The Walls of Jericho Raid
The dim glow of the early morning sun filled the horizon. Hitch parked the jeep and crossed his arms over the top of the steering wheel before resting his head on the makeshift pillow. Driving through the desert was a dangerous proposition in the best of circumstances. Doing it on an almost moonless night was downright suicidal, but orders were orders. They'd had to take the risk to arrive at headquarters in time for the proposed meeting.
Waves of hot air from the overheated engine rolled over him. Sweat ran in rivulets down his face and back, making Hitch's uniform stick to him like a straitjacket. Taking off the French Foreign Legion cap he wore, he pushed back the thick lock of hair falling across his forehead. The sun-bleached strands had turned dark with perspiration.
"Let's shake it." There was no energy in Troy's command, only resignation.
As he climbed from the jeep, Hitch's legs shook with exhaustion, making the muscles in his right foot cramp. Knowing better than to lean on the oven-baked hood of his jeep, he limped over to another vehicle parked closer to the entrance. Though it was just like his in every way, it was obviously brand new. The grey paint hadn't been pockmarked by sandstorms, and there was still tread on the tires. Loosening the binding of his boot, Hitch massaged his aching foot with one hand while rapping the metal fender of the unscarred jeep with the other. "Hey, Sarge, what do you make of this?"
Troy almost ran into Moffitt as he turned at his driver's behest. "It looks like a jeep to me," he sarcastically intoned.
"Doesn't it seem strange to you," Hitch pressed, ignoring his superior's languor. "We get a call to report to headquarters by 0500 hours. At considerable risk to life and limb, we drive all night to get here on time and what do we find? A jeep just like ours."
"We're not the only desert patrol in this war, Hitch," Moffitt pointed out. "We British have quite a few teams operating in this sector."
"End of mystery," said Troy, turning to resume his journey.
Shaking his head, Hitch limped along behind. "I still think it's fishy."
"To catch a fish, you have to go to the river, it won't come to you," Tully cryptically advised, falling into step with his friend.
Partially hidden in the shadows of the adobe building housing US Army Headquarters, a guard waited to inspect their papers. Though young, the soldier was conscientious to a fault. It took almost five minutes before they all passed the intense scrutiny and were admitted to the building.
Finally finding himself within the cool walls, Hitch followed his associates up the stairs. At the top, Troy knocked on the first door to the left of the landing. A confirmation to enter was quickly granted.
Once inside, Hitch squeezed into a corner of the tiny office where he could observe the other occupants. The main focus of his interest was the presence of three strange men. The one leaning nonchalantly against a wall was extremely tall with dark, handsome features. A second man, with a face that looked like it rarely smiled, stood next to Colonel Wilson, while the last man stood near the door. Shorter than his companions, he wore his blond hair long, allowing it to curl under his ears and along the nape of his neck.
Rising from the plush chair behind his desk, Wilson said, "Rat Patrol, I'd like you to meet Jericho."
The simple introduction told Hitch that although the three men wore uniforms representing three different countries -- France, the United States, and Britain -- they worked as a unit. Considering the different nationalities and the name they operated under, it was probably an espionage team.
"Captain Sheppard," Wilson turned his attention to the man standing next to him, "these are the men I told you about: Sgt. Sam Troy, Sgt. Jack Moffitt, and Privates Mark Hitchcock and Tully Pettigrew. They will be your guides to Bi'r al Ghuzaylah."
Though his face showed no disrespect, Troy's voice audibly displayed his true feelings. "When did we start giving guided tours to tourists, Colonel?"
"These men are part of an espionage team, Sergeant," Wilson explained, unknowingly confirming Hitch's speculation.
As he watched his superior's face flush red with anger, Hitch hid a smile behind a raised hand. It always fascinated him to watch how close to the edge Troy could walk without quite being insubordinate and getting himself thrown in the brig.
"Captain Sheppard," Wilson continued, his dark eyes boring into Troy's, "is attached to the American Army. Before the war he trained as an engineer. He's also an expert with explosives and demolitions."
Wilson crossed to the tall, dark-haired man. "This is Lt. Jean-Gaston André, a pilot with the Free French Air Force. His specialty is in weaponry, ancient and modern. The last member of the team is Lt. Nicholas Gage of the Royal Navy."
Exhaustion sharpening his tongue, Troy said, "This is all very interesting, Colonel, but what was so important we had to drive through the desert at night?"
"This is." Wilson led the men to a table set against the wall. Spread across its surface were aerial photographs showing the layout of an Arab town. Picking up one of the pictures, Wilson handed it to Troy. "H.Q. wants this building destroyed."
"Why not send bombers?" asked Moffitt, studying another of the photos showing the area surrounding the building.
Sheppard shook his head. "Bombs dropped from thirty thousand feet lack accuracy. They'd not only destroy that building, but half the town."
"Everyone suffers in a war," an unrepentant Troy declared.
Crossing to Moffitt's side, Gage pointed to a large, ornate building a few yards from the target. "This is a mosque, believed to be almost five hundred years old. If we destroy their church, every Arab in this part of the world would declare war on the Allies."
"Needless to say, we can't afford to let that happen," noted Wilson, returning to his desk.
"Why not?" Hitch whispered in Tully's ear. "We can't trust the ones who are supposed to be our friends anyway."
