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The Capture

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1943, 1630: Glouchester Training Camp, home of the Dirty Dozen…

 

          Private Jean LeBec moaned in pleasure and nine heads turned to stare.  Ex-Captain Catha McCelland ignored the grins and twinkling eyes and continued to kneed the French Creole's bare neck and back, rubbing out the last traces of soreness from a healed separated shoulder.

          LeBec slumped further down into his chair, a crooked smile wandering across his face.  "Oh, that's so nice," he slurred, the thick Cajun accent slipping back into his speech.

          "Uh, Catha?" private Roy Beaubuff called from where he lay, stretched out on his top bunk.

          "Yeah?"

          "I have this muscle pull…"  He reached under himself and rubbed the lower portion of his back.  "…right here.  You think you could help?"

          She sighed.

          "Yeah, and I have a crick, right here," Farrell said, gripping the back of his neck, a pained expression carefully etched on his handsome face.

          "I have a trick knee," Sergeant Cutter added from where he sat, watching his charges with an amused grin while he whittled on a piece of wood.

          "You too, Sarge?" Catha asked, disappointment clear in her voice.

          "It sounds like you all need physicals," came Danko's voice from the doorway.

          "'Ten-tion!" Cutter yelled.

          The men scrambled to their feet, with the exception of LeBec, who remained seated, his eyes glazed and a smile pinned to his face.

          "At ease," Danko said, walking in to join the rest of the commandos.  "Catha, you've ruined him," he said, noting the Cajun's expression.  "LeBec, you look like you died."

          "I did, sir," he slurred.  "And I went to heaven."

          A series of chuckles filled the bay.

          "You might change your mind when I tell you about our next mission."  Danko nodded to the men to sit and they moved to the various bunks and chairs that filled the bay, getting comfortable to hear the bad news.

          Catha continued working on LeBec, although the man leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees, alert as the others.

          Danko waited while they got settled.

          "So," Feke said, rubbing an oiled cloth down an eight-inch knife blade, "what miracle do they want us to arrange this time?"

          Danko suppressed a smile.  "Oh, this shouldn't be a problem."  There was a series of snorts and grunts.  "All they want us to do is rescue General Safford from a German prison – a very exclusive German prison, in occupied France – before he compromises the entire allied effort in Europe."

          "And how are we supposed to do that, Lieutenant?" Farrell asked, taking the news in stride.

          "We'll get captured, of course."

          Farrell looked down at the man next to him, and Leeds muttered, "You had to ask, didn't you."  Johnny shrugged with a sheepish grin.

 

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

 

          "Catha," Danko said as the Dozen broke up to think about the details of the mission he had just described.  "Can I see you in my office?"

          She moved away from LeBec with a final pat on the man's shoulder.

          "Thanks," he called after her.

          "Anytime."

          Following Danko into the small room off the main bay that served as confessional and operations HQ, she closed the door behind her.  Sitting down on a fog-warped wooden chair she folded her arms across her chest, knowing full well what he was about to ask her.

          "Catha, I want you to sit this one out," Danko said, leaning back against the small oak desk.

          She studied him for a moment.  There were tight lines tugging at the corner of his eyes, darkened by the lack of sleep.  "No, sir," she said.

          "Look, if it were any other mission I wouldn't care, but this one, it's—"

          "A mission, Lieutenant."  She stressed the rank, reminding him that she too was an officer, despite the pair of stripes that replaced her captain's bars.  The prison was in occupied France, and Catha momentarily wondered if the stories the rest of the Dozen told her about their last mission in that part of the world still haunted Danko.  For the past several weeks no word from Michelle and the growing resistance leaked out of St. Luc, and Danko was clearly concerned.

          The lieutenant scowled at the woman.  She was one of the few people he allowed close to him, closer than most of the Dozen, and he counted her a friend, but there were times when the Captain's quick understanding of his feelings proved aggravating.  A female captain.  That was a rare occurrence for 1943 and it brought back all the old questions Danko had about her past, but he held those silent.

          "Catha—"

          "No.  Wait.  If I'm a part of this unit, then let me be a part of it.  I've worked damn hard to earn the respect of those boys," she said, hiking a thumb over her shoulder.  "If you cut me out of this mission I'll never get it back."

          Danko sighed.  She was right, besides, he wanted her there, but after what happened with Michelle…  If Catha were captured and—  He let the thoughts of the French woman and Catha fall away.  There was no time for that now.  He trusted Catha.  He had loved Michelle, maybe he still did, but he trusted this woman.

          Still, he argued with himself, there are other considerations.

          "Catha, I don't want them distracted.  If I take you into the prison, they'll want to protect you.  If I leave you on the outside, they'll worry about getting caught, and I'm going to need their full attention on the mission."

          "If I don't go, then I'm not a part of this unit.  You might as well send me back to Marston Tyne." She paused, hoping she wouldn't push the man too far with her next comment.  "Lieutenant, is it the men, or is it you?  We all have a job to do, Danko, and we're not all goin' home.  But, damn it, let me do my job."

          Danko glared at her.  Damn the woman!  How did she read him so clearly?  This war's already taken away the woman I love, I won't lose a friend to stubbornness!

          He sighed.  But, she's right, he corrected himself.  I am worried.  I'm scared Michelle's already dead, and I'm scared Catha might get herself killed.  But this is a war.  I can't let my fears compromise the mission.  I won't!

          "Look," she argued, like she knew what he was thinking and needed to press the advantage.  "I don't think any one of them would risk the mission for me.  And neither would you.  I can hold up my end."

          I wouldn't doubt that for a moment, Danko thought, remembering some of her past exploits.  The practical needs of the mission have to come first.

          He nodded.  "To be honest, I need a German speaker on the inside and one on the outside.  Feke's too volatile around Germans for me to take him in.  I want you inside.  But you have to know what could happen."

          "I'm aware of the dangers, Lieutenant."

          "I had to hear you say it.  You understand?"

          "Yes, sir.  Thank you."

          "I don't think I'm doing you any favors.  This one could get rough."

          "I know.  They're all rough, sir."

 

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

 

0200:  Vaucouleurs, occupied France

25 miles from the d'Aveyron-Ecosse Estate

 

          "I'm not going to like this," Leeds said as he gathered the parachute silk into his arms and trailed after Sergeant Cutter and the smaller of the Beaubuff brothers. "You think the Lieutenant knows what he's doing?  When I gave up a perfectly safe cell at Marston Tyne, I didn't think I'd be trading it for a German one."

