waiting hand as the plane picked up speed.  Shit!  Danko thought as he struggled to keep up.

          "Run!" Roy yelled.

          "Dive, Lieutenant, dive!" Feke's voice rang out over the sound of the engine.

          Danko felt his side seize under the strain and he gasped.  He ground his jaws shut and pushed out the last bit of speed he could muster.  Vern's hand clamped around his wrist and he felt the big man pull and lift, raising him from the ground as the plane taxied faster.

          Danko reached up with his free hand and clasped Vern's arm as the soldier pulled him into the plane, LeBec and Catha quickly slamming the door closed as they felt the plane clear the runway.

          Danko lay on his back, trying to catch his breath and ignore the pain throbbing through his side.  LeBec joined him, opening his shirt to check the old wound.  Danko didn't have the energy to protest.

          "Looks like you might have done a little damage, Lieutenant, but I don't think it's serious."

          "Thanks," Danko said, opening his eyes.  "I'm getting too old for this."

          The Dozen laughed.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "Well, gentlemen," General Worth said as he finished pouring the last of his best cognac into ten shot glasses, "Not only did you put a German mole out of commission, rescue an innocent woman and her daughter, but you actually located Dr. Haus' papers which were the reason for the mission in the first place.  And, the papers are originals.  They've been sent over to a top secret organization stateside for further research and development."

          Worth lifted one of the glasses and held it up as a toast.  "To another successful mission.  Congratulations."

          The Dozen reached forward and picked up a glass, raising them silently.

          "Defeat to our enemies," Danko said, remembering Lieutenant General Safford's toast.

          "And God preserve us from our friends," Catha said, completing the quote with a smile at Danko.  All heads turned to stare at her.

          "How?—" General Worth began.

          "Don't ask, sir.  Don't ask," Danko said as they downed the brandy.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Danko and General Worth walked through the small garden, warm despite the cold London morning.  "I'm going to have to find a way to replenish my brandy," the general remarked with a wry grin.

          "I could always have Leeds see what he can do."

          "No, no, thank you, but I think it would be safer if I just called in a few favors on my own."

          "Yes, sir," Danko said, smiling.  He grew more serious before he continued.  "Sir, I wanted to request Corporal McClelland as a permanent member of the Dirty Dozen."

          General Worth studied Danko's face.  "Personal reasons, Danko?"

          "Yes, sir… she's good."

          The general smiled.  "In that case, it's fine with me.  You'll have to find three more recruits, you know."

          "Yes, sir."

          "Oh, and Danko?"

          "Yes, sir?"

          "Try to stay healthy from now on.  I can't afford the officers."

          Danko's smile widened.  "Yes, sir, I'll certainly give it my best effort."