The Devil's Walk Raid
Danko stifled a yawn. If his superior guessed how bored he was, it could result in a particularly nasty assignment. Although, the summons that had brought him to Allied Headquarters already pointed to that possibility. Why did it have to take the General so long to get to the details? The muscles in Danko's jaw twitched as he swallowed another yawn.
"Enough about that," Worth said, pulling a folder from the stack on the corner of his desk. "I'm sure you're more interested in learning the particulars of your next assignment, than you are about the dinner last night."
"Yes, sir." Suddenly realizing that his reply was far from diplomatic, Danko stuttered, "I mean, your story was very interesting, sir."
"Relax, Lieutenant," Worth advised with a bemused smile. Laying a picture on his desk, he continued, "This is Captain Hans Dietrich of the German Afrika Korp. In his office in El Agheila is a safe containing a map that shows the exact location of every enemy fuel cache in that sector of North Africa."
Danko picked up the picture and studied the intelligent face. "You want us to steal this map?"
"No," Worth corrected, "we want you to photography it and put it back without the Germans ever knowing you got the information. It will give the allies time to raid the depots before they can be moved."
"Right." Danko didn't even flinch at the task that had been handed to him. His Dirty Dozen had tackled more difficult missions in the past. "Leeds will want all the information you have concerning the safe."
"It's an advanced model. Too complicated for Leeds," the General asserted. "That's why I'm assigning another man to the unit."
"Some of the men might consider a thirteenth man bad luck, Sir."
"They'll get over it." Worth unsympathetically stated, placing another photograph on the desk. "This is Lieutenant John Miller. He's an expert when it comes to the type of safe you'll find in Dietrich's office."
"How did he become so proficient?" Danko suspiciously asked.
"He worked as a locksmith in the factory that manufactures them."
"Lucky for him."
"No, lucky for us." Worth shook a finger at his subordinate, "Miller is not one of your cons. Try to treat him with a little respect."
"I'm not the one you need to worry about," Danko warned, anticipating his men's reaction to the newcomer.
Hitch parked the jeep under a camouflage net. Finally back behind their own lines, Troy allowed himself to relax. It'd been a rough mission. A little R & R would be welcome - though a shower would be even more appreciated. Desert sand wasn't really sand at all, but a fine gritty dust that filtered its way into every nook and cranny of his body. The skin between his toes had been rubbed raw by the abrasive substance. As had other parts of his body.
Troy slowly turned his head and let his blood-shot gaze rest on the pale, pimply face of a private. The boy was so young it hurt to look upon such innocence. Troy buried the desire to keep his identity hidden and acknowledged, "I'm Troy."
"Colonel Wilson would like to see you on the double, Sir." The boy came to attention and saluted.
"I'll be there as soon as we get situated here, Private," Troy said, stiffly climbing from the jeep.
The boy nervously licked his lips, "The Colonel did say right away, Sir."
"I'm a sergeant, son," Troy said, pointing to the strips on his sleeve. "You don't call me sir."
"Yes, sir . . . er . . . Sergeant," the boy stuttered.
Taking pity on the young private, Troy directed, "Hitch, you and Tully get the jeeps refitted and stocked. I have a feeling we're going to be waiting a while longer for that R & R we were promised."
"Right, Sarge," Hitch wearily agreed.
While he waited for Moffitt to join him, Troy compared the young messenger to his driver. Though probably around the same age, Hitch looked much older. These past few months in the desert had stolen his youth. The realization made Troy sad. Ulysses S. Grant had been right. War was hell.
It was a short walk to Wilson's headquarters, for which Troy was grateful. The sooner he got this meeting behind him, the sooner he could get a shower.
Once inside the adobe building that served as Allied Headquarters in this sector, he stopped and took a deep breath. The cooler air felt good inside lungs accustomed to being scorched by the searing heat of the desert.
A hand on his arm urged Troy forward. There were times when he actively disliked the British sense of duty that had been instilled in Jack Moffitt. Brief pleasures often became even briefer.
Climbing the stairs, Troy entered the first room on his right with a deference he didn't show many officers. It was pure luck that he'd been assigned a superior he could respect. He was well aware that he would probably be languishing in the stockade under any other commander.
"Welcome back, Troy." Rising from behind his desk, Wilson held out his hand, first to one man, then the other, "Moffitt. Congratulations on another successful mission."
"It was a tough one, Sir," Troy revealed, hoping to subtly inform his superior that they needed R & R - badly.
"Troy and Hitch very nearly bought it," Moffitt elaborated.
"I know where you're both going with this." Wilson sighed, before dropping wearily into his chair. "But, my hands are tied. I'm afraid I'm going to have to revoke your passes, again."
Hoping his disappointment didn't show, Troy said, "Yes, Sir. What's the mission?"
"Late last night, a special unit made up of thirteen men was deposited on the beach near El Agheila," Wilson explained. Turning to the map that stretched across the wall behind him, he pointed to the coastal town. "Their assignment is to break into Dietrich's headquarters and photograph a map detailing the German underground fuel depots without the Germans knowing they've done it."
"And our mission?" Troy suspiciously probed.
"Storms in the Mediterranean have made it impossible for the submarine that dropped them off to return. Your mission is to rendezvous with Lieutenant Danko and . . ."
"Colonel," Troy interrupted, shaking his head, "we can't possibly carry seventeen men back to our lines in two jeeps."
Wilson quietly revealed, "You won't have to. We're only interested in these men."
Three photographs were laid on the desk. One showed a man with brown curly hair. A sprinkling of gray around the ears showed him to be older than Troy first suspected. The second picture was of a classically handsome man with blond hair. The only mark on the perfect features was a scar that started at his right temple and ran into the hairline above his eye. The third man looked like a drill sergeant Troy had been assigned to in basic training.
"This is Lieutenant Danko," Wilson said, laying a finger on the first picture. "This is Lieutenant Miller," the Colonel tapped the second picture before resting his finger on the last photo, "and this is Sergeant Carter. These are the only men we're interested in getting out."
"You expect us to abandon ten men in the desert?" Moffitt demanded, losing a bit of his normal civility.
Dropping his eyes, Wilson nodded, "That's exactly what Command expects."
"Do those men know they've been sent on a suicide mission?" Troy quietly pressed, contempt clearly visible on his face.
"Those men are convicts, Sergeant," Wilson defensively snapped. "They're murders and rapists. They're lucky the Army gave them a second chance."
