Author's note: Hi there! I am posting two short stories today, both the in the WW2 AU arc that I've posted a few short stories from before, in December, 2018. These stories might make a little more sense if you read those other ones, which are: Farewell, An Incident in France, and Upon a Snowy Midnight. It's not necessary, though. I just thought it was long overdue to write a little more in that arc. I might write more eventually; we'll just have to see where inspiration takes me! Enjoy, and as always I'd love it you would review!
Behind the Lines
Somewhere in France
Everything was foggy. It was freezing cold and suffocatingly hot at the same time. His brain swirled about with vague images that he couldn't understand and never could remember after. The only coherent thing that was grounding him in reality was the intense pain in his knee.
Then he slowly became aware of voices. At first, he thought they must be his imagination for they seemed to only be speaking gibberish. Then he began to realize that one voice was familiar and that the words, even though he couldn't understand them, seemed as if they must mean something.
He raised his head to try to look around him. A gentle but firm hand was placed on his shoulder, pushing him back down.
"Easy, Sarge," the familiar voice said in ordinary English.
Sarge? He blinked, and things started coming back to him. That was right; he was a sergeant now, Sergeant Ned Nickerson. There was a war and they were in France. He and another man, a private named Frank Hardy, had gotten separated from the rest of the platoon. Germans had fallen on them in the woods and Hardy had been shot.
Ned sat up at once. "Hardy?"
"I'm right here, Sarge."
Ned's vision finally cleared and he was able to look around him. He was in a small room with no windows and from the feel of it, he guess it was underground. It wasn't really furnished, but there were crates all around, as well as some pillows and blanket. He was lying—sitting, now—on a bunk of some kind. Hardy was sitting on one of the crates with a blanket draped around his shoulders. His face was pale and his dark hair was plastered down with sweat. His left arm was in a sling.
The man standing next to Ned and who had held him back when he had tried to sit up the first time was middle-aged, though his hair—what was left of it—was already white. His face was gentle, but Ned could see that he was on edge and not happy with current situation. If Ned was to make a guess as to why, he would say that it was probably the fourth man in the room. That man was younger, in his late twenties, maybe, although his face was lined with worry. Ned barely even noticed that, though, as his attention was focused more on the man's clothes: they were a uniform, a Nazi uniform, marking the man out as a corporal.
The older man, the one standing next to Ned, said something that he didn't understand, but Ned's head was clear enough now to realize that it was French. He looked questioningly at him, since he had an impression that the words had been addressed to him.
"He's telling you to lie back down," Hardy volunteered.
Ned's vision was beginning to blur again and he realized he was shivering. He must have had a fever. Lying down again wasn't such a bad idea, and so he did as he was told. Yet, he was determined not to lapse into unconsciousness again.
"You speak French?" he asked, both because he wanted to know and because he needed to say something to keep himself from drifting off.
"Some," Hardy replied. "Enough to understand what the doctor is saying most of the time, if he speaks slowly enough."
So the white-haired man was a doctor. That made sense. Ned was clearly in need of a doctor, and from the looks of things, Hardy was, too.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"Yeah," Hardy assured him. "At least, I'm as all right as a fellow can be who's been shot in the shoulder. Don't worry about me, though. I'll be fine."
Ned closed his eyes for a moment, but then he told himself not to lose consciousness. "What happened?"
Hardy scratched his head with his good hand. "Honestly, I don't really know. I must have passed out sometime after I was hit. The last thing I remember is you telling me everything was going to be fine. I woke up in here yesterday, and as far as I understand, that was only a few hours after we were attacked. I've been trying to get as much out of the doctor as I can, but he's not too talkative, especially when the German over there is around. I don't think the German speaks French, but I also don't think the doctor is too convinced about that."
"Do you know the doctor's name?"
"He won't say. I'm not sure why not. I figure the German must know, so it's not that he's trying to keep it from him. The only conclusion left is that he doesn't want us to know."
It didn't make sense to Ned, either, but then he wasn't in much of a condition to make sense of anything. His knee hurt more than anything he had ever imagined, and the fever was making him feel foggy again. Despite his best efforts, he felt himself sinking back into unconsciousness.
Frank watched the sergeant as he seemed to lose consciousness. He bit his lip; he didn't like any of this. He had no idea what was going on, other than that they had apparently been captured by the Germans who were proceeding to do a terrible job of securing medical attention for them, even though they both clearly needed it. The place that they had been brought to was strange, too. Frank felt confident that it wasn't a prison camp. At least, it certainly wasn't an ordinary one. Then, too, the only German he had seen since he had woken up down here was the one who was sitting by the door now. If he was a guard, he should have been relieved by now.