Wilson turned to verbally pounce on the young private. "I heard that Hitchcock."
Physically stepping between his commanding officer and his driver, Troy asked, "So what's the mission?"
Though his eyes never wavered from Hitch's smiling face, Wilson replied, "We want you to take Jericho into Bi'r al Ghuzaylah so they destroy the installation."
"We know how to blow up buildings, Colonel," Troy indignantly protested. "Why do we need help?"
"Do you know where to place explosives so they'll bring down exactly what you want and nothing else?" demanded Sheppard. "Because I do."
In a voice meant to placate his talented subordinate, Wilson gently pointed out, "We can't take chances with this one, Troy. Our relationship with the entire Arab nation is at stake."
"Yes, sir," Troy reluctantly conceded. "When do we leave?"
"Immediately," Sheppard answered for the older man.
"That won't be possible, Captain," said Troy, a slight smile showing his satisfaction at thwarting the other man. "We've been out on patrol for three weeks. We need food, water, gas and new tires. Without them, we won't get twenty miles."
Anger and frustration burning from his deep blue eyes, Sheppard, "Then tell me, Sergeant, when can we leave?"
"Two hours," replied Troy, disappointed the argument he'd anticipated hadn't developed.
Four lines paralleled each other, marking a trail through the sand. When the Rat Patrol had first been formed, Hitch had been worried that the enemy would find them by following their tracks. He'd soon learned that wind and the constantly shifting dunes would fill in the indentations quickly and efficiently. In five minutes, there would be no sight of their passing.
Glancing back along their route, Hitch realized he could barely see the jeep carrying the international espionage team. Tapping Troy on the shoulder, he pointed back along their route. "We're losing 'em, Sarge."
"Yeah, I know," Troy acknowledged, without turning his head.
"Troy." The other jeep pulled up alongside. Leaning forward so he could make eye, Moffitt called, "I think we better stop."
A fisted hand slammed into a muscled thigh several times before Troy reluctantly relented. "Pull up."
Both jeeps came to a stop. Though he'd given the order, Troy was caught off guard and thrown into the dashboard. Rubbing his bruised chest, he glared indignantly at his driver.
It was a full five minutes before the other jeep joined them. During that time, no one spoke, obviously unwilling to become the focus of Troy's short temper. The low throbbing of the well-tuned engines were the only sound to disturb the unnatural silence.
"What's holding us up?" asked Sheppard, pulling up next to Troy.
"You are." Troy directed an angry glare at the other man. "If you didn't know how to drive in the desert, why didn't you say so?"
Taking his hat off, Sheppard wiped his sweating bow with a handkerchief. "I know how to drive, Sergeant."
"There's a big difference between driving in the desert and driving in London," snapped Troy, climbing from his jeep. Turning to the young lieutenant sitting next to the American captain, he ordered, "Gage, you ride with Hitch. I'll drive your jeep."
Sheppard climbed from behind the wheel to confront Troy. "It's customary for officers to give orders to noncoms, Sergeant. Not the other way around."
"I guess it depends on how badly that officer wants to stay alive, doesn't it, Captain?" Troy said in a voice no less firm than his superior's. "I know the desert, you don't. That's why they stuck us together, remember?"
A rag wrapped around one hand to protect it from the burning metal of the fifty millimeter machine gun he was braced against, André observed, "The sergeant has made a good point, mon ami."
"I have no objections to changing drivers if it'll get us to where we're going faster," Gage agreed, relinquishing his seat and taking Troy's place beside Hitch. "All I want to do is get out of this sun."
"You may be in charge for now, Sergeant," Sheppard ungraciously conceded. "But once we reach Bi'r al Ghuzahlah, I'll be in command."
"Whatever gets the job done, Captain."
With obvious reluctance, Sheppard moved to the passenger seat vacated by Gage.
Sliding behind the wheel, Troy said, "Let's shake it."
Shading his eyes, Gage wiped the sweat from his neck, already uncomfortable beneath a sun that had not yet reached its zenith. In his native England, he had grown up believing the sky's normal color was gray and that clouds always produced rain. Even his frequent visits to the continent had not prepared him for the deep blue of the desert sky, nor the hot air that made it difficult to breathe.
The jeep bounced over the top of a dune, jerking Gage out of his seat almost into the sand. Only a desperate grab at the windshield saved him. Though he was breathing heavy from fear and exertion, he had to admire Hitchcock's skill in handling the heavy vehicle – even as he wished he hadn't supported Troy in regard to seat allocation. Sheppard's driving had been much slower and much less perilous. "Do you usually drive at such speeds, Private?"
Hitch shook his head. "When we're attacking a convoy or trying to escape the enemy, we generally go much faster."
"I hope we aren't forced to do either of those maneuvers on this mission," Gage fervently replied.
Smiling his understanding, Hitch hesitantly probed, "The colonel said you were a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, but the uniform you're wearing is the same as Moffitt's. Does everyone in your services wear the same uniform?"
"No." Gage squinted his eyes against the glaring sun and adjusted his beret to protect another area of his head. "As a US Army captain, Sheppard's attire was appropriate for desert warfare. However, it would look suspicious if André was caught dressed as a French Air Force lieutenant or I a naval officer. It was decided that I should be temporarily attached to the Scots Greys and André the French Foreign Legion. We try not to wear signs telling the Germans we're an espionage unit."