"Real lucky," Troy sarcastically agreed.
Wilson slapped the desk with his hand, "It's not our job to debate orders from the top, Sergeant. It's our job to obey them."
"Do these men know they're to be abandoned?"
"I very much doubt it."
"Don't you think we'll have a bit of a problem when they realize what's going on? I'm assuming they will be armed."
"Sergeant," Wilson gently massaged his temples, "you and your men have held off the entire German Afrika Korp for months. I hardly think you'll have trouble controlling ten poorly trained convicts."
Conceding defeat, Troy kept his doubts to himself. It was impossible to believe that poorly trained soldiers of any designation could complete the mission they'd been assigned. They either had an exceptional leader, or they were better prepared than anyone here suspected. Either scenario spelled trouble, and as usual, it was headed straight for him and his men.
Moonlight streamed through gaps that had once been windows. The table in the center of the room was still set for a dinner that was never meant to be. The food in the pots had spoiled long ago. Mold made the contents unidentifiable.
Miller drummed his fingers, studiously ignoring the disgusted looks from his companions. A hand, almost twice the size of his own, wrapped around the annoying digits, instantly quieting them.
"Easy, Vern," Leeds facetiously warned. "Don't break the golden egg."
Miller suppressed a sigh of relief as his hand was released. He resisted the urge to vent his anger. He wasn't sure that these men were entirely sane. He'd looked into their eyes and he knew that none of them would hesitate to kill him. Yet, his main concern, for other reasons, was Leeds. This was the only person who could ruin his plan.
Two bodies slithered through the partially blocked entrance and approached the group. Miller tensed, were they friend or foe? None of the cons seemed concerned.
"How's it look, Lieutenant?" LeBec asked.
One of the shadows walked into a ribbon of moonlight. Crouching, so he would be on the same level as his men, Danko decided, "We're not going to wait for morning. We're going in now."
"It's not time yet," Miller protested.
The tone of his voice making it clear who was in charge, Danko said, "It's time when I say it's time."
"You said yourself we should wait until dawn when everyone's asleep," Miller argued. "Now, it's too early. Some of the guards will just be coming in from a night on the town."
"I'm sure this town has a lot to offer," Leeds sarcastically observed.
"I've changed my mind," Danko stiffly replied, ignoring Leeds comment. "I'm in charge. I can do that."
Blushing, more from the amused expression on the faces on the other men, than from the dressing down he'd just gotten, Miller objected, "But your original plan made perfect sense."
"I don't have to explain my reasons," Danko growled. "Everyone take your positions. We're going in."
"Don't worry about a thing, Sir," Cutter encouraged, laying a hand on Miller's shoulder, "the Lieutenant hasn't been wrong, yet."
"There will be one change in the previous assignment," Danko softly announced, regaining his men's attention. "Leeds, you'll be going in with Mme, Feke and Miller."
"Sure, Lieutenant," Leeds readily agreed.
Rising, Miller straightened the uniform of the Afrika Korp tank commander that would allow him to enter German Headquarters unchallenged. He was furious, but he couldn't let his anger show. He dared not do anything that might make them suspicious.
In ones and twos, the men melted into the darkness. Each had an assigned position and task. If everything went according to plan, their presence would be superfluous. However, if the alarm was sounded, they could be the difference between success and failure.
Miller's eyes searched the shadows as he followed the confident men through the dark streets of the small Arabian village. What was he suppose to do now?
"What're you looking for?" Leeds whispered.
"The enemy, you idiot," Miller disdainfully replied.
"We're in occupied territory, Lieutenant," Leeds mockingly reminded him. "Everyone's the enemy. If you remember that, you might get out of this alive."
Their first challenge came a few minutes later at the main entrance to the building the Germans had appropriated for their command post. The sleepy-eyed guard was no match for Feke's strident tongue. By the time the handsome Hungarian was through with him, the private was ready - and willing - to lick the Major's boots.
Knowing that they were too early, Miller reluctantly followed the other men through the dim corridors and up the stairs. The few soldiers they encountered merely saluted before sleepily going on their way. Not one challenged their right to be there.
Dietrich's office was deserted, much to Miller's relief. Still, there was one major obstacle ahead - the safe. He would have to fake it if his plan was to be successful.
"Feke, guard the door," Danko ordered, crossing to the safe. "All right, Miller, you're on."
Moving as slowly as he could, Miller joined Danko. Kneeling, he pushed down on the handle and pulled.
"It works better if you unlock the door, before you try to open it," Leeds noted.
"What if it wasn't locked?" Miller desperately improvised. "I'd look pretty stupid trying to unlock a safe that's already unlocked."
"Of course," Leeds mocked, "why would the Krauts lock a safe?"
Peeking out the window to the deserted street below, Danko sternly intervened, "Stow it, you two. We've got a job to do."
Disappointed that he couldn't drag the argument out a little longer, Miller bent to his task. Every attempt failed, as he'd known it would. He could feel Danko's displeasure increasing. Sweat beaded on his brow and rolled into his eyes making them sting.
"Leeds, do you think you could crack that thing?" Danko's voice sounded loud in the quiet room.
"It doesn't look all that special to me, Lieutenant."
"Miller, move aside, let Leeds have a try."
"This is my job," Miller protested.
Grabbing his arm, Danko physically pulled him away from the safe. "You're not doing it very well."
"I just need more time."
"That's a luxury we don't have."
A loud click echoed around the room, ending the argument.
"Is this what your looking for, Lieutenant?" Leeds asked, handing Danko a folded document.
Shaking his head in amazement, Danko carried the paper over to the desk. Switching on the work light, he took out a small camera and started taking pictures of the map, section by section.
Miller was scared now. He didn't know what to do. Wishing he could run, but afraid to try, he let his angry gaze rest on Leeds. Rummaging through the safe, the counterfeiter pulled out another map. Opening it, he studied it for a few minutes. More nervous than ever, Miller sarcastically suggested, "Why don't you just put in a note saying Kilroy was here. You think the Germans won't notice that someone's been rifling their safe?"
"No, they won't," Leeds confidently replied. "Unlike someone I could mention, I know what I'm doing."
"You're endangering the entire mission," Miller argued.
"He's right, Leeds," Danko agreed, as he snapped another picture. "Leave it."
"But Lieutenant," Leeds protested, indicating the map in his hand, "I think this could be important."
"We've got what we want, now leave it."
Miller triumphantly stared down at Leeds. What he saw in the dark eyes made him shiver. He'd never seen hate so audibly expressed - without a word being spoken.
"I'm done," Danko announced, carefully folding the map and handing it back to Leeds. "Let's get the hell out of here."
The four men stepped out into the dim hallway. They'd taken only a few steps when they were challenged.
"Halt! Who are you? What were you doing in Captain Dietrich's office?"
"I'm an old friend of Hans," Feke easily lied. "I was hoping to surprise him. Instead, I'm the one who got surprised. He isn't in."
"The Captain went off duty several hours ago."
"Then it makes sense that he wouldn't be in his office. Do you know where I might find him?"
"I believe he's making an unannouced inspection of the perimeter guards, Major," the young Lieutenant explained. "If you care to wait, I'll send for him."
Feke looked at his watch, before shaking his head, "I'm afraid we don't have time. I'll have to catch him another time."
"Who should I say called, Sir?"
"Major Mueller," Miller quickly replied, ignoring Feke's and Danko's angry eyes. "Tell him, we hope to see him soon."
"Yes, Sir." The Lieutenant, flung up his arm, "Heil Hitler."
"Heil Hitler," Miller quickly returned.
When the others turned to go, Miller didn't move. Maybe they wouldn't notice he was gone until it was too late? A hand on his arm dashed his hopes. He didn't need to look to know that it was Leeds, who was pushing him down the hall. Was his secret out? Would there be no escape for him? He would have to bide his time. He wasn't scared. He knew something they didn't.
Troy stared into the darkness hoping to will the special unit to appear. It would be dawn soon. That could mean another twelve hours of heat and boredom beneath their camouflage nets waiting for the shadows to hide their escape. Nerves already tingling from too much adrenalin would overload.
A noise echoed through the night, alerting Troy to the presence of intruders. He listened carefully and decided that it had come from approximately a mile away and to his left. Sound traveled in the desert air. Troy had counted on this, and Danko's ignorance of it, to help them locate the undercover team once they left the village.
Sliding down the dune, Troy woke his men. Without a word, they each grabbed a machine gun and followed his lead.
Though it was a cool night, Troy found himself sweating and out of breath before they'd covered half the distance to their target. He considered himself in good condition, but it was difficult to walk quickly across the desert sand. No matter how tightly he laced his boots, the dust filtered in, making his feet feel like they were lifting twenty pound weights.
When they were only a few feet from the special unit, Troy motioned to Hitch and Tully, sending them around to the rear. Counting to himself, he waited until he was sure they were in position before revealing his presence, "Lieutenant Danko?"
The voice was soft and low without a trace of shock or surprise. A three dimensional copy of the picture Troy had studied in Wilson's office, stepped into the moonlight. Features that he had thought too sharp were softened by the pale light - or exhaustion. Probably, Troy decided, a combination of both. "We're your ride home, Lieutenant."
"Am I glad to see you," Danko sighed. "Two of my men are in need of medical attention. Sergeant Cutter broke his ankle and Vern is ill. We're not sure if he was bitten by an insect or if it's something he ate. None of us have any desert experience."
This was the moment Troy had been dreading. Taking a firm grip on his weapon, he said, "You don't understand, Lieutenant. My orders are to bring back yourself, the Sergeant and Lieutenant Miller.'
"What about the rest of us?" Farrell demanded.
Troy didn't say anything. Not because he didn't want to, but because he didn't know what to say. How did he tell a man his own government had sold him out?
"I don't care what your orders are," Danko growled. "We all go or none of us do."
"Even if we wanted to, we couldn't take everyone," Troy explained. "We have two jeeps. With the distance we have to cover, they're only capable of carrying four men each."
Sitting down in the soft sand, Feke shook his head, "That sounds like the Army. Figure out how much transportation you need, then cut it in half."
"It looks like we have two choices," Leeds said, sitting next to the Hungarian. "We can die in the desert or be shot as spies by the Germans. Some future."
"No one is being left behind," Danko angrily argued.
Miller crossed to Danko's side, "The Sergeant has his orders. Clearly there isn't room for all of us."
"Shut-up, Miller." Danko took the camera from his pocket and handed it to Troy. "This is what you really came for."
"Not according to the orders I received," Troy disagreed.
Danko's eyes rested briefly on each of his men. "I'm giving you new orders, Sergeant. You and your men are to get that film back to headquarters."
"There's only two of them," Novak threateningly growled. "Why don't we just jump 'em and take the jeeps?"
This was the type of response Troy had been anticipating ever since he'd heard the unit was made up of convicts. It was why he'd sent Hitch and Tully to the rear with orders to remain hidden unless they were needed. The distinctive sound of machine gun bolts being pulled back revealed their presence.
Leeds insolently regarded the two privates, "I think you need to learn to count, Novak."
"It's all right, Sergeant," Danko soothed. "You have what you came for. I suggest you be on your way. If you have some water to spare, we'd appreciate it."
"You're not going to try to cross the desert on your own?" Moffitt protested.
"As Leeds pointed out, we only have two options. We can't risk capture. One of us might reveal the details of our mission. Our only choice is to make it back to our lines - or die."
To Troy's surprise, the only person to argue with Danko's decision was Miller. Even Novak had apparently accepted his fate. These convicts were not reacting the way he'd anticipated. They seemed to be more worried about the mission than they were about themselves. When command decided that the cons were expendable, Troy wondered if they had realized that they were leaving a door open that could ruin their plans? Abandoned by their superiors, why wouldn't the bitter men spill the beans? They owed no loyalty to a government that placed them on a sacrificial alter.
Troy handed the camera to Moffitt, "Jack, you and Tully take this back to headquarters."
"What're you going to do?" Moffitt asked, reluctantly accepting the camera.
"Get these men back to our lines."
The jeep disappeared into the darkness. Danko watched it go with mixed emotions. Although the rest of the unit was literally going from the frying pan into the fire, at least Cutter and Vern were headed for the medical treatment they required. Danko had ignored Cutter's protests, logically pointing out that his injury made him a liability they couldn't afford under the circumstances. He knew the Sergeant was embarrassed. He'd jumped off walls before without so much as a sprained ankle. Miller, on the other hand, was seething. He felt he should've been in the jeep heading back to allied headquarters instead of Vern. His threats to see Troy, Danko and Moffitt court-martialed for disobeying orders had fallen on deaf ears.