Ordinarily, Frank would been curious to know what was going on. Even as it was, he was spending more time than he thought he should puzzling over it. Just now, though, it was more important that he and Nickerson get away, if possible. With only one guard in a place that wasn't a regular prison camp, they probably would never have a better chance. The biggest problem was that neither of them were in any condition to make an escape, Nickerson even less so than Frank.
He watched Nickerson anxiously. He clearly had a raging fever and was in a lot of pain. Worse still, he'd been shot in the knee. Chances were, he wouldn't be able to walk anywhere anytime soon. Still, it couldn't hurt to ask.
Frank took in a breath, trying to think of the words to form his question. Finally, he said, slowly and hesitatingly, "Combien de temps récupérer?" which he was pretty sure translated into something like "How long will it take for him to recover?"
The doctor seemed to understand his meaning. He shook his head and said, "Je ne sais pas. La blessure est grave. Cela prendra beaucoup de temps et je ne sais pas s'il se remettra du tout."
Frank didn't catch all of that, but he did know that the first thing the doctor had said was "I don't know." Frank let out a sigh. That figured. No doubt it would be a long time.
Then the German stood up, stretched, and said something. The doctor replied in an annoyed tone. He seemed very annoyed with this whole situation. If Frank was any judge of character, he'd say the doctor was definitely not working for the Germans willingly, but that didn't necessarily mean that he would help Frank and Nickerson. He might be interested in keeping himself alive than helping anyone else escape. For the moment, Frank decided it would be best not to trust him.
There was a sound from upstairs, the sound of a door being opened and then footsteps. A harsh voice said something in German. Instantly, the German soldier flung the door into the basement open and rushed upstairs. The doctor followed him as far as the door and then stood in the doorway. Although Frank was still feeling a bit unsteady on his feet, he followed and stood directly behind the doctor. He might have been tempted to push his way past, but the doctor blocked the way.
Here by the door, Frank could hear the voices more easily. There were three, he thought, all speaking in German and all sounding very excited. He wished he could understand them so that he could figure out what was going on around here. It had to be an argument from the pitch of the voices. Then there was a sound of a soft impact and heavy footsteps. Frank had seen enough fights and been in enough of them himself to guess that someone had gotten shoved and had reeled backward a few steps.
There had barely been time to recognize that this had happened before another sound rang out, causing Frank to jump. It was a gunshot. What kind of argument were they having to end in a gunshot?
The doctor went running up the steps, and Frank came after him. They found the German who had been in the basement training his handgun on another German soldier, who had an astonished and even horrified expression on his face. A third German soldier was lying face down on the floor and unmoving, with his gun lying about a foot away from his hand, where it must have fallen after he had been shot. A middle-aged woman was standing with her back against the wall and a hand over her mouth, obviously trying to make herself as invisible as possible.
The doctor shouted something in German at the soldier with the gun. He shouted back, and the other soldier added in some shouting for good measure. Finally, the doctor threw his hands in the air, went through another door, and returned with a length of stout rope. He began binding it around the wrists of the other soldier, the one that Frank hadn't seen before now.
"Qu'est-ce qui se passe?" Frank asked, meaning "What is going on?"
The doctor muttered something in French, but Frank couldn't understand what. Then the woman came toward him and placed a gentle hand on Frank's arm.
"Tu devrais retourner en bas," she told him, which he understood was a request that he return to the basement.
"Non." Frank shook his head before he repeated, "Qu'est-ce qui se passe?"
The woman let out a little sigh and then said, "Viens avec moi. Je vais t'expliquer."
Then Frank gave in and nodded, understanding that she was asking him to come with her and promising that she would explain. They started going back down the stairs into the basement, and Frank noticed that the German soldier seemed more interested in the other German than he was in Frank, as if the other German was his prisoner rather than Frank. Honestly, that was definitely the way it was beginning, but why?
As soon as he and the woman reached the basement, Frank saw that Nickerson was propping himself up so that he was halfway sitting up.
"What's going on?" Nickerson asked.
"That's what I'm trying to find out," Frank replied. He turned to the woman and looked at her intently.
Instead of saying anything to him, the woman approached Nickerson and gently made him lie down again, asking him in French how he was. Frank informed her that the sergeant didn't speak French and that they both wanted to know what was happening as soon as possible.
The woman bit her lip and glanced down at her hands. Then she began the story, speaking slowly and carefully so that Frank could follow her. She introduced herself as Léonie Martel and her husband was Dr. Arnaud Martel. They had gotten stuck behind the German lines, although for the most part, they had managed to keep their heads down and to have escaped the particular notice of the Germans. That is, they had escaped it until the night before last.