A worried frown wrinkling his forehead, Gage pointed to the deep tracks marking their path. "Aren't we leaving a trail that'll lead the Krauts right to us?"
His own initial fears only a memory, Hitch gave a reassuring smile. "The wind and shifting sand will cover our tracks long before anyone comes across them. If the enemy is close enough to see our trail, they're close enough to see us."
"That's a relief," said Gage, before quickly amending, "I think."
The knowledge he had imparted fairly basic, Hitch asked, "How long have you been in Africa, Lieutenant?"
"We arrived late last night."
His surprise audible in his voice, Hitch said, "Welcome to desert warfare, sir."
His own curiosity – and boredom – equaling his companion's, Gage said, "You and Troy are in the US Army, yet you wear a French Foreign Legion cap and he wears an Australian bush hat. Is there some significance to this headgear?"
Hitch stared ahead before finally replying. "It's a long story."
"We appear to have all day," Gage pointed out, a sweep of his hand indicating the barrenness lying ahead of them.
"Okay," Hitch agreed, his blue eyes twinkling. "You asked for it."
With a shaking hand, Hitch slipped off his glasses and laid them in his lap. Rubbing his eyes, he tried to wipe away the exhaustion of a sleepless night succeeded by a strenuous day. The sun was slipping below the horizon. It wouldn't be long before the darkness of the night made it impossible to travel safely. With a sigh of relief, he saw Tully pull into a wadi. Their bumpers almost touching, Hitch followed Troy into the depression.
Switching off the engine, he leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. Dots of light danced across the dark landscape of his eyelids, giving him no relief. Reluctantly, he re-opened them and turned his attention to his passenger. It hadn't been long before private and lieutenant had become Hitch and Gage. The younger man had discovered that the Englishman had a dry sense of humor he greatly enjoyed. As the day wore on and the miles rolled by, their conversation had waned when each man gave in to his exhaustion. Laying a hand on the other man's shoulder, Hitch prompted, "You can get out now, Gage. We'll bed down here for the night."
When there was no response, Hitch gently shook the still form. "Gage?"
Though the contact had been light, the lieutenant slid sideways, partially falling out of the jeep. Quickly grabbing the limp arm beneath his hand, Hitch pulled the unconscious body back on the seat. "Hey, Sarge!"
"What's wrong?" Troy demanded, his tone indicating he had heard the panic in the private's voice.
"Something's wrong with Gage."
Even as he hurried to the other jeep, Troy called, "Doctor."
Hitch pulled a blanket form the back of the jeep and spread it across the ground. With Troy's help, he gently lifted the limp form and laid it on the makeshift bed.
Their first-aid kit in hand, Moffitt knelt beside his patient and unbuttoned the shirt that was a copy of his own. Beneath the thin fabric, the fair complexion had turned a bright red, almost as vivid as the man's exposed flesh. "Tully," Moffitt ordered, "bring me a canister of water."
"What's wrong with him?" Sheppard asked, kneeling on the other side of his friend.
"It looks like heat exhaustion and sunburn. Help me get his shirt off," Moffitt tersely replied.
Together, the two men gently lifted the unresisting man and removed his clothing. Taking a strip of cloth from the medical kit, Moffitt dipped it in the canister Tully had retrieved. Realizing his actions would bring pain, he carefully caressed the burned flesh. "Troy, would you get the salt tablets? Dissolve one in a cup of water and try to make him drink it."
"Will he be well enough to complete the mission?" Sheppard inquired, looking helplessly on.
"I'm not even sure he'll live," said Moffitt, rewetting the cloth and letting it drip across the heated body. "If we can cool him down and get some salt into him, he might have a chance."
As he helped Tully set up the camouflage nets and refuel the jeeps, Hitch wondered if Troy realized how much he and Sheppard were alike. Until the mission was successfully completed, the lives of their men were secondary. If it was this single-minded purpose that made a man officer material, Hitch knew he would never rise above the rank of private – nor did he want to.
His stomach cramped. Weakly, Gage let the waves of pain wash over him. He no longer had the strength to fight. He could dimly hear the voices of his companions, the different accents blending into an incomprehensible gibberish. He wanted to beg them to stop the pain, but he couldn't seem to make them hear.
As he desperately struggled to verbalize his plea, his head was lifted and a cup pressed against his lips. At first, the refreshing taste of the warm liquid soothed his dry mouth and raspy throat. Belatedly, his taste buds reacted to the salty taste, making him choke. Water washed over his tongue and down his chin. Dry, cracked lips burned from a new pain.
With what little strength he could muster, Gage pulled away from the hands inflicting the unbearable torture. Before he could find the energy to increase the distance, his head was lifted again and the cup replaced against his lips. Spasms twisted his legs and stomach, making him retch what little of the fluid he'd managed to swallow. The pain pulled his mind into an abyss. What did they want from him? Why didn't they just kill him instead of tormenting him like this? They were supposed to be his friends.
Hitch slowly sipped his coffee. The lukewarm beverage was all that was keeping him awake. It had been a long night. Even when he hadn't been on watch or taken his turn at administering to Gage, he'd found it difficult to sleep. Heat cramps had constantly shaken the small frame of the young lieutenant. Often, they would no sooner get a cup of saltwater down the raw throat when it would come right back up. All through the long night, despair had been their constant companion.
"All right, let's shake it," ordered Troy.
As efficiently as it had been raised, the camouflage netting was struck and folded. Water was poured into the cool radiators, while tires were carefully inspected. With a blanket and some rope, Moffitt and André shielded the back of Hitch's jeep from the sun. With the camouflage netting and the rest of the blankets, they padded the uncomfortable floor, before gently placing Gage on the makeshift bed, his feet resting against the side.
A canister of water close at hand, Moffitt sat sideways in the passenger seat, continuing the treatment he had begun the night before.
Climbing behind the wheel, Hitch backed out of the wadi. He let Tully and Troy take the lead. By watching where they crossed, he might be able to avoid the rougher patches. Guilt that he hadn't noticed Gage's distress gnawed at him. He should've remembered the unpleasantness of his own first days in the desert. "Is Gage going to be all right, Sarge?"
"He made it through the night," Moffitt hesitantly replied, gently wiping his patient's sunburned face. "The cramps seemed to have stopped, so I'd say he has a good chance."
"Not that Sheppard seemed to care," Hitch bitterly hissed. "All he's worried about is the mission."
Moffitt looked off into the distance. "When many lives depend on what you do, one is often forced to bury one's personal feelings and concentrate on what's best for the majority, rather than following one's desires. It's not always satisfying, but it's usually necessary."
His eyes opened to the difficulties of command, Hitch started to note how frequently Sheppard glanced behind at the jeep following in their wake. A man who didn't care, wouldn't bother. Again, Hitch was struck by the similarities between Troy and Sheppard. The mission would always come first. Yet both men would unhesitatingly take a bullet for one of his men.
Gage pulled the blanket more snugly around his shoulders. After the suffocating heat of the day, the cool evening breeze had felt good at first. Now that was no longer the case. Muscles still aching from cramps and vomiting shook uncontrollably from the cold seeping down to his very bones. Since they were only a few miles outside Bi'r al Ghuzaylah, they couldn't risk a fire. Thin blankets were their only defense against the paralyzing cold. Tired and dizzy, he lay propped against the wheel of one of the jeeps feeling almost human again. His only real complaint was Moffitt's insistence that he ingest cup after cup of an obnoxious saltwater solution. Gage was sure that if he had much more, he'd start to grow gills.
As though he'd been reading his countryman's thoughts, Moffitt approached with a cup in hand. The dim light of the thumbnail moon cast his long, narrow shadow across the sand. Hoping he could avoid another dose of the medicinal liquid, Gage leaned his head back against the tire and pretended to be asleep.
Laughter could be heard in Moffitt's voice as he softly said, "I guess Gage is too tired for a cup of hot coffee after all."
"Looks like it," mock serious Troy agreed.
Gage sheepishly opened his eyes. "Hot coffee?"
"I'd call it lukewarm," Troy warned, kneeling next to the younger man. "Without a fire, it's the best we could do."
"Anything's better than saltwater," Gage retorted, taking a cautious sip. He rolled the liquid around in his mouth, savoring the taste before slowly swallowing. Even in the shadowed darkness, smiles were visible on the faces on the other two men.
Sliding down the hill where he'd just been relieved from guard duty, Hitch softly called, "Did I hear there's hot coffee?"
"Only one cup," said Moffitt, "and we had a devil of a time making it."
"I should've known Tully was teasin' me," Hitch unhappily grumbled.
Handing Hitch a can of field rations for his dinner, Troy turned his attention back to Gage. "What's in this building that Sheppard and André have gone to reconnoiter?"
"Have you ever heard of heavy water?" asked Gage.
Speaking around a mouthful of his unappetizing meal, Hitch joked, "Is it anything like the solution we've been pouring down your throat?"
"Not quite." Gage smiled and handed his empty cup to Moffitt. "Once the Germans discover the proper mixture of chemicals, heavy water will be used to create a bomb that can destroy a city the size of London."
"One bomb?" gasped Hitch.
"One bomb," Gage confirmed, nodding his head. "If we don't destroy that building and what's inside, we'll lose this war."
The whispered call drew Gage's attention to where Tully lay hidden in the shadows overlooking the camp. For a brief moment, two familiar silhouettes were outlined against the starry sky. Dressed in German uniforms, they made their way unchallenged to the Englishman's side.
"How did it go?" inquired Gage, resenting the fact that his infirmity had prevented him from accompanying his team into the city.
"It won't be as easy as we'd hoped," admitted Sheppard. "There are guards at the entrance. Our passes were good enough to get us in, but they body-searched everyone going in and out. There's no way we could carry explosives past them."
This news didn't really surprise Gage. The Germans weren't as dumb as they could wish. "Is there another way in?"
"Oui," Andre' acknowledged, putting a hand on Sheppard's shoulder. "There is a door on the roof."
"And how do we get on the roof?" Gage caught his friend's gaze.
"That's where the hard part comes in," said Sheppard. "How do you feel?"
His genial relationship with the American made nuances audible to Gage that wouldn't be heard by another. They would hear the question, Gage heard the concern. "Raring to go, mate."
"Think you'll be ready to work by tomorrow night?"
"Have to be, don't I." From what Sheppard hadn't said, Gage knew that without his special talents the mission would be doomed. Though it wasn't quite as obvious, he was as dedicated to seeing a successful completion as his partners. They didn't need to know about the dizziness and nausea continuing to plague him.
With his finger, Sheppard drew three boxes side by side in the sand. Putting an X in the center box, he explained, "This is the laboratory. To the north is the Mosque. Its roof is too tall and round to afford access to the laboratory's roof. The building to the south is only two stories high."
"The laboratory is four stories," Gage said, mentally reviewing the briefing they'd received before leaving London.
"That's right." Sheppard drew across from the center box. "The building across the street is also four stories."
"Is there access between the roofs?"
"There's a communications wire."
"Then what's the problem?"
"The problem is," Sheppard sighed, sitting back on his heels, "the building is a barracks for the men guarding the laboratory."
Squatting so he could study the crude map, Troy said, "That shouldn't be a problem. Most of the guards will be asleep if we go late enough."
"Not the two on the roof," contradicted André.
"Me and my men can take care of them," Troy confidently assured the other men. "We've done this kind of thing before. I just don't understand how you plan to get from one building to another on a communications wire."
"We'll walk it." Sheppard hastily amended, putting a hand on Gage's shoulder, "That is, Gage will walk it. With the papers André and I have, we'll go in through the front door."
Though it was difficult to see with only the dim light of the moon illuminating the sky, Gage could see well enough to enjoy the reactions of the Rat Patrol. Despite their seemingly hardened exteriors, they could still be shocked into silence.
Finally finding his voice, Troy demanded, "Did you say Gage is going to walk across a wire?"
"I did." Smiling for the first time since they met three days before, Sheppard innocently inquired, "Didn't anyone tell you, Gage was a circus performer before the war?"
Bi'r al Ghuzaylah was no different than many other Arab towns Hitch had visited in the few months he'd been in North Africa. Adobe buildings silhouetted against a clear, starry sky were pockmarked by the periodic sandstorms that raged across the desert. Blown by powerful winds, the tiny pieces of grit could become as destructive as a small bomb.
Hidden in the shadows of one of the scarred buildings, Hitch waited for Troy's return. Once the area had been scouted, he would follow his sergeant, Moffitt and Gage to the roof of the building whose walls were giving him sanctuary. Even though a cool night breeze blew down the wide street, Hitch could feel the sweat beading on his brow and coating the palms of his hands. Fear had caused this reaction. Yet, as scared as he was, he was glad he hadn't been left behind to guard the jeeps. He could almost feel sorry for Tully, who had drawn the short straw.
"Do you remember where to place the explosives, Gage?" Sheppard demanded, as he anxiously studied the deserted street.
Gage nodded. "I remember."
"If you're off by so much as an inch," cautioned Sheppard, "the mosque could be badly damaged."
"I know that, too."
Handing the smaller man the knapsack filled with explosives, Andre' encouraged, "Bonne chance, Mon ami."
The two agents slipped into the shadows to compete their own part of the mission. The papers they carried would get them into the laboratory again.
"All clear." Troy's whispered declaration galvanized Hitch, Moffitt, and Gage.
Hurrying to his sergeant's side, Hitch flanked the smaller man as they entered the quiet barracks. Though they were dressed in German uniforms, their presence could evoke some uncomfortable questions. Stealthily they made their way down the hallway to the stairs that climbed up the back wall.
Troy led the way, motioning for Hitch to follow only when he was sure it was safe. When he reached Troy, Hitch would then wave Moffitt and Gage to join him. In this way they made a slow, silent assent.
A sigh of relief whispered from Hitch's lips when they finally attained their goal. Reaching over, he turned the doorknob, their last barrier to the roof. When it refused to budge, he pulled harder, only sheepishly realizing it was locked when Gage slipped to his side and kneeled in front of the lock. Seconds later, the door yielded to pressure.
Sidling past the kneeling man, Troy and Hitch went through the opening. Hitch pressed against the frame and let his eyes adjust to the darkness before proceeding. It was his job to take out the guard on the right and replace him, while Troy did the same with the guard on the left.
His Ivy League schooling hadn't trained Hitch to kill quickly and silently, but the Army had. The young German soldier never knew he was in danger before he slumped lifelessly to the roof. Appropriating his victim's machine gun, Hitch quickly took his place. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Troy was already in position.
With Moffitt's help, Gage took off his shoes and placed them in the knapsack before slinging it across his shoulders. Then, climbing onto the parapet, he slid his right foot across the radio wire stretching from the laboratory to the barracks. With one hand on Moffitt's shoulder to get his balance, he slowly put more of his weight on the line until it was completely supporting him. Satisfied the line was strong enough to carry him, he removed his hand and slid his foot farther out across the thin wire.
His mouth dropping open in amazement, Hitch watched as the Englishman carefully made his way between the buildings. When Hitch was little, his mother had taken him to the circus. He'd gazed in fear and awe as a beautiful young woman strolled across the high wire with an effortless ease. It was only after receiving a broken arm in an attempt to duplicate the feat that he'd realized how difficult it really was – and remembered the safety net stretched underneath its length.