          "He knows," Roy reassured him.  "Besides, we won't be in those cells, unless we screw up, and we won't.  Vern and the others are counting on us, and we won't let them down."

          "Quiet down," Cutter snapped, "or we will end up on the wrong side of the wall."

          The threesome hid their chutes and quickly found Feke and two of the new additions to the Dirty Dozen, Snyder and Hall.

          They look scared, Cutter thought as he scrutinized the newbies.  No wonder, we've done some crazy things but this one takes the cake.  Too bad it had to be their first mission.

          Twenty-six hours, not much time to get into a prison and get out again, the sergeant thought as he watched the men shoving their harnesses into the undergrowth.  There wasn't time for any mistakes.  If G-2 was wrong about their facts, any of them, Her Majesty's Dirty Dozen Force was going to be another statistic of war.

 

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

 

0300: ten miles north of the d'Aveyron-Ecosse Estate

 

          "Halt!  Do not move or we will shoot!"  The voice, thick with a German accent, echoed through the night.  Danko and Farrell froze, then slowly raised their arms away from their bodies.

          More German soldiers emerged out of the darkness, two escorting Vern and LeBec at gun point into the clearing.  Catha and the third new man, Peal, joined them, prodded along by three more soldiers.

          The tip had worked.

          Danko silently hoped that the other six commandos were safely down and on their way to meet the resistance and the inauguration of some more interesting local disturbances.  The resistance group in the area had picked up activity since Safford's abduction, and it had cost them several good men and women.  But now the Dozen would help them intensify the attacks enough to draw some of the guards away from the estate-turned-prison.

          According to the intelligence reports, the prison commandant and the garrison commander were not on friendly terms, the commandant having had the commander's lover tortured and killed when she was identified as a resistance sympathizer.  Any excuse to further embarrass the commander would be welcomed, and Danko hoped a series of resistance raids would entice the commandant into sending troops to the commander in a show of "support" aimed at further humiliating the man in front of his troops and in the eyes of the Berlin high command.

          "So, you are American commandos," the German lieutenant said, stepping up to look the captured half-dozen over.  "Now you are prisoners."

          He motioned to three of his men to frisk the Americans while the others held their guns trained on them.

          "Into the truck," the lieutenant commanded when they finished.

 

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

 

0500:  d'Aveyron-Ecosse Estate, now Von Bonn-Ansbach Prison

 

          "So, these are the commandos sent to rescue the British General."

          The commandant poured himself a cup of coffee, added three lumps of sugar and teaspoon of cream.  "Only six of you… either you are very good, or your intelligence takes me for a fool."  He stirred the coffee with gentle strokes, tapped the spoon on the rim and laid it in the saucer.  "Which is it?"

          The Americans stood in a rigid at-ease position, lined up along one wall of the lush dining hall.  They stared over the long hardwood table, gazes fixed on the far wall.

          "I see.  You are going to be difficult.  I should have expected no less.  Very well, it will be a game then.  I will ask questions, and you…"  The commandant stood, and taking his cup and saucer, walked along the row carefully scrutinizing each man and Catha.  "…you will try not to answer them.  There will be a winner, and, a loser."

          Reaching the end of the line, he raised the cup and took a sip, returning the fine china to its matching plate.  "And gentlemen, I do not often lose."

          Catha admired the richly decorated wooden walls they passed when they were escorted from the hall.  The works of art hanging along the narrow halls were not reproductions.  Leeds would have a field day in here, she thought, memorizing the series of turns.  Covertly she stole a glance at Danko.  His jaws were clenched tightly, the muscles twitching slightly.  This would be a harder mission for him than she had thought.

 

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

 

          Danko noted the layout of the estate the best he could while they walked along.  The tight halls were long and complex but he would be able to find the hall again if he had to.  However, the house was not a prison, he thought, recalling the intelligence reports.  The French country estate had belonged to the Baron d'Aveyron.  The Germans took it and turned it into a holding and interrogation location for "special" prisoners and any members of the local resistance they managed to capture.

          It was certainly easier than shipping people all the way back to Berlin, the Lieutenant concluded as they left the main house and headed for the stables.  G-2 said the General was being held somewhere in the main house, but it appeared the stables were reserved for less auspicious guests.

          I hope this works, he thought as they were split into pairs and locked in the small but reinforced stalls.  I'd hate to spend the rest of the war learning German.

          Damp mildewed hay was scattered sparingly across the dirt floor.  A bucket hung from a peg near the door, full of stagnant water, just beginning to turn green.

          "Smells like horse piss," Peal commented accurately as he quickly inspected the confines of the space.

          "There're worse smells," Catha said quietly, studying her cellmate.  He was young, twenty if he was a day.  He was also scared, but too cocky to admit it.

          Peal snorted at the reply and walked over to plop down on the largest heap of hay he could find.  "Wonder how long it'll be before they start questioning us."  A slight echo of fear encased his words.

          "Too soon."

          "Yeah."

 

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

 

0630: French countryside near Vaucouleurs

 

          Cutter squinted into the early morning glare to make out Roy as he scrambled toward the sergeant and the newbies.

          "Feke says the resistance leader's comin' now," the smaller Beaubuff whispered.  "They brought a wagon."

          "Time to go," Cutter told the new members of the Dozen, and the foursome left the small tangle of undergrowth.  Leeds joined them silently from another patch of heavy brush as they made their way to join Feke and the French resistance.

          Trotting through the quiet countryside, the Sergeant couldn't help but wonder what was happening to Danko and the others.  He glanced at Leeds and Roy as they moved along next to him.  The answering look in their eyes told him they were wondering the same thing.

 

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

 

          The initial meeting with the small resistance group went smoothly, André having smoothed the way with his reference.  The Vaurouleurs unit was well briefed on their objectives and well practiced in local hit-and-run operations.  Cutter left the communication to Feke, trusting the Hungarian to follow Danko's orders.  He would keep an eye on the new men, and worry.

 

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

 

0700: Von Bonn-Ansbach Prison

 

          Hearing the thud-rustle of approaching footfalls, Danko reached for the sleeping LeBec's shoulder.  At the gentle touch, the Cajun rolled up into a crouch, wide awake.  The older man frowned when the soldiers bypassed their stall and the pair listened silently as two other prisoners were taken out.

          Danko cursed quietly.  He expected to be the first of his men questioned by the commandant since he was the oldest, and therefore the unit's most likely leader.  Moving over to the wooden planks of the stall, Danko squinted to see who was going in his place, but the gray early morning fog hid any clue.

          Waiting until the footfalls faded completely, Danko walked to the connecting wall, knelt down, and quietly tapped once on the wall, unnecessarily whispering, "One."

          "Two," LeBec whispered in reply for no reason beyond self-assurance, and the smallest suggestion that they were in control of the situation.

          After a moment an equally soft triple tap was the return reply.  A pause, then a count of six completed the chain.  Farrell and Vern were still there.  Catha and Peal were missing.

 

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

 

          "So, what do we have here?" the commandant asked as he walked slowly around the ex-Captain.  Catha stood perfectly still and willed Peal to do the same.  "A woman and a boy.  The Americans must be in desperate need of commandos these days."

          "I'm no boy, you stinkin' Nazi," Peal snapped and Catha sighed silently.

          Damn fool, she thought, feeling the commandant bristle.  This man was dangerous, perfectly and cruelly dangerous.  If Peal wasn't careful, he was going to get himself killed.

          "You are extremely insolent, boy," he commented as he raised his hand slightly.  One of the solders stepped up and slapped Peal.  The young blond dropped to his knees.  Wiping a hand across the corner of his torn mouth Peal stood, a sarcastic smile spreading across his lips with the blood.

          "Yeah, I am… pig."

          The commandant nodded and three of the soldiers began to beat the young man.  Catha silently cursed his arrogance while she admired his fire.  If they broke him, the whole plan would fall apart before it even began.

          Peal fought back.  He was tougher than he looked.  Catha watched with a growing rage while they beat him until Peal's face was nearly unrecognizable.  The boy was dying, but he didn't know it.

          One of the Germans looked away from the swaying American, laughing with his companions as Peal nearly fell, sliding in his own blood.  The private took advantage of the man's carelessness, lunging and snaring him in a headlock.  The American spun and dropped, snapping the man's neck.

          The other guards watched, helpless as their comrade fell.  One lowered his gun and fired a burst, the report deafening in the small room.  Catha ground her teeth together as she watched Peal fall on top of the dead German.

          The commandant looked from the two dead men to the woman.  "Oh, well, I still have five to tell me what I want to know."  Catha watched the man without a flicker of emotion.  "You, my dear, perhaps you would like to avoid the fate of your young companion.  I would hate to see a beautiful face treated in such a manner."

          The commandant studied her stony silence.  Long, thick red hair was held back in a single braid that fell to the middle of her back.  Fine, up-swept features added a wildness to her beauty, and her eyes were gray like the morning fog, what she was thinking as elusive as the ghostly wisps.

          She would be his personal challenge.  She and the commando leader.

          "Take her to the green room," he commanded the guards.

          "I want to return to the stable."

          "So, you do speak," he said, marveling at the rich tones of her voice.  "There is no reason why you should suffer, my dear."

          "I am a prisoner of war."

          "Prisoner of war?  I see no uniform, my dear.  I see no rank insignia.  All I see is a woman.  A beautiful woman all alone in the middle of a war."

 

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

 

0930: the Meuse River between Vaucouleus and Commercy

 

          Cutter suppressed a smile as the bridge exploded into a multitude of twisted metal fragments.  The resistance fighters cheered each other, Feke, Leeds and the newbies joining in, but Cutter was already thinking about their next target.

          Roy also stood back from the commotion, watching as the half-dried countryside caught fire.  The Sergeant studied the small blond man.  Clearly he was worried about Vern.  Cutter shook his head.  Having brothers in the unit was a dangerous decision, dividing their full attention from the group.  Like now.  He wondered why Danko had taken Vern into the prison in the first place.  The large Beaubuff's strength would have been an asset earlier as they set the explosives.

          He pushed the thoughts away.  The bridge was already history.  The troop transport was all he needed to be concerned with now.

          "Come on," he said to the men.  "We've got another diversion to attend to."

          Feke nodded and trotted away, Roy and Leeds following.  Snyder and Hall waited for the Sergeant to start off before they moved out.

          "You think this is going to work?" Roy asked his companions softly.

          "I think it'll make one garrison commander look real bad," Leeds replied, chewing on the last two inches of his cigar.

          "You're worried about your brother?" Feke asked as he climbed into the back of the wagon along with the rest of the French resistance fighters.

          "Yeah," Roy admitted as the Hungarian helped pull him in next.

          "He'll be fine," Feke said.

          "Yeah," Leeds echoed, "the Lieutenant will see to that."

          Roy nodded.  He wasn't any less worried, but it was good to know they understood.

 

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

 

1000: Von Bonn-Ansbach Prison

 

          Well, it's a big step up from the stables, Catha thought as she quietly investigated her new accommodations.  A huge hardwood canopy bed with a red silk and down bedspread dominated one wall, an equally large fireplace the opposite.  A small fire blazed on the green-gray stones, taking the dampness out of the air.  Divan, dresser, dressing-table, writing desk, wardrobe… wonder if they included a microphone.

          Catha opened the dresser drawers, running her hand along the sides and bottom.  They were filled with expensive silk garments, expensive female garments. Well, I'll admit that you have good taste in Estates to pillage, commandant.

          She crossed to the one of the three doors in the bedroom and opened it.  An equally fine wardrobe hung there.  Behind the second door she found a small bath and dressing area.  Why, it's everything a lady could want.  Too bad I'm not a lady. Sorry, Mom, Catha thought as she continued exploring.  That's what we get for Dad wanting a boy.

          She paused at the third door and stared at the brass knob, knowing what lay beyond the ornate rose carvings the decorated the dark wood.  A guard, with a gun and orders to kill her if she tried to escape.  Turning back, she headed for the bookcase.  It's going to be a long sixteen hours.

 

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

 

          It was taking too long.  Too damn long.  Where were they?  Something's wrong, I can feel it, Danko worried as he paced the interior of the stall, trying to stay warm.  The sounds of approaching footsteps halted him.

          LeBec looked up expectantly and Danko shrugged.

          The guards opened their stall and pointed at the older man, motioning to him to come out.  Danko cast one final look back at the Cajun, and saw him smile thinly. This was it.

 

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

 

          The Lieutenant stared down at the bloody remains of Corporal John Peal while unseeing blue eyes stared back.  Crouching down, he drew the boy's eyes closed, then stood, taking up an automatic at-ease stance.

          "I know you command these men.  You are older, and you have the shadows there behind your eyes.  What is your rank?"

          "Lieutenant."

          "A lieutenant?  That is all?  I expected a major, or perhaps a Lieutenant Colonel."

          "Lieutenant."

          "Very well… Lieutenant.  Your name?"

          "Danko."

          "Lieutenant Danko.  Very good.  You are much more cooperative than this one here, or the woman."

          The Lieutenant's eyes flicked to the commandant then forward again.  The German smiled and Danko silently cursed himself for the slip.

          "She is alive, Danko, and unharmed – for now.  What is her name?"  Danko held the silence.  "Ah, I see.  Now you begin to play the game.  I suppose you will give me your serial number if I ask?"

          Danko nodded.

          "Why must we make this so difficult, Danko?  Do you think I enjoy playing these games?"

          "Yes."

          He chuckled.  "I see you are an honest man.  Very well then, I will be honest with you.  I must know what your intentions were.  I must know who is on the outside helping you.  And I know there are people there – the resistance, perhaps other American commandos.  I will know these things.  There are five of you, and one will tell me, sooner or later.  It is the way of man to speak in order to save himself pain and suffering.  However, if you tell me now I will spare the others.  You will be sent to a camp to await the outcome of the war."  Again Danko refused to speak.  "Very well, Danko.  We will begin then."

 

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

 

1400: countryside outside Ligny-en-Barrois

 

          Feke raised his hand, signaling the three resistance fighters to take cover as Leeds slid into the shallow ditch beside him, raising a cloud of dust and dried leaves.

          "Trouble," he whispered.  "A patrol, 'bout ten minutes away.  Eight men."

          "Tell the sergeant.  He's down about thirty yards.  If he wants to call it off, come back."

          Leeds scurried away, careful to remain hidden in the shallow wash.

          "We go," Cutter said when the private relayed the message.  "Get back to Feke, and wait.  The shooting should attract the patrol and we can add them to the diversion."

          "Sergeant, you think that's a good idea?  I mean, there's eight of them, and they're well armed."

          "Better than fighting our way out of here.  We'll have surprise on our side."

          Feke nodded.  Cupping his hands around his lips he whistled, imitating a bird call.  A few moments later Roy joined the pair.

          "We're going to add a German patrol to the diversion," Leeds whispered.  The blond nodded.

          "I'll go tell the resistance," Feke said, slipping noiselessly into the undergrowth.

          "Cutter and the new guys will move down to meet us here as soon as they hear the first explosion," Leeds added.  Roy nodded, gripping his rifle tighter.

          The Sergeant wiped his bloody hunting knife off and slid it back into the waiting sheath while Leeds finished tying a makeshift bandage around Feke's arm, covering a shallow bullet graze.  Snyder and Hall hadn't been as lucky.

          The Sergeant joined the remainder of the Dozen.  "How many did the resistance lose?"

          "Three," Feke said.  "One dead, two will have to be taken to a doctor, but it looks bad."

          "And you?"

          "He'll be fine," Leeds said.  "Arm might be a little stiff, though.  I wish LeBec could take a look.  He knows more about this stuff than I do."

          "You did fine, my friend," the Hungarian told him with a thin smile.  "Hall and Synder?"

          Leeds shook his head.

          "Here comes the rest of the resistance," Roy whispered, nodding toward the woods.

          "You ready?" Cutter asked Leeds.  The man nodded.  "Let's go."

 

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

 

1630: Von Bonn-Ansbach Prison

 

          "Stop!" Farrell screamed.

          The commandant raised his hand and the guard pulled the glowing red tip of the metal rod away from the young man's bare shoulder.

          "I'll talk, okay?  Just leave me alone," the private whined.

          "Very well.  Tell me your name."

          "Jonathan Farrell, private, my serial number's—"

          "Fine, fine, Farrell.  Who is your commander?"

          "Lieutenant Danko."

          "Very good.  I see you are serious about helping us, aren't you?"

          "Yes, just don't hurt me."

          "What is the woman's name?"

          "Corporal Catha McCelland."

          The commandant smiled.  "I have just a few more questions, then you may return to the stables.  You understand?"

          "I'll tell you anything you want, just don't hurt me."

          "Why are you here?"

          "Did he buy it?" Vern asked after his cellmate was ushered back into the stall and the guards left them alone.

          "I think so," Farrell whispered.

          The larger of the Beaubuffs tore several strips off the bottom of his shirt and adjusted a makeshift bandage on the private's leg, covering the burns they had given him as best he could.  "Did he say anything about Catha or the Lieutenant?"

          "No, but he wanted to know Catha's name.  I think they're all still at the house," Farrell supplied.

          "Think they're okay?"

          "I don't know."

          The young man studied his companion.  He had never been particularly close to either of the brothers, but the frown of concern on the big man's face made him feel more secure.  "You think the other guys are having a good time blowing things up?"

          Vern gave the actor a small smile.  "Yeah.  I wish I was out there… doin' something."

          "Me, too."

          "I hope Roy's okay."

          Farrell nodded.  "They'll be fine.  They're probably already finished and sitting around with some of those pretty French resistance women, eating that fancy cheese and drinking wine."

          Vern grinned and nodded, hoping his companion was right.  Reaching out, he patted Johnny's shoulder.  "Thanks."

          Farrell grinned and nodded.

 

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

 

          The knock was short.  Catha rolled off the bed where she lay, reading a volume of Hawthorne from the room's small bookcase and crossed to the door.  It was the commandant.

          "I see you haven't indulged," he said, looking over the rough peasant shirt and pants she still wore.  "I will return in one hour.  You will dress for dinner."

          "And if I refuse?" she asked.

          "I will have one of the prisoners shot."

          "Now, that is much better," the commandant said, his blue eyes slowly traveling over the light green silk dress.  The low back revealed Catha's lightly tanned skin, and the equally low neck line the swell of her breasts.  She had untied the braid and her long red hair was held back from her face with borrowed ivory combs.  The gray eyes remained as distant as before.