Stowing the last of the supplies they'd scavenged from the other jeep, Troy said, "Let's shake it."
Danko didn't find it in the least bit strange to be taking orders from a Sergeant. If any of them were to survive, it would be due to Troy's knowledge and skills. Only a fool argued with the devil. It was a description Danko wryly admitted, that more aptly suited Miller. Bringing him had been a mistake. He didn't get along with any of the other men. He didn't even try. Danko had expected this when it came to the more experienced men, LeBec, Feke, Farrell, Leeds, Vern and Roy. They'd been together a long time and had formed a bond even they didn't recognize. After watching so many of their compatriots die, they had become insular, unwilling to become close to anyone else. You were stuck with the men you started with, but a soldier on the front line quickly learned that you didn't make any new friends. Not if you wanted to stay sane. Novak, Christianson, Kaites and Powell had understood this and had willingly kept their distance. Yet, not even they had accepted Miller.
Grateful for the pale moon that would light their way for the next few hours, Danko joined Troy. They would walk in front of the jeep searching for anything that might damage the vehicle. If they lost their only form of transportation, it would be disastrous. Taking turns they would each get to ride for a predetermined distance. This would mean fewer rest stops would be necessary. They needed to get as far as possible from the village before the heat of the day forced them to seek cover.
Professional necessity as well as curiosity made Danko ask, "What exactly do you do out here in the desert, Sergeant?"
"Basically, it would seem, much the same type of job you do, Lieutenant," Troy replied. "Only here, we have a few more obstacles to contend with."
"Such as?" Farrelll resentfully demanded.
"Heat, sun, sand and Arabs."
"We do have one thing in common," Danko quietly commented. "Your Krauts are just as deadly as ours."
Miller's eyes bore resentfully into Danko's back. This was the person responsible for all his suffering. Instead of relaxing within the cool confines of Allied Headquarters, he was walking in the middle of a desert. His lips were dry and cracked. He had blisters on his feet that were making him limp, and his flesh felt like it was on fire. It didn't matter that the others were in equal or worse condition. If it wasn't for Danko, he wouldn't be here at all.
"Time to rotate," Troy called, pulling the jeep up behind the hikers and shifting into park. No sooner had he slid out from behind the wheel than Hitch took his place.
"Leeds, Novak, Miller," Danko hoarsely called, "you're up."
Even though he'd had it on his last rotation, Miller quickly claimed the front passenger seat with its soft cushion.
Too tired to complain, Leeds awkwardly climbed into the back.
Though he followed suit, Novak vented his displeasure, "You better hope we never meet in a dark alley, Miller."
"That's Lieutenant to you, Jailbird."
Leeds restrained Novak. "Save your energy. He's not worth it."
They waited in uncomfortable silence for the walkers to get a head start. Even Miller had learned to stay ahead of the jeep, otherwise, sand blew into your face, while exhaust fumes filled your lungs.
Without warning, the jeep shifted into gear throwing the men back into their seats. Miller angrily regarded the young driver, "That was uncalled for, Private."
"On the contrary," Hitch smiled. "It made my day."
Swallowing his rage, Miller stared out at the shimmering sand. He could understand, though not forgive, the lack of discipline among Danko's convicts. But, that he should find it among regular troops such as Troy and Hitchcock was very infuriating. How could an army hope to win a war without discipline?
The sun beat down on his head making it ache. His feet throbbed. Even his blisters had blisters. He couldn't walk another step. Danko wouldn't listen. In half-an-hour, they would force him to relinquish his seat - for a convict! The murderers and rapists were being treated better than he was. Well, no more. He wasn't going to sit passively while Danko killed him.
Glad that he'd retained his sidearm, Miller cautiously unsnapped the cover. With small, economical movements, he slipped the gun from the holster. Flicking the safety off, he turned in his seat, so he could easily cover the other three men. "All right, Hitchcock," he ordered, "turn this thing around."
Hitch's eye rested first on the weapon, before shifting to Miller's face, "Are you crazy?"
"Only in so far as I should've done this hours ago."
His hands in the air, Leeds commented, "You do know that the only thing we're going to find back there is a firing squad?"
"Not all of us." Miller smiled. His euphoria disappeared when Hitch made no move to obey him. "I won't tell you again. Hitchcock, turn around."
Shrugging his shoulders, Hitch shook his head, "What will you do if I don't? Shoot me? That'll get you real far."
"Maybe I can't shoot you," Miller conceded, "but I can shoot him."
Before Hitch could stop him, Miller put a bullet between Novak's eyes. The shot echoed in the clear air drawing Troy and Danko's attention.
Panic gripped Miller making his hand shake. He'd made a bad mistake. His voice quivered, showing his fear, "If this jeep hasn't turned around by the time I count to three, Leeds will be next. I have nothing to lose."
"All right," Hitch quickly agreed. His face ashen, he spun the wheel and stepped on the gas.
Screams of rage followed them. A bullet pinged off the tailgate making them duck. Miller wished he could see the look on Danko's face as they drove away. It would almost be worth braving a few bullets to see. He happily sighed, enjoying his triumph and dared to look in the direction of his salvation.
It was a short-lived victory.
A sharp pain in his wrist made his arm fly up. His finger squeezed the trigger sending a bullet harmlessly into the air. He cringed as his gaze locked with Leeds.
The jeep bounced sending Leeds tumbling onto Novak's body. In control again, Miller leveled his weapon and fired. He didn't have time to see if his wild shot was successful, before a hand grabbed his. Shaken, he realized that Hitchcock wasn't trying to take the weapon, he was trying to push Miller from the jeep. With both hands occupied, Miller fought back with his feet. He heard a satisfying gasp of pain when his boot connected with Hitch's right knee. Raising his foot again, he kicked with all his strength. He didn't need Hitchcock anymore. He was far enough from the other men to be able to stop. He could then take the wheel himself. He just had to get rid of Hitchcock. His foot slipped off the yielding flesh and onto the steering wheel, slipping through an opening, trapping it. Even as pain radiated up his leg, he realized that the speeding vehicle was out of control. For a brief second, he saw his own fear reflected in Hitchcock's eyes. Then, the jeep tilted and he was staring up into the sky and the now empty driver's seat. He only had time to realize he had failed when excruciating pain enveloped him.