Four stories below Gage there was no net, just the hard, unforgiving ground. And strapped to his back were enough explosives to blow up a building.
The slight form had almost reached the other side when an apparent dizzy spell left him disoriented, causing Gage to step off the wire. Hitch gasped, instinctively reaching out as desperate hands stretched up and caught the wire.
His own limbs shaking in sympathy, Hitch looked on, his heart in his throat as Gage swung himself back up onto the slippery tightrope and resumed his journey. The Englishman finally arrived at his destination and climbed over the parapet, disappearing on the other side. Sighing in relief, Hitch discovered his shirt was damp with sweat, as though he had been the one who had made the dangerous crossing. A cool breeze blew across his shoulders, making him shiver. The motion was as much a reaction to what he'd just seen as it was a result of the weather.
Legs shaking from fear and exhaustion collapsed, sending Gage crashing to the gritty roof. Sand and pebbles dug into exposed flesh as his lungs fought to inhale the cool, dry air. He closed his eyes to block out the vision of stars dancing blurrily across the sky.
When he finally felt he had some control over his body, he pushed back up to his feet and staggered over to the corner where the darkest shadows resided. Dragging the knapsack from his shoulders, he pulled out one of the explosive charges André had prepared. Checking his watch, he set the timer. Not only was the position of the bombs important, they must also go off at precisely the right sequence.
Sheppard's instructions echoing through his head, Gage crossed the roof. Moonlight illuminated this corner. Though worried the exposed position could reveal the bomb's presence to inquiring eyes, he set the charge. Digging in a sand pile that had collected against the wall, he built a flimsy barrier in an attempt to camouflage his work.
The door behind him swung open, making him jump. Illness and exhaustion had brought his nerves uncomfortably close to the surface.
"Everything all set, Gage?" Sheppard's confident voice whispered softly across the distance.
"Fine," said Gage, his heart threatening to beat a hole in his chest. "How does it look below?"
"Pretty quiet, but we better stay on our guard," Sheppard advised, taking the knapsack from Gage's shaking hands. "Are you going to be all right?"
"Let's just get this over with." Gage wearily sighed, leading the way down the stairs.
They methodically moved through the building, setting the rest of the charges. Few people were about due to the lateness of the hour. To facilitate the job they separated, each taking a different floor.
Gage had just placed his last bundle of dynamite in a first floor laboratory when he was confronted by a tall, lean Wermacht captain.
"May I help you, Lieutenant?"
The officer's hand rested on the butt of his pistol. Dark brown eyes bore into Gage's with an intensity the Englishman found unnerving. Though the question had been spoken in English, Gage didn't fall into the trap. His accent perfect for a native Berliner, he replied, "Ich fein, Heir Hautmann."
"May I see your papers?" Switching to his own language, the captain held out his left hand while his right continued to rest on his weapon.
"Certainly." Gage reached into the breast pocket of his shirt and pulled out the forged documents he'd been given. Handing them to the captain, he forced a smile. "I think you'll find everything in order, sir."
A careful scrutiny of the papers drove the nervous smile from Gage's lips. Returning the credentials, the captain pulled his pistol. Pointing it at Gage, he observed, "your papers are very good, Lieutenant. They would've been good enough to pass my inspection. Unfortunately for you, your uniform does not. That badge on your sleeve says you are attached to D Corps. I'm Captain Dietrich and I know all my officers. You are not one of them. What are you, American?"
"English, actually," Gage admitted, realizing he couldn't bluff the man. All he could hope to do was try to stall. In ten minutes the explosives would ignite, completing the mission.
"What are you doing here?" Where are your accomplices?"
Ignoring the first question, Gage focused on the second and hoped his interrogator would do the same. "I have no accomplices. I'm working alone."
A wry smile split the thin lips as Dietrich reached over to relieve Gage of his sidearm. "Why do I find that hard to believe?"
"I bet you never believed in Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny either," Gage innocently returned. "It doesn't mean they never existed."
While his eyes, and his weapon, remained trained on Gage, Dietrich took a step backward into the hallway. Raising his voice, he called, "Guard."
His uniform barely stretching across his broad midriff, a young corporal quickly left his post at the entrance and crossed to the captain's side. Noticing his superior's drawn weapon, he immediately lowered his own rifle. "Jawohl, Heir Hauptmann."
"When you admitted this man, did he have any companions?"
The guard closely inspected Gage through thick glasses before confession, "I did not grant this man entrance."
"Are you sure?" Dietrich demanded.
"Jawohl," the guard nervously nodded. "There have been only three visitors tonight, you, a Captain Heinrich, and a Lieutenant Schmidt."
Dietrich glanced down the hallway to the stairs leading to the upper floors. "Where are these men now?"
"They just left, Heir Hauptmann." The corporal licked dry lips, his voice quivering. "Their papers were all in order, sir. Major Buckman admitted them last night. Was I wrong to admit them tonight?"
Containing his anger with difficulty, Dietrich finally shook his head. "Their papers were perfect. Neither you nor the major could have known they were forged. If they should return, arrest them."
"Jawohl, Heir Hauptmann." The relieved guard tried to click his heels in acknowledgment, but his girth prevented it.
"I'm going to take this prisoner to headquarters for interrogation," Dietrich explained, pushing Gage toward the door. "Contact Major Buckman immediately before admitting anyone."