          "Come, it is time to eat.  You must be hungry."

          Catha refused to acknowledge he was right.  Still, maybe he would give her some news on the rest of the team.  They had eight hours before the rest of the Dozen arrived with the partisans.  Farrell or LeBec should have baited the trap by now.  I just hope they're in shape to pull this off, she thought.  There was no way to know what the man might have done to them.

          The blond led her to the same dining hall where they were first questioned.  The table was set for two.  The commandant pulled out her chair and waited until she was settled before he sat down himself.  Two guards stood against the wall, their guns trained on her.

          "I hope you like lamb."

          "I'm a vegetarian," she said, just to be contrary.

          He smiled.  "Well, Catha McCelland, eat what you like, it is all excellent.  The cook used to work for d'Aveyron, before I, ah, acquired his services."

          Catha didn't respond to his use of her name, but it bothered her.  He was a handsome man in the classic Aryian mould.  The silver creeping through the pale blond hair made him look crueler.  She nodded.

          "My pleasure."

          They ate in silence.  It was good, very good.  A twinge of guilt followed each bite as she thought about the rest of the team.  When they finished, the plates were cleared and a thin slice of cheesecake brought out with a glass of brandy.  She picked at the desert and avoided the alcohol. 

          "So, Catha McCelland, how is it a woman joins a group of commandos?"

          "Circumstances."

          He laughed.  "Yes, circumstances.  I have the information I need, by the way.  There will be no reason to question you."

          She glanced up at the man. 

          "The boy, Farrell, he did not want to play.  I knew the allies would try to free General Safford."  She bit back the remark that came to mind.  "Like you, the General is a special prisoner here.  However, he will be sent to Berlin.  They did not trust me to extract the information we need from him."

          "That doesn't surprise me," she taunted.

          His hand snapped back, but froze before he slapped her.  "You are full of fire, my dear.  Be careful it does not burn you."  He lowered his hand while she watched, a hint of laughter swirling through the stormy eyes.

          "You know my name, commandant.  Perhaps you would care to share yours?"

          He paused.  "Yes, certainly.  I am Heindric Von Bonn."  He watched her push the half-eaten desert away.  "You are not hungry?"

          "No."

          "Commendable, my dear.  You worry about the others.  Loyalty is such an admirable quality."  He leaned forward, reaching out to run his finger over the top of her bare shoulder.  "Are any of them your lovers?  The dead boy, perhaps?  Or, are all six of them your lovers?"

          She met his stare and smiled.  "Yes, all six of them," she purred.  He pulled his hand away.

          His hand stroked the back of her neck while he hummed along to the soft tones of the aria.  A sharp rap on the door caused them to jump.  He turned the music off.  "Yes?"

          "A message from Major Holt."

          "In."

          The messenger entered and glanced momentarily at Catha before he spoke.  "Major Holt sent me to tell you that the resistance is becoming more than a nuisance.  They attacked a troop transport, and blew up the Meuse bridge.  A patrol was also ambushed.  It is growing intolerable.  The local peasants are losing their respect."

          Von Bonn looked over at Catha who sat, thumbing through a book of Roman art on the coffee table, apparently ignorant of the conservation.  He watched her carefully as he said, "I will kill one of the prisoners as a reprisal."

          Catha felt her heart jump, but she continued to turn the pages with the same slow motions, glad her back was turned to the man.

          No reaction, Von Bonn thought.  Good, she does not understand.

          "Sir?"

          "Never mind, I was testing the woman."

          Catha closed her eyes momentarily.

          "I will send some of my men with you, they are highly trained.  They should put an end to this annoyance with the resistance.  Tell Major Holt that I expect he will give my men command of the patrols searching for the resistance, and that his incompetence will be reported to Berlin."

          "Sir."

 

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

 

17 March 1900: a small barn near von Bonn-Ansbach Prison

 

          "Sergeant, the guards from the prison just left," Feke told him, relaying the message from an excited resistance fighter.

          Cutter nodded.  "Good.  We move at 0200.  Get something to eat and get some rest," he told the three men.  They nodded.

 

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

 

2000: Von Bonn-Ansbach Prison

 

          Danko ground his jaws shut and willed the pain to go away.  He had to remain conscious.  The rest of the Dozen would arrive soon.  The lieutenant reviewed the plans for the rest of the mission as one of the guards checked his cell door as he passed on his rounds.

          As far as he knew, LeBec and Vern were still in good shape, largely ignored by the commandant as he now worked on breaking Danko.  Farrell was better than expected, the burn less serious than Vern had first thought.  Danko smiled to himself.  Johnny was headed for an academy award one way or another.  The story had worked, and the commandant had moved Danko to the house for 'further interrogation,' to confirm Farrell's story.

          Danko bit back a moan as he forced himself to sit up on the narrow bunk hanging from the wall of his cell.  He shivered as his gaze passed over the door to the interrogation room.  At least he had found General Safford, who lay in the adjoining cell.  The British General had shown no evidence of recognition when they dragged Danko in, and it took him a few moments to realized why.  Safford was drugged.

          Danko leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and watched the Englishman snore.  By now, Cutter and the rest should have created enough harassment for the commandant to send part of his troops to help the garrison commander.  Their man on the inside would bring Danko the key to his cell at midnight.

          The resistance fighters would free the Dozen in the stables at 0200.  Cutter and the rest of the commandos would then neutralize the house while Danko freed Safford.  Four hours, that all they had to wait, just four more hours.

          Danko sighed.  A hell of a lot can happen in an hour.

 

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

 

          Catha napped but the dreams kept returning.  Danko was in trouble, she didn't understand what the threat was, but she knew she had to find him soon or he'd die.

          There!  He was being interrogated!  She had to free him…

          Moving through red-painted halls, Germans emerged out of the stones.  The long scarlet gown she wore swirled around her ankles slowing her down further.  She tried to push through the growing crowd of German soldiers, but they simply laughed at her and reached out to touch her.

          Catha woke with a gasp, the hand over her mouth was real.

          It was Von Bonn.

          "Silence."

          He moved away to light the candles that sat on the nightstand in a large silver candelabra.  She watched him as he turned to face her again, his eyes burning more brightly than the flames.

          "Stand up."

          Catha swung out of the bed, the long nightgown whispering along the silk sheets.  She stood and waited as the burning eyes touched her with their glances.  A chill crept down her back, settling in the pit of her stomach.

          Danko was right, this one might get rough.

          Von Bonn stepped forward and traced a fingertip down the line of her jaw, the other hand rising to softly cup one of her breasts.

          "Take it off."

          Von Bonn recoiled, shaking with rage.  Blood rolled down his face and onto the white shirt he wore, the pain nearly overwhelming him.  He would be scarred for the rest of his life.

          Catha spit out the flesh she had bitten off the commandant's face.  Shit, I should've killed him, or gone along, she thought, too late.

          He slapped her, the force of the blow causing bright spots of light to explode in front of her eyes.  He hit her again, this time with his fist.  She was able to get one arm up in time to deflect the blow, but his rage only grew and the blows continued to fall, one after another.  Some she blocked, others she did not.

 

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

 

          Danko came awake in his cell.  He knew Catha was in danger.  He didn't know how, or why, but deep in his gut he felt the fear and the hatred.  He felt the pain.

 

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

 

          The thin layers of the nightgown parted under the force of the man's mad tearing, the pieces falling silently as feathers onto the thick carpet.  Catha forced herself not to lose consciousness.  She would not give him the pleasure of taking her without a fight.

          Blood from the wound on his face splattered onto her bare breasts as he jerked his shirt off and wound it in his hands, holding it out in front of her eyes as he straddled her now naked thighs.

          "I should kill you," he hissed.  "Wrap this around your throat and choke the life from you!  But that would be too quick!"  He threw the shirt into her face.

          She reached up and yanked it off, flinging it back at him with one hand while she raised the second to strike at his neck.  The initial blows had left her disoriented and the blow caught the man in the jaw, snapping his head back, but not displacing him from where he sat on top of her.

          A snarl tore from his throat as he shoved his fist into her stomach.  Catha gasped for breath, trying to fill her lungs, while at the same time she felt the food and bile rising.  She coughed and choked, rolling onto her side as he lunged off her.

 

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

 

          Danko, gripped the bars of his cell, squeezing as tightly as he could.  The panic was replaced with anger, a burning, animal anger.  There was more pain.  He fought back the frustration that rose in his throat.

          Safford snored peacefully in his cell.

 

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

 

          Catha lay still, her eyes closed as she feigned unconsciousness and took stock of her situation.  She had a mild concussion, one of her wrists was sprained, and several of her ribs were bruised.  At least the commandant had not followed though on his intended rape.

          The door opened and the German strode in, followed by two of the guards.  "Come back for more?" she asked.

          He touched the bandage now on his cheek.  "Much more."

 

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

 

          Sounds coming from the interrogation chamber interrupted Danko's fitful napping, and he stood, straining to hear.

          Someone was being strapped down on the table.  He shivered, knowing well some of the things that could happen there.

          The second door to the cells opened and a guard stepped in.  He glanced at the General, then at Danko.  Stepping forward he leveled his gun at the Lieutenant, shoving it in between the bars.  "Your hand," he said in thickly accented English.

          Danko stuck out his hand and the man lowered the barrel of the rifle so it touched the open palm.  When he pulled it away a key rested there.  The guard jerked the rifle out and spun, leaving without a word.  The leader of the Dirty Dozen took a breath and closed his fist on the key as the first scream echoed from the chamber.  It was a woman.

          The screams died away while Danko prowled his cell, fighting the impulse to storm into the chamber and get himself killed.  Safford still snored peacefully in the adjoining cell.  Two more hours, the Lieutenant thought, two more hours and I'll have the pleasure of putting a bullet right between your eyes, commandant.

 

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

 

          Catha lay on the table, trying to draw herself back into a centered position.  The pain was fading, but the hatred was burning as fierce as ever.  The commandant had no intention of killing her, he simply wanted to see her scream.

          Animal, she hissed to herself.  My mistake was not killing you to begin with, yours was not killing me when you had the chance.  The face of the old clock seemed to smile back at her.  Two more hours and I won't have to hate any longer.

          She shifted to a more comfortable position, trying to relax her body while she thought about what had happened.  Somehow in the middle of the session Catha had become aware of Danko in the next room.  She could feel his anger, his hatred, almost as real as her own.

          The lieutenant knew she was in pain but he was helpless to stop it and the frustration threatened to overwhelm Catha and she forced his feelings back, trying to remain objective, detached from what was going on.

          She reached out for him now and felt a distant concern.  The rising anxiousness of the prison break was there as well.  Catha tried to touch him with a sense that she was all right but she wasn't able to get through.  Damn, Danko, you're as stubborn as they come.

 

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

 

0200: Von Bonn-Ansbach Prison stables

 

          The two Germans leaned against the side of the stable.  One yawned, the other set his gun down to fish a pack of cigarettes out of his coat pocket, fumbling in the thick gloves he wore as protection from the cold.

          Now, Cutter motioned, and Feke and Leeds moved in.  They each grabbed one of the men, expertly paring their throats with a single draw of the hunting knives the Dozen favored.  They lowered the corpses silently to the ground.

          Cutter lead Roy and three resistance fighters into the stable.  They opened the stalls.

          "Where's the Lieutenant?" Cutter questioned when all the doors were standing open.

          "He, Catha and Peal are still up at the house as far as we know," LeBec responded while he accepted the weapons Feke held out for him.  The other captured Dozen followed his example.

          "What the hell are Peal and Catha doing up there?"

          "We don't know," Farrell said.  "They took Catha and Peal first.  I didn't see them.  The Lieutenant went next.  Catha and Peal didn't come back."

          "Dead?" Leeds asked.

          Farrell shrugged, shaking his head.  It was anybody's guess.

          "Well, we follow the plan like it was laid it out, down to the letter," Cutter said.  "Then we'll decide when to improvise."

 

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

 

          Danko moved to the door of the cell and slipped the key into the lock.  It turned silently and he thanked German efficiency for having cleaned and oiled the rusted apparatus.  He moved to Safford's cell and did the same.  Entering, he grabbed the General and lifted him into a seated position.

          Several rough shakes and a slap on the face brought the man into a groggy state of semi-consciousness.  "Come on, General," Danko whispered, arranging the man across his shoulders.  "It's time to go home, sir."

          "Quite, yes, quite," the man mumbled.

          Danko shook his head, flinching slightly as the first explosion rocked the house.

 

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

 

          "Move!" Cutter yelled over the roar of the blast.  The Dozen and the resistance fighters moved off into the eerie orange glow that hung over the blackness of the early morning.

 

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

 

          Danko exited the holding cells, running into Cutter and LeBec as they charged down the hall lead by a partisan.

          "Lieutenant?" Cutter questioned, noting the black-and-blue bruises on the man's face.

          "I'm all right.  Catha?"

          "No sign," LeBec said, taking the General.

          "Peal's dead," Danko said.  "Get him to the resistance," he finished, nodding at Safford.  LeBec nodded and disappeared back down the hall.  "We have to find her."

          "The explosives should be set in a couple minutes, Lieutenant—"

          "We have to find her!  I'm not leaving another—"  He stopped mid-sentence. "Come on."

          Cutter followed the man as he worked his way into the central part of the house.  The explosions continued, shattering windows and shaking the paintings off the walls.

 

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

 

          Von Bonn stared at the woman, confusion and anger mixing on his face in an ugly, wild snarl.  "You!  You were a distraction!"

          Catha watched the man carefully.  The two aides in the room with them were clearly frightened by the explosions.  The house shuddered again as another blast echoed in the still early morning air.  By now Danko should have taken Safford out to the resistance.  The Dozen and the French were setting more explosives while others created this diversion.  By 0215 the d'Avyron-Ecosse estate would be reduced to a stack of twisted, charred wood, and Von Bonn and herself right along with it.

          "Who is it?" he screamed at her.

          Jerking back his arm, he slapped her, the blow lifting Catha from the chair and slamming her to the floor where she lay, unconsciousness.

 

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

 

          Cutter and Danko prowled through the house, listening for any clue that might lead them to Von Bonn.  It was the sound of Catha landing roughly on the floor that caught their attention.

          Danko motioned to the door.  Cutter approached from one side, while the lieutenant inched up along the other.  Pressing his ear against the door, Danko heard the commandant yelling.  He nodded at the Sergeant.

          They kicked the door in.  The two guards dropped the woman as they reached for their weapons, but the two Americans fired first.  Von Bonn brought up the Luger he held, shooting Cutter in the arm as he tried to maneuver into a position to kill Danko.

          The lieutenant raised his sidearm, but stopped short as Catha lunged from the floor, one of the guard's Lugers in her hand.

          "Von Bonn!" she yelled.  The commandant stopped, turning to look at the woman.  "You bastard!"  She centered the gun on his chest and fired.

          The man staggered back, his free hand trying to hold back the stream of blood that cascaded out of his chest.  Raising his weapon, he fired, the shot going wide as Catha fired again, this time catching the man in the face.  He fell, dead.

          "Let's move," Cutter said through gritted teeth.  "It's gonna blow!"

          The threesome charged silently through the building, exiting a side door just as the dynamite began to explode, setting up a chain reaction that leveled the structure.  Diving into one of the well-tended flower beds, they covered their ears and waited for the world to cease tearing itself apart.

 

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

 

          "Lieutenant?"  It was LeBec.  "Come on, sir, we have to get out of here.  The garrison troops are on the way."

          Danko felt himself being helped to his feet, arms supporting him on each side as he moved off.  LeBec and Feke.  The lieutenant shook his head to clear away the ringing and blurred vision, but the motion only sent shock waves of pain rolling from temple to temple, causing his knees to buckle.

          "Easy, sir," LeBec said, tightening his grip.

          "Catha.  Cutter?" Danko asked, but he never heard the reply.

 

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

 

0330: Vaurouleurs resistance headquarters

 

          "Lieutenant?"

          Danko opened his eyes, squinting against the meager glare the coal-oil lamp cast across the cellar.

          "That is much better," the French-accented voice continued.

          "Hey, LeBec," a man's voice called.  Leeds.

          The Cajun's face appeared before Danko.  "LeBec?"

          "Hi, Lieutenant," he responded, smiling.  "Just lay quiet.  The doctor thinks it's just a mild concussion from the explosion, but you're going to have a helluva headache for a day or two."

          Danko thought about nodding, but decided against the unnecessary activity.  "Catha and Cutter?"

          "The Sergeant was shot, but he'll be fine, just an arm wound.  Catha's not so good.  The commandant beat her up pretty bad. . ."  He trailed off, not wanting to upset the man.

          "And?" Danko prompted.

          "He thinks she'll be okay, but we can't move her right now.  We'll have to leave her here for now."

          "No!" Danko ordered, trying to sit up in the narrow bed.  A flash of pain and bright lights inside his head forced him back down before the Cajun could.

          "There's no choice, Lieutenant.  The resistance has our trip out arranged for tonight."

          Danko pressed his lips together.  Taking out his anger on the Creole was pointless.  It wasn't his fault.

 

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

 

          The plane vibrated as it climbed into the black night sky and turned for England.  Danko leaned back against the side of the craft and surveyed his men.  Cutter's arm was in a sling, the bullet having passed cleanly through the fleshy part of his bicep.  Feke's graze was clear of infection, as was Farrell's burn.  Roy and Vern were unscathed.  LeBec and Leeds were bruised but still healthy.  Three men were dead.  And Catha.

          The anger at having left her swelled again, and Danko forced it down.  All in all it was a very successful mission.  Safford was on his way back in London, and recuperation in a military hospital.  They would all recover in a few weeks.

          But Catha… She'll be back as soon as she can travel, he told himself sternly.  There's nothing else to do.  He'd done this before, twice.  Michelle was lost and Roy had made his way back to them when he recuperated.  Catha would find her way home, too.

          Still, as he sat and watched his men, Danko couldn't erase the fears.  Catha being captured, tortured, trying to escape but being turned back, forced to prostitute herself to a German…  No!  Catha isn't Michelle.  They both did what they had to!  Who the hell am I to judge them?

          He closed his eyes and allowed the steady vibration from the plane's motors to drone through him.

          Michelle would be fine.  She would survive this madness just as Danko would. He didn't know how he knew that, but he did.

          When it's over I'll take her and Jean-Pierre to the states.  I'll marry her.  We'll forget…  No, we won't ever forget.  We won't get married.  Her people will need her more after the war.  And I'll go where the Army sends me.  But maybe we can forgive each other, ourselves.  Maybe we can both make lives for ourselves at the end of this nightmare.