As he ran after the jeep, Troy was glad he hadn't relinquished his sidearm as the others had. Sometimes, between the heat and the exhaustion, it had felt like it weighed fifty pounds. Yet, he'd stubbornly kept it strapped to his hip. No matter how friendly they seemed, he just couldn't bring himself to trust these murders and rapists.
The first body they stumbled across was Hitch's. When LeBec kneeled beside the boy, Troy brandished his weapon, "Get away from him."
"He's trying to help, Sergeant," Danko soothed. "LeBec has first-aid training."
"It was your men who got him hurt in the first place, Lieutenant," Troy snapped. Never shifting his eyes from the other man's he knelt down and placed his fingers under Hitch's jaw and felt for the carotid artery. He sighed with relief when he found it throbbing strongly. "You're lucky, Lieutenant. At least your men won't be arrested for another murder."
In a voice that quivered with pain, Hitch whispered, "It was Miller, Sarge. He shot Novak, then I lost control of the jeep when I tried to stop him from shooting Leeds. I'm sorry."
"It's all right," Troy said, in a voice far gentler than the one he'd directed toward Danko. Realizing he'd misjudged the other men, He holstered his gun. His show of trust was meant as an apology. "Where do you hurt, Hitch?"
"My legs mostly."
Troy reluctantly nodded at LeBec giving him permission to examine the boy. He hoped he wouldn't come to regret his decision, but without Moffitt, he was at a loss as to what else he could do.
"The jeep's over here, Lieutenant," Feke's accented voice carried back to them.
Still panting from their long run, Danko called, "I'm on my way."
"You better go check the jeep, Sarge," Hitch said, his voice getting weaker.
"Go ahead," LeBec agreed, "I'll look after him."
Though he saw compassion on the handsome face, Troy was reluctant to trust LeBec. He'd trusted before and look where it got them. On the other hand, the jeep and the supplies it carried, was the difference between living and dying. Without water, none of them would survive.
Troy gently squeezed Hitch's shoulder, "Yell if you need me."
"You know something, Sarge," Hitch stifled a groan, "you worry too much."
A reluctant smile split Troy's lips, "If you'd stop getting hurt, I could stop worrying."
"You got a deal."
Admiring the boy's courage, Troy rose and followed Danko. As soon as he saw the jeep, he knew they were in trouble. It was upside down making it easy to see that the front axle was broken. Danko and his men were trying to right it. By the time he reached them, they'd accomplished their task.
Even without touching them, Troy could see that Miller and Novak were dead. Miller's head flopped on a neck that was obviously broken, while most of the top of Novak's head was missing. Troy looked away taking several deep breaths to try to regain control of his stomach. He thought war had made him immune to the atrocities a gun could inflict on the human body - he'd been wrong.
"Where's Leeds?" Danko demanded, concern for his missing man taking precedent over the two men who were beyond his help. "Spread out. Find him."
Gritting his teeth, Troy kept his eyes averted as he approached the jeep. Starting on the side away from Novak, he pulled out what was left of the supplies. Several of the water jugs had been destroyed, their contents absorbed by the thirsty sand. Most of the rest of the gear was in tack. From now on, they would have to carry everything they would need to survive. Some of the non-essential items would have to be left behind. He was the only one qualified to make that decision.
"I found Leeds," Kaites called, from a few feet to Troy's right.
"Is he alive?" Danko demanded, covering the distance that separated them as quickly as he could.
Troy wasn't altogether sure that this was good news. He'd been thrown from a jeep, he knew how it could damage the human body. The ground here was a lot harder than where he'd landed. His hand rested on the first-aid kit. Making a decision he hoped he wouldn't regret, he picked it up and crossed to the injured man.
"Where's LeBec?" Danko asked, looking around for his man.
"He's with Hitch," Troy said, kneeling next to Leeds.
"Roy," Danko ordered, "go get LeBec. You stay with Hitch."
Trying to remember the things he'd learned from Moffitt, Troy put a bandage over the bullet hole in Leeds left shoulder. Then, as gently as he could, he checked for broken bones. Since Leeds was lying on his back, he paid particular attention to that area. He was experienced enough to know that only Leeds could tell them if there were internal injuries. He had just finished his examination when LeBec joined them. "The only wound I could find was the bullet in his shoulder," Troy told him.
"Leeds always was lucky," LeBec muttered, kneeling next to Troy and making his own inspection.
Not in the least bit insulted the Cajun was repeating what he'd just done, Troy asked, "How's Hitch?"
"His left ankle is broken and his right knee is badly bruised. It's already swollen to twice its size. I had to cut his pant leg to relieve some of the pressure."
"Will he be all right?"
"Will any of us?" LeBec wondered, his eyes gazing across the barren desert.
It was a question that Troy knew he had to answer honestly. "The Arabs call this Devil's Country. Are you ready to walk outta hell?"
Danko shivered as a cool breeze blew across his shoulders. He wasn't sure which was worse, the sun and heat of day, or the bone numbing cold of the night. As tired as he was, he would almost be glad when their rest period was over and it was time to start walking again. At least it would warm him up.
A soft moan reminded him that he was lucky, he didn't have a bullet in his shoulder, or broken bones to contend with. They'd fashioned a stretcher from camouflage netting to carry Hitchcock, and though they were being as careful as exhausted men could be, every step jarred the injured legs. Danko could almost hear the bones grating against each other.
The other stretcher they'd made was being used to carry their water and other supplies. Leeds had insisted there was nothing wrong with his legs. Though weak from loss of blood, he stubbornly continued under his own steam. Each of his comrades took turns acting as his crutch. Except for Miller, Danko knew he had the right to be proud of these men. No one had even suggested that they leave the injured behind. Of course, Danko had to admit, one look at Troy's face would've stopped that idea before it could be verbalized. The Sergeant was fiercely protective of his driver. Strangely, Danko understood the feeling, he had it twelve-fold. He'd lost men - and women - before he'd even learned their names. The others, like Feke, Leeds, LeBec, Vern, Farrell and Roy had been with him from the beginning. He trusted them with more than just his life. He knew, beyond a doubt, that if anything ever happened to him, they would complete the mission. That meant more than any verbal promises of support from anyone else he'd ever served with.
His breathing more or less back to normal, Farrell said, "I don't understand what Miller was trying to do. Why was he heading back to the German lines?"