Before his arms were pulled behind his back and secured with a length of rope, Gage surreptitiously glanced at his watch. Only five minutes remained before the building disintegrated. As he was led outside, he kept his gaze from straying to the roof of the barracks across the street where he knew Troy and Hitch were observing his arrest. Anxious to place as much distance as possible between himself and the doomed building, he allowed the captain to help him into the back seat of a touring car.
Climbing in beside his prisoner, Dietrich motioned the private to drive before returning his attention to Gage. "I take it those two men the guard encountered were your accomplices?"
"I told you, Captain," Gage repeated, "I don't have any accomplices."
"What was your mission?"
Just as Gage opened his mouth to reply, the ground shook and dust filled the air. Ears ringing from their close proximity to the explosion, the two men turned to watch the building they had just vacated slowly collapse in upon itself.
Sad eyes staring at the rubble filling the space where the guards had stood, Dietrich sighed. "I guess that answers my question."
"They'll be waiting for us, you know," Moffitt warned, shedding the private's uniform he had been wearing and pulling on the major's clothes Tully had appropriated.
"We know," acknowledged Sheppard. "That's why we won't blame you if you don't want to be a part of this."
"I never said I didn't want to help," Moffitt contradicted. "I just wanted you to realize it won't be easy."
His eyes resting individually on each of the four men he knew as the Rat Patrol, André noted, "Gage is our friend. Why do you risk your lives? The mission is complete."
"I've seen what the Gestapo does to spies," said Troy, checking his weapon. "If we can't bring Gage out alive, neither will they."
Though Sheppard paused in his own preparations, he didn't protest the decision. He, too, had seen the mangled bodies of Gestapo prisoners. "You say you know this Captain Dietrich. What can we expect?"
"Anything," Troy warned. "He's smart and he's cunning. Take nothing for granted."
Moffitt nodded agreement, even as he quietly reflected, "It's strange, though. Sometimes, I think he's on our side."
The shutters were closed to the early morning sun making the barren office feel like a tomb. A scarred desk and two chairs were the only furniture. In a plush chair behind the desk, a heavyset colonel with cold eyes sat regarding Gage. Tied to the solid frame of the remaining chair, Gage audaciously returned the officer's glare.
"Karl Mueller," the colonel commented, flipping through the papers Gage had been carrying. "Is this the name you want to appear on your headstone?"
Fear wasn't an uncommon emotion in Gage's life. He'd felt it ever since he could remember. First while learning the high-flying acts that had put bread and butter on his parents' table before the war, and now as a pawn in a conflict he knew the world couldn't afford to lose. However, the fear he was experiencing at this moment was deeper, almost inhuman. This wasn't just a fear of the mind, but of the body. He hadn't needed the threats to know he was going to die. It did tell him though, that his death would be extremely painful.
A fist angrily pounded the hard desk. "Answer me."
Gage didn't flinch as his gaze sought the face of the other occupant of the room. Leaning nonchalantly against the wall, Captain Dietrich's stance showed none of the tension Gage read in his expressive eyes. An urgent nod from the lean man turned the Englishman's attention back to his interrogator. "When I'm gone, Colonel, it won't matter what name you put on my headstone."
Rising to his feet, the Gestapo agent rounded the desk. Stopping in front of his prisoner, he raised his right hand. The beefy fist sliced through the air, catching Gage high on his left cheek. The force of the blow was so powerful it almost knocked the chair over. "Tell me who you are."
Blood trickling down his chin, Gage shook his head. "You have my papers. There's nothing more to tell."
"You have admitted to being English, not German. Which makes those papers a lie."
Another blow landed in the same place as the first, only this time, it was followed by a wicked jab to the stomach. His left eye swelling shut, Gage leaned forward, gasping for air.
"What was your mission?" the cruel voice screamed in his ear.
"I think that was obvious, Colonel," Dietrich answered for the incapacitated agent. "The laboratory and the scientists' notes were completely destroyed. They will have to start their research from scratch. This could set us back years."
"Nothing is obvious, Captain," the colonel protested, angered by the interruption. "What if the laboratory wasn't their only target?"
Dietrich reluctantly nodded agreement. "I see your point, Colonel."
A knock at the door drew both men's attention. Fury making his voice rough, the colonel demanded, "Who is it?"
"Major Werner of the SS," a voice echoed from behind the heavy plank door. "I've been authorized to take possession of your prisoner."
"I want to see those papers," the colonel ordered, spittle spraying the room as he vented his fury. Crossing to the door, he unlocked it and flung it open.
The barrel of a pistol dug into the fat stomach, driving the officer back into the room. Dietrich was reaching for his own weapon when Moffitt warned, "I wouldn't, Captain."
Sheppard quickly closed the door. While Moffitt's weapon remained trained on the colonel, Hitch kept his attention centered on Dietrich. Pulling a knife from his boot, Sheppard knelt beside Gage and cut his bindings. Noticing the blood and bruises on the pale face, he shook his head. "It looks like we got here just in time."
"Actually, old chap," said Gage, "it would've been nice if you'd arrived a few minutes earlier."
"You didn't expect us to launch a rescue without having a cup of coffee first, did you?" Sheppard demanded, helping Gage up onto unsteady feet.
"Forgive me for being so selfish," Gage mockingly apologized.
A nervous twitch at the corner of his right eye showing his true feelings, the colonel said, "You won't get away with this."
"Why do they always have to say that?" asked Sheppard, shaking his head. Not expecting an answer to his question, the American pointed to the chair Gage had just vacated. "Okay, fatso, let's see if you'll fit in your own torture chamber."
The colonel turned to comply, only to change direction at the last minute and head for the door. The butt of Moffitt's pistol cracked against the thick skull before the fugitive had taken a few steps. The floor shook as the heavy weight landed on it.
Watching blood seep slowly from the wound on the back of the head, Gage sadly shook his head. "I wish I could've been the one to do that."
Sheppard pointed his own pistol at Dietrich. "How about you, Captain? Are you going to give us trouble, too?"
Without a word, Dietrich crossed to the old wooden chair and sat down. The ropes that had once secured his enemy were tightened around his wrists and ankles. His own handkerchief was stuffed into his mouth as a gag.
It took all three healthy men to lift the colonel and put him in his chair. Panting from the exertion, Sheppard grumbled, "Don't they have a weight limit in the Gestapo?"
"I doubt anyone's had the courage to suggest one," Moffitt commented, tightening the rope that circled the fat wrist.
Eyes resting suspiciously on the docile German captain, Sheppard suggested, "Let's get out of here. I don't trust your Captain Dietrich."
"I say, Hitch," said Moffitt, straightening his uniform. "I think he's got the captain's number."
"What're we going to do?" demanded Gage, nervously eyeing the door. "Stroll out of here like we're going to a picnic?"
"Something like that," Sheppard agreed, checking the time on his watch. "In a few minutes, our friends will create a diversion. Nobody's going to even notice us."
An explosion rocked the building. Though muffled by the thick door, shouts of fear and surprise could be heard. Footsteps echoed down the hall and clattered down the stairs.
Brushing off the sand and dust that liberally coated his thinning hair, Sheppard complained, "Either Troy's watch is running fast, or mine's running slow."
"Who cares?" cried Gage, crossing to the door. "Let's just get out of here."
Moffitt led the way, followed by Sheppard and Gage with Hitch bringing up the rear. No one challenged the apparent transfer of a prisoner. A more immediate danger lay in the proximity of a mysterious explosion and the possibility of its being repeated.
Once secure in the front passenger seat of the car they'd appropriated, Moffitt turned to Sheppard and apologized, "I guess I was wrong."
"About what, Sergeant?" asked Sheppard, as Hitch put the car in gear. His attention only peripherally aimed at the Englishman, his gaze continued to search the surrounding buildings for possible danger.
His own eyes as active as his companion's, Moffitt replied, "It was easy after all."
"If you call this easy, Doctor," the shocked American said, using Troy's nickname for the other man, "I don't want to be with the Rat Patrol when it gets rough."
"I'll second that," Gage heartily agreed.
Rivers of moonlight flowed across the sand. In the magical world they created, there was no hate, no war. From his position at the top of a dune, Hitch almost wished he could step into that world.
Tomorrow, they would be back at headquarters and saying goodbye to the three men the brass called Jericho, but who the Rat Patrol called friends. It was strange how the war could bring together men of such diversity and forge a bond between them that could never be broken or duplicated. Though others might brand him a traitor, Hitch knew Dietrich's death would be almost as devastating to him as Troy's, Moffitt's, or Tully's. Such was the nature of war.
Sensing rather than hearing the approach of his relief, Hitch glanced back to see Tully crawling up the incline. Even here, safely behind their own lines, their vigilance had not slackened. Invisible lines are impossible to see and even harder to protect.
"You're relieved," said Tully, scooting up next to his friend.
Hitch rubbed his eyes and sighed as he started to crawl backwards down the hill. "Is there any coffee left?"
"You don't need any anyway," Tully replied, teeth catching a moonbeam, making them glow in the darkness. "It'll just keep you awake."
"That means there isn't any." Disappointed, Hitch ducked his head.
Soft whispers rode through the air beckoning him to the fire and the five men lounging around it. The camaraderie between them was in marked contrast to the wary antagonism that had existed only days before.
The first to notice Hitch's approach, André picked up an empty cup. Indicating the pot sitting close to the hot embers, he asked, "Coffee?"
"Tully said there wasn't any left." Hitch's plaintive wail rose in the breeze.
Shaking his head, Troy gazed sullenly at his driver. "One of these days, Tully is going to tease you at the wrong time and we're all going to be sorry."
"Not as sorry as the Krauts," Gage muttered, correctly interpreting Troy's implication. "I dare say, many of them won't live through it."
Finding an empty spot between Troy and Gage, Hitch sat down to enjoy his drink and the companionship. He gazed longingly into the leaping flames. "All we need are marshmallows."
"Don't tell me you were a Boy Scout," Sheppard incredulously demanded.
"Not for very long," admitted Hitch. "They kicked me out."
Discovering something new about his usually taciturn driver, Troy asked, "What did you do?"
"I was practicing my knots and accidentally tied up the Scout leader. They had to get a knife to cut him free."
Troy dropped his head in his hands. "Somehow, I find it hard to believe it was an accident."
"Who was there, Sarge? You or me?"