          Why couldn't she have gotten through?

          Fate.

          Like Catha…

          No, not like Catha.  She was a very different woman.  Michelle was strong.  She was a leader for her people, but she was bound to her people, to the land, the heritage. Catha was not bound.  Like him, she was essentially rootless.  Yes, Catha was a different kind of woman, also strong, a leader, but driven by a different past.

          She'll be back.  How the hell do I know what you're thinking?  Feeling?  How do you know that about me?  Danko shook his head.

          My friend.  Get well, and come home, Catha.  We need you.  I need you.  Danko let the tenseness that knotted his muscles slip away, washed out with the motor drone and sleep.

 

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

 

Two Weeks Later, 1630: Glouchester Training Camp

 

          There was a light knock on the office door.  "In," Danko said.

          "Sergeant Cutter called from the checkpoint.  We have guests on the way," Leeds said, adding a hasty, "Sir."

          Danko stood.  "Who?"

          Leeds shrugged.

          The officer made his way out and walked through the bay.  The rest of the Dirty Dozen continued with their various activities, most of which revolved around a fairly intense poker game occurring around the central table.  Danko shook his head and continued out to see who was arriving.

          Leeds sauntered into the bay, leaned against the wall and smiled smugly.  The rest of the Dozen abandoned their game, rapidly exiting the building through the back door.

 

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

 

          Danko paced under the covered porch and stared through the rain.  General Worth had warned him there would be more men out to take statements from the Dozen concerning the mission.  London G-2 still wasn't comfortable with the possible secrets Safford might have given away under the influence of drugs.

          Folding his arms across his chest, Danko waited for several minutes before he frowned and turned back to the bay.

          "Leeds!" he yelled as he entered.  It echoed in the empty room.  "What the hell," he muttered.  The rumble of an approaching truck stopped the lieutenant from a further search.

          Exiting for a second time he saw Cutter swing down from the passenger side of a troop truck.  "Sergeant!" he called.  Cutter turned and saluted.  Danko returned the gesture.  "What's this?"

          "The new replacements, sir," Cutter explained.  "We're four bodies short of a dozen."

          "I'm aware of that fact, Sergeant.  Why wasn't I informed of this earlier?"

          "General Worth told me to pick these men up when he saw me picking up supplies, sir," the M.P. explained.

          "Four?"

          "Yes, sir."

          "We're only three short, Sergeant," Danko snapped, angry that General Worth had written Catha off.  Just because they hadn't heard anything from Vaurcouleurs.  Face facts, Danko, he scolded himself.  No word.  We have other missions.

          "Well, get them in here out of the rain, and then find the rest of these misfits."

          "Yes, sir."

          Cutter walked to the back of the truck with Danko.  "Everybody out!" the Sergeant yelled.

          The first man was short and stocky – an Italian.  He saluted Danko when he stepped down into the mud, then sidestepped to stand under the overhang.  "Tony deAngelo," Cutter said, reading from the clipboard he held.  "Sharpshooter and second- story man."

          "Oh," Danko said, watching the man smile proudly.  "This should be interesting."

          A younger, red-haired boy leaped down next and scrambled for cover.  "JoeBob Murtry.  Clerk, communications… and pickpocket."

          "Wonderful.  Issue locks to all the men, Sergeant."

          The third man was older, blond, and well-muscled.  "Harvard McCullen," Cutter read.  "Weapons expert, boxer, and German speaker."

          "What?  No criminal specialty?" Danko asked drily.

          "There ain't a safe made that I can't get into, Lieutenant," the blond stated matter-of-factly.

          "Yeah, but you're not too good at makin' it out of offices, are you, boy," Cutter said.

          "Issue double locks, Sergeant."

          A chorus of chuckles caught Danko's attention and he turned to find the rest of the Dozen standing beneath the overhang, their uniforms tucked in, and looking as close to regulation as he could remember since their adventure as officers.

          "Is there a reason for all this?" Danko asked, looking at the closest man.

          Leeds shrugged.

          "LeBec, you care to explain?"

          "Uh, well, we just wanted to make a good impression on the new men," he said.

          Danko nodded.  "Make a good impression on the new men…  Let me get this straight.  You wanted to make a good impression on other cut-throats and petty criminals?"

          "Yes, sir," LeBec said, then smiled.

          Danko shook his head.  The war was getting to them.  It was time to talk to General Worth about another quiet weekend in the country.

          Danko turned back to the truck.  The final man stood in the darkness, only a tall silhouette.  "Come on," Danko commanded.  "Let's see if you were worth dressing up for."

          The figure jumped out, landing in the mud with a splash that soaked the lieutenant's trousers from the knees down.  Danko watched a dollop of the brown-gray ooze slide over his polished shoes.  He sighed.

          "Sorry about that.  I never could pass up a good puddle."  The soldier reached up, pushing the hat off her forehead.

          "Catha?"

          The Dozen released a whoop loud enough to cause Danko to jump slightly.  The woman stepped up under the overhang, a huge smile on her damp face.  Danko stood, momentarily speechless, then he turned on the collected men.

          "You knew about this?"

          They nodded in unison.

          "How?"

          "Uh, Lieutenant," Cutter interrupted as he moved under the protection of the overhang as well.  "I called ahead and told them, sir."

          "You?" Danko questioned.

          "Yes, sir."

          "I asked Sergeant Cutter not to tell you.  I thought you'd like a surprise," Catha admitted, hoping she hadn't misread Danko.

          Danko tried to look as angry as possible while the rest of the Dozen crowded around the woman to welcome her back with hugs and respectful passes.  When the commotion died down he smiled at the woman.

          "Are you all right?"

          "The doc gave me a clean bill of health."

          "That's not what I meant."

          "I'm fine, Lieutenant."

          He nodded.  "Well, then, why don't we go in out of the rain and have ourselves a drink."

          The Dozen cheered, the newbies collecting various handshakes and pats on the back as they entered with the rest.

          Catha held back until only she and Danko were standing on the porch.  "You're sure?" he questioned her.

          Catha nodded.  "It was rough," she admitted, "but it's a war, isn't it."  Danko put his arm around her shoulder and gave her a slight squeeze.  "How about you?" she asked softly.

          "Oh, I'll survive."

          "That's the first step, Lieutenant."

          Danko smiled.  "Yeah, I guess it is."

The End