"He probably decided it was easier to surrender to the Krauts and chance a firing squad than to walk across this desert," Powell surmised. "I'm not so sure he was wrong."
"Don't get any ideas," Danko warned.
His blond hair shining in the moonlight, Powell shook his head, "Don't worry about me, Lieutenant. I just got out of a prison. I have no desire to substitute it with a Kraut prison. I don't like German food."
"You wouldn't have to worry about that," Feke predicted. "They'll probably shoot you as a spy before your first meal."
"Why wasn't Miller worried?" Roy asked.
"The Germans aren't going to shoot one of their own," Leeds said, hitching up the sling that held his left arm immobile.
It took Danko a few minutes to find his voice, "Miller was a German spy?"
All eyes on him, Leeds nervously shifted, "Didn't you know, Lieutenant?"
"If I'd known," Danko growled, "do you think I'd have let him keep a loaded gun?"
"What makes you think Miller was a spy?" Feke demanded, his hatred for Germans visible on his face.
"One thing was obvious, he was no safe cracker," Leeds revealed, "My nephew could've opened that lock. When he tested the door, he was expecting to find it unlocked."
"But it wasn't," Feke reminded him.
"Because we got there early," Danko reminded him. "That's why he was so upset when I pushed the timetable up a couple of hours."
"If he knew what you were after," Troy reflected, "then so did Dietrich."
"Which means that map is fake." Danko's eyes opened wide with horror. "Our guys are going to be walking into a trap."
Troy rose. Flinging a machine gun across his shoulders, he said, "Not if we get back in time to warn them." Bending down he took hold of one end of Hitch's stretcher.
Hitch put his hand on his Sergeant's arm, "You won't make it carrying me. You're going to have to leave me, Sarge."
"It's the only way," Hitch pleaded.
"He's right, Sarge," Leeds softly agreed. "We'll only slow you down."
Troy's gaze shifted between the two men before finally resting on Hitch. "You realize we might not be able to find this wadi again?"
"I know," Hitch nodded.
"I'll stay with them," LeBec offered, taking the first-aid kit from the supply stretcher. "I've got the most training."
Danko sadly regarded the young Cajun, "Didn't you understand what the Sergeant just said? Staying here could be a death sentence."
"I won't leave my patients," LeBec firmly replied.
"I'm not going either, Lieutenant," Roy announced, trying to put as much defiance in his stance as his small stature would allow. "I'm having trouble keeping up now. You'll need to go even faster if you want to stop those attacks."
Danko looked away from the four men he was condemning to death. "Does anyone else feel he can't keep up? If you falter out there," he warned, gesturing out into the vast desert, "we'll have to leave you behind."
Unable to look at the doomed men, Troy lifted a canteen of water off the stretcher. He followed it with a half-dozen cans of food. "All right, let's shake it," he ordered lifting one end of the lightened stretcher.
Quickly lifting the other end, Danko didn't look back as they climbed out of the wadi. He didn't need to. Those four faces would live forever in his memory. He felt like an executioner.
Pushing his Australian bush hat off his face, Troy used his shirt sleeve to wipe the perspiration from his brow. It was a wasted effort. It wouldn't be long before the sweat would roll into his eyes again making them sting. His mouth was dry, but he didn't stop for a drink. There was nothing left. They'd finished the last of the water early that morning. By his calculations, the men they'd left behind would've emptied their jug sometime the day before. He should never have left them. He was the one with the experience in the desert. Why couldn't he have figured out some way to save them?
It had surprised him when Danko's men had offered to sacrifice themselves for each other and the mission. It wasn't what he'd expected from convicts. Miller's abortive escape attempt was more what he'd anticipated. Yet, he hadn't been one of the cons Danko recruited for his Dirty Dozen. He'd been assigned by command.
Kaite's question pulled Troy out of the well of despair the sun and the lack of water had dropped him into. Grateful for the distraction, he looked in the direction the big man was indicating. His spirits rose with the dust cloud Kaite's had noticed. It was to their left and slightly behind them. Was it Krauts, Arabs or one of their own patrols? Even as he snatched up the binoculars, Troy knew it didn't matter. If they didn't receive help soon, they would all die. Where that help came from no longer seemed important. They couldn't stop the attack if they were prisoners, but they also couldn't stop it if they were dead.
He wiped the sweat from his eyes before lifting the binoculars. The dust cloud seemed to come close enough to touch. His free hand unconsciously reached out to do so. The cloud was too dense for him to see what was inside, but he could tell it was heading for enemy lines. If Troy didn't do something soon, they would be out of range. Angling the binoculars, he positioned them so the glass would reflect the sun.
"What're you doing?" Danko demanded, knocking Troy's hand.
"Getting help," Troy mildly explained, raising the binoculars to the sun again.
His swollen lips and tongue making it difficult to talk, Danko asked, "Do you know who they are?"
"They could be Krauts."
"Yeah," Troy agreed, "it could be even worse. It could be Arabs."
"Look at us," Troy waved his hand at the barely conscious men around them. "We're not going to make it. This close to our lines, we have at least a fifty-fifty chance they're friendly."
"To tell you the truth, Lieutenant," Farrell said, dropping his end of the supply stretcher, "I almost think a firing squad would be the lesser of two evils right now."
Feke nodded agreement, "There are worse ways to die."
"It's too late to worry," Powell announced, pointing at the dust cloud. "They saw the signal."
Collapsing onto the sand, Kaites sighed, "It'll be over soon, one way or another."
Troy held his breath as he waited. He had little to worry about in his Army uniform. Though only remnants remained of the clothes the others wore, it was still obvious that they had been German uniforms. Had he just condemned these men to death?
The vehicles stopped a few feet away. A familiar figure wearing a distinctive red beret ran through the lingering dust. Troy had never seen a more beautiful sight in his life.
Showing more emotion than Troy had ever seen from the usually reserved Englishman, Moffitt grabbed him. He was only a second away from giving the exhausted man a hug, when he caught himself. "We didn't really think we'd find you," Moffitt confessed, stepping back in embarrassment and gesturing to the truck and jeep that had become visible. "But, we had to try."
"I'm glad you did," Troy said. Feeling more tired than he'd ever felt in his life, he greedily accepted the canteen Tully handed him. The warm water was the most satisfying drink he'd ever enjoyed. Partially satiated, he admitted, "I'm not sure how much further I could've gone."
"Amen to that," Farrell seconded, drops of water trickling down his chin.
The match-stick in Tully's mouth moved from side to side as he searched the group that had grown noticeably smaller since he'd last seen it. "Where's Hitch?"
"He was hurt. We had to leave him behind," Kaites insensitively revealed.
Hurt by the betrayed look on Tully's face, Troy quickly explained what had happened. When he finished, he tried to read the emotion on his men's faces. Would they condemn him as he was condemning himself?
"Now what do we do?" Tully asked, his eyes meeting Troy's.
"Now," Troy said, relieved to see understanding in the brown eyes, "you're going to take Danko and his men back to headquarters. Moffitt and I'll take the jeep and go find Hitch."
"Troy, you can't," Moffitt protested. "You need medical attention."
"He's right," Danko agreed. "I'll go with Moffitt."
Troy wanted to laugh, but he knew it would hurt too much. "You're in worse shape than I am. Besides, I have more experience in the desert. With Jack, I'll have a better chance of finding them."
"I could help," Danko offered, refusing to capitulate completely.
"There will already be six men in one jeep," Moffitt gently pointed out. "We'll be lucky to make it with that many."
Though he didn't say it, Troy silently finished the sentence, 'If they're all still alive.' Instead, he reminded the older man, "You need to get back to headquarters and warn them. There's still time to call off the attack."
"All right, Sergeant," Danko reluctantly gave in, "you win."
Taking the match-stick from his mouth, Tully laconically observed, "He usually does."
LeBec's eyes burned from staring into the bright sun. There had been nothing to see an hour ago, and there was nothing to see now. Discouraged, he slid down the dune to the bottom of the wadi. Almost blind, he shuffled over to the darkest corner. "How's Leeds?"
"He's getting worse," Roy said, wringing out the cloth he was using to wipe the sweat from the injured man's face.
His voice raw with pain, Hitch asserted, "You're going to have to get that bullet out of his shoulder."
"Right," LeBec mirthlessly laughed. "Twenty hours of first-aid training qualifies me to do major surgery."
"There isn't anyone else who can," Hitch pressed.
"Don't you get it? I could kill him." LeBec's throat tightened making it difficult for him to speak.
"He's dying anyway," Hitch gently pointed out.
"I'm not a doctor."
"Maybe not, but you could be the only chance he has."
As his gaze rested on Leeds, LeBec knew that Hitch was right. Infection had set in. If he didn't get that bullet out, Leeds would only have a few hours at the most. Could he do it? What chance would Leeds have if he did succeed? He didn't have the right instruments. He didn't even have any water.
LeBec closed his eyes, but Leeds pain-twisted face wouldn't disappear. What would his friend want him to do? As he battled with his conscience, a familiar sound echoed down the wadi. "Is that what I think it is?" he urgently demanded.
Slowly rising on an elbow, Hitch tried to shut out his pain so he could concentrate on the dull roar. His voice cracked, as he confirmed, "It's an American jeep."
Momentarily paralyzed with shock, LeBec scrambled up the side of the wadi. His longer legs soon brought him abreast of Roy, then past him. At the top, he stopped to catch his breath and look for the jeep. A dust cloud marked it's position. It was about a half-mile south heading back to the Allied lines.
"They're going the wrong way," Roy cried, grabbing LeBec's sleeve.
"No!" LeBec desperately screamed. Pulling his arm free, he stumbled after the disappearing vehicle. "We're here! Don't leave us!"
A rifle shot reverberated through the clear air. LeBec instinctively dropped to the ground. Though he was curious about its origin, he didn't take his eyes off the dust cloud that represented their salvation. To his surprise, he saw that the jeep had stopped.
Another shot drove LeBec back to his feet. It had come from the wadi, not an enemy's gun. Jumping up and down, he waved his arms trying to attract the occupants attention. When he saw them turn in his direction, he wanted to cry. "Hurry," he whispered, dropping to his knees. "Please, hurry."
Still dazed, he climbed to his feet and stumbled to the edge of the wadi. "They're coming," he encouraged his companions.
The jeep drew closer. Shading his eyes with his hand, LeBec squinted trying to identify the driver. Long before he could see their faces, he recognized the head gear. Though he should've been, he wasn't surprised to see an Australian Bush hat and a Scot's Grey beret. "It's Troy and Moffitt," he excitedly called.
Swaying from heat and exhaustion, LeBec collapsed at the top of the dune. When Moffitt handed him a canteen, he thought it was a mirage. A trembling hand reached out to touch it. When it didn't disappear, he tearlessly wept. Uncapping the canteen, he lifted it to his mouth and let the warm water trickle down his throat. He had to force himself not to gulp it. He knew enough about dehydration to know he'd only make himself sick.
Finally satisfied, he followed the two sergeants into the wadi. Moffitt was already kneeling beside Leeds. "I didn't know what to do for him," he confessed. "He's dying."
"He's not dead, yet," Moffitt declared, pouring a little water down the unconscious man's throat. "Maybe this will keep him alive a little longer."
The roar of an engine, louder and rougher than the one they heard before, echoed down the canyon.
"That's a half-track," Troy quickly identified the sound.
LeBec hurried to help Troy with Hitch, while Roy and Moffitt carried Leeds. When they reached the top of the wadi, he was dismayed to see how close the enemy vehicle had come before they heard it.
"They must have been attracted by the gunshots," Moffitt theorized.
A shell dropped into the wadi, exploding in the corner where they'd sat only minutes before.
"Everyone in the jeep," Troy shouted.
LeBec didn't need any urging. Setting Hitch in the front passenger seat, he scrambled into the back of the vehicle. Sitting in one corner, he reached up to take Leeds. He might not have been able to help his friend before, but he could now. He would use his own body to cushion the rough journey. Maybe then, if Leeds lived, he would be able to look him in the eye again.
Another shell exploded. This one was closer than the last. Fine sand rained down upon them.
"Let's shake it," Troy ordered.
Though overloaded, the smaller jeep quickly left the heavier truck behind. Bouncing over the dunes, LeBec barely felt the pain as he slammed into the vehicle's unforgiving frame. How could he complain about being alive?
Danko tried not to slouch as he watched General Hammond pace behind Wilson's desk. He'd never met either of the two officers. It was a circumstance that was making his present task extremely difficult. He exchanged a worried glance with Tully before returning his gaze to the agitated officers.
"I've listened to your story, Lieutenant," Hammond acknowledged. "Frankly, I find it difficult to believe."
"I'm not in the habit of lying to superior officers, Sir" Danko indignantly replied.
"Your record hardly supports that statement." The General stopped pacing to open a file laying on Wilson's desk. "It says you were arrested and placed in Marston-Tyne Prison for assaulting a Lieutenant Colonel."
"He caused the deaths of eighty of my men and wounded another one hundred and fifty." Danko caught the older man's eyes with his own, "What would you've done under similar circumstances, General?"
"That's hardly relevant," Hammond stuttered. "What is relevant, however, is that your record's blemished, while Lieutenant Miller's is clean. Yet, you want me to believe, though you have no proof to substantiate your claim, that he was a German spy."
Taking a deep breath, Danko nodded, "Yes, Sir."
"Give me one good reason why I should?"
"How about the lives of the men you're sending to take those depots? They'll be walking into a trap."
"All I have is your word for that. I need proof!"
"You'll have all the proof you need in an hour."
Though the match-stick had been stuck into a pocket, Tully spoke as though it was still in his mouth. "When we picked up the Lieutenant and his men, they were with Sergeant Troy. He told us the same story, Sir."
"Get him in here," Hammond ordered Wilson. "I want to hear it from his own lips."
"I'm sorry, Sir," Wilson nervously apologized, "Sergeant Troy went back into the desert to rescue some men they had to leave behind."
Hammond's face darkened with anger, "Why were soldiers in my Army left to die in the desert?"
"Two men were injured in Miller's escape attempt," Danko explained, through gritted teeth. "When we realized the map I photographed was fake, it was decided that they would have to be left so we could make better time."
"They did, Sir."
"Do you really think they were in the right mental state to make such a decision, Lieutenant?" Hammond growled, slamming his hand on the top of the desk. "Do you realize you probably condemned them to death?"
Swallowing past the lump in his throat, Danko nodded, "You don't have to tell me, Sir. I already know."
"All right," Hammond sighed, "It's obvious Sergeant Troy approved of your tactics. I have great faith in his abilities. Colonel," Hammond turned to Wilson, "call off the operation."
"Yes, Sir," Wilson hastily agreed, rushing from the room.
The tenseness eased from Danko's muscles. It was quickly replaced by the sting of his sunburn and blisters. Now that he'd accomplished his task, he could look forward to relieving the pain in his body. It hardly mattered that they'd accepted the word of a Sergeant over his own. It only mattered that they'd stopped the attack. At least Hitch, Leeds, LeBec and Roy wouldn't have died in vain.
"Be aware, Lieutenant," Hammond growled, commanding Danko's attention. "I will be sending out scouting patrols. God help you if you're wrong. I won't."
"May I go, Sir?" Danko stiffly replied.
Hammond hesitated before finally agreeing, "Dismissed."
With Tully's hand under his elbow, Danko limped from the room. He'd done his duty. He'd stopped the attack - and lost a little of his soul in doing so.
Troy pushed his coffee cup away and glanced around the mess tent. With Moffitt and Tully acting as special couriers for Wilson, and Hitch still in the hospital, he was bored - and lonely.
He gingerly rose, careful not to knock his bandaged feet against the wooden struts of the table. It was only two days ago that a pretty nurse had cut off his boots. The flesh was so swollen with bruises and blisters, the toes were barely recognizable. All he had to look forward to in the future was breaking in a new pair of boots. The prospect did not make him happy.
As he strolled around the camp, ignoring the frowns on the faces of the medical personnel he encountered, he knew he should be out enjoying his enforced R & R, but he couldn't. It wasn't any fun when you were alone. He was certain things would stay that way for a while. Unable to take a shower, due to the bandages on his hands and feet, the only way he could get clean was to request a sponge bath. Though most of the nurses were exceptionally pretty, he was embarrassed by their thoroughness. Maybe if he felt sick, it would be easier. Since he wasn't, he avoided them as much as possible.
Without conscious thought, Troy found himself crossing the compound to the hospital tent. It was as good a place as any to hang out. Maybe, for once, Hitch would be awake. Though they'd talked about the mission, Troy still felt guilty about leaving the boy behind. They both knew it was pure luck that he'd survived. What really hurt, he reluctantly admitted, was that if similar circumstances ever occurred again, Troy would be forced to do it again. Even the knowledge that lives had been saved by his actions couldn't ease his conscience.
The sound of laughing voices reached Troy's ears as he approached the tent. His spirits rose as he realized that Danko and his men were visiting Leeds.
"Leeds," Danko admonished, "next time you suspect a man of being a spy, let the rest of us in on it."
Propped up by numerous pillows, Leeds looked pale, but his voice was strong, "Sorry, Lieutenant. I honestly thought you knew."
"Officers can be a little slow, sometimes," Troy joked, smiling to take the sting out of his words.
"But not as slow as Sergeants," Danko quickly returned.
"Hey," Troy defended himself, "I didn't have as much contact with Miller as you did."
"Hitch and I had too much," Leeds groaned, glancing over to the next bed.
A soft moan escaped Hitch's lips as he tried to shift position, "You can say that again."
Sad eyes resting on Danko, Troy said, "I thought you'd like to know, scouting parties substantiated your story. Our troops were walking into a trap."
"I don't suppose Hammond or Wilson have sent their regards?" Danko facetiously inquired.
Recovered from the flu that had struck him down so suddenly, Vern reminded, "They were gonna leave us out there . . ."
" . . . for the buzzards or the Krauts," Roy finished for his brother.
"You didn't expect to get a medal, did you?" Feke sneered.
"A thank you would've been nice," Danko softly admitted.
"Don't hold your breath, Lieutenant," Leeds advised. "We're just convicts to them."
"We're cannon fodder," LeBec agreed.
"Just be glad Sergeant Troy didn't think so," Powell reminded them, "or we'd be dead."
"You better watch it, Sergeant," Danko mockingly warned, "If you do that too often, you could end up as part of the Dirty Dozen."
"Heaven forbid," Troy quickly returned.
"Prophetic words, Sergeant."
Troy's loneliness slipped away as he pulled a chair up next to Hitch's bed. Like his superiors, he'd looked down his nose at these men. He'd felt their history made them only worthy of his contempt. They'd taught him differently. Next time, he vowed, he wouldn't be so quick to judge.