Sometime past midnight, they had been woken by someone pounding on their door. It was a German soldier who had immediately begun giving them orders. Léonie didn't speak German, but her husband did, and so he had been able to understand what the soldier had been saying. Apparently, he had two wounded men and was demanding treatment for them. He had brought them in the back of a jeep. Dr. Martel had no particular desire to help any Nazis, but out of his duty as a doctor and out of fear of retaliation, he had gone to look at the men. That was when he had discovered that they were wearing American uniforms. He had questioned the German about this, but the German had told him not to ask questions.
They had carried the two men—Frank and Nickerson, as it turned out—into the basement, as the German had insisted, and there Dr. Martel had done as much as he could under the conditions. The German had stood in the basement and kept guard, while Léonie had been ordered to go upstairs where she would be out of the way. From there on out, Léonie didn't know what had happened downstairs, but since Frank had woken up shortly thereafter and knew that nothing had happened except that the doctor and the German had gone in and out a few times, he wasn't particularly interested in this part of the story.
Then Léonie explained that a few minutes ago, two Germans had come to the door and forced their way in. The one in the basement had come running up. They seemed to have gotten into an argument, although she couldn't understand what it was about, and then the one that had been there all along had drawn his gun and shot one of the others. The rest, Frank had seen for himself.
Frank thanked Léonie for the explanation and then relayed it to Nickerson in English.
Nickerson furrowed his brow. "That doesn't make any sense."
"No," Frank replied. "There's only one thing that could explain it, but that doesn't make any sense, either."
"What?" Nickerson asked.
"Well, that German soldier might be trying to help us."
Nickerson gave him a look that clearly told him he thought he was crazy.
"I know, I know," Frank admitted. "It doesn't sound too likely, but he's got to be up to something the other Nazis don't like and he did bring us here to the doctor instead of taking us prisoners. What else could it be?"
"I don't know," Nickerson said. "If he wanted to desert or something, though, why bother helping us?"
Frank shrugged. "It's too bad we can't just ask him. As it is, we'd have to ask the doctor to ask him, and even if he did it, the story would have to be translated twice for us to understand. It might not be any more coherent that way."
A few minutes later, Dr. Martel and the two Germans, one with his hands still tied, came down the stairs. The prisoner was made to sit down on one of the crates. Then, while the other German kept an eye on him, Dr. Martel came to examine Nickerson's knee again.
"Ask him to ask the German what's going on, Hardy," Nickerson requested.
Frank was no less curious, and so he willingly asked the question. The doctor less willingly answered, but he finally asked the German some questions. The two exchanged back and forth a few times—from the look on his face, the other German was not happy with the story—before the doctor began explaining it to Frank in French. It took several questions to clarify a few points, but in the end, Frank was able to relay the story back to Nickerson.
"So, the way I'm understanding it, the German's name is Jan Weis," Frank explained. "He's a lieutenant, as you've probably already noticed. A week ago, his cousin, who's stationed in Poland wrote to him. At any rate, he somehow smuggled a letter to him. He couldn't have sent it by regular channels because he wouldn't have wanted to take the chance on anyone else reading it. This cousin had gotten to be part of an inspection of one of the camps where the Nazis have been keeping Jews and whatever other people they decide they don't like. He described it all to Weis, and so Weis is starting to think maybe the Nazis are going a little far."
"You don't say," Nickerson replied dryly.
"It was just him and another fellow who shot at us in the woods the other night," Frank went on. "He saw his chance to do a little something to set the German war effort back, so he took one each of our dog tags and sent them back with the other soldier to report that we were killed—the other fellow must not have looked at us too closely—and then brought us here to the doctor. I guess he'd met him before. I'm not entirely clear on how he knew he was a doctor. He's been down here ever since with us, hiding out from his own guys. These other two found him and thought he was deserting and were going to take him back. Weis figured he'd be in more trouble even than he would be for deserting if it ever came out what he was really doing, so he was going to fight it out before he let these other guys take him. Now he's really in a mess."
"And so are we," Nickerson said. "There's going to be more Germans coming to look for him and those two, and they might find us."
"Yeah, I know," Frank agreed. "The only thing to do would be to clear out, but…"
As Frank let the sentence trail off, Nickerson glanced down at his knee. He gritted his teeth as if he was just now remembering how badly it hurt him.
"Clearing out isn't going to be an option for me any time soon, is it?" he asked.
"No," Frank told him, speaking quietly. He didn't want to be the one to pass on this message, but he was the only one he could. "The doctor says you'll be lucky to walk on that knee again at all."
Nickerson took in a deep breath. Maybe this news wasn't a surprise to him. Then he said, "Well, in that case, I'll just have to take my chances here while you go on."
Although Frank had come to have a lot of respect for his sergeant before this, that one simple statement instantly catapulted him into the position of one of the men Frank respected most. There was no fear in it or bitterness, nor was there any false sense of heroism. It was a simple statement of fact, said in the practical, cheerful sort of tone that one of Frank's friends might have used to tell him that he couldn't make it to a movie and Frank ought to go ahead without him.
Frank glanced down at his hands. "Is that an order?"
"No," Nickerson replied. "I might have to make it an order if that's the only way I can get you to do it."
"In that case, sir, I'd rather stay here," Frank said. "The chances of getting through aren't much better than the chances of staying here, and from what I gather, the doctor and his wife intend to try to ride it out here."
At that moment, Weis said something in German and Dr. Martel replied. Although they couldn't understand a word of it, both Frank and Nickerson fell silent to listen. Then Dr. Martel relayed the information to his wife and Frank in French.
Frank let out a long breath before he reported to Nickerson: "Weis thinks that we could hide down here if any other Nazis come looking. He thinks we could eventually get through the lines to the Allied side, but who knows how long that will be. Then we've also got to figure out what to do with that guy." He nodded at Weis's prisoner.
Nickerson looked at him and shrugged. "We can't let him go, so the only choice we have is to hold him here. That's not going to be any picnic if this goes on for a few weeks."
"This isn't going to be a picnic if it goes on that long anyway," Frank replied.
Dr. Martel's house in France
It went on much longer than either of them had hoped. As November was just beginning, they were still hiding out in the basement of the Martel's house, with the doctor and his wife and Jan Weis and the other German, whose name was Klaus Dunst and who was certainly having an even more unpleasant time than the rest of them since he was still a prisoner. It was a very small comfort to know that someone else had it worse off.
It wasn't that it was all terrible. The Martels lived on the outskirts of a small village, far enough away that it was even possible to go outside once in a great while to get some fresh air without any prying eyes spotting them. Both Ned and Hardy were recovering from their injuries, though Dr. Martel didn't give them any hope of complete recovery from either. Ned had even managed to start getting up and hobbling around, despite a terrible limp, which Dr. Martel insisted would never entirely go away. The main thing to Ned, though, was that once they got out of this—and he always held onto hope that they would—he was going to be able to meet his fiancée, Nancy, walking.
Thinking of Nancy, too, had helped make these months more bearable. Dr. Martel had let him have some paper and pens, and so Ned had written sheaves of letters to Nancy during that. He couldn't send them, of course, but it helped to feel that he was talking to her, in a way. Then, too, sometimes he and Hardy would tell each other stories about their adventures from before the War, which helped pass the time. Hardy and his brother, Joe, were amateur detectives, just like Nancy, and that had provided books' worth of adventures for both Ned and Hardy.
Then, too, in September they had gotten word that the Allies were pushing forward in Argonne Forest, which was fairly close by. They were still at it now, and if all went well, the Martels' house might be behind the Allied line soon. That was certainly encouraging news.
It wasn't until one night in early November that all their hopes started crashing down around them. Léonie had gone to visit a friend for the evening, but at about nine o'clock, she came rushing back with a terrified expression on her face. She began explaining so quickly that even though Ned had been getting much better with French in the last few months, he didn't understand a word of it.
"What's she saying?" he asked Hardy.
Hardy's face had gone pale. "She says that the Germans somehow got word that there's a deserter hiding in the village. They're starting a search, and they're really searching everywhere."
Ned felt his heart sink. "There's no way we're going to be lucky again. We're really going to have to try to escape this time."
"Not just us and Weis, either," Hardy said. "The Martels, too."
He began speaking in French to the others. Weis, too, had gotten better with French in the last few months, and so they were all able to speak fairly well with one another, which was a huge improvement from how things had been at first. They decided that they would have to slip out right away—fortunately it was dark—and try to make their way to the northern coast and from there hopefully get to England. They had all known that they would eventually have to try it, but they also knew that their odds of making it weren't very good, especially with fighting nearby. Of course, they could have tried making it to the Allied line, but that would mean going straight through the Germans and taking the chance that an Allied sentry might decide to shoot first and ask questions later. Getting to the coast was their best chance, they thought.
They took a couple minutes to grab the bare necessities, and then started out, locking the door behind them and leaving Dunst in the basement. Once again, being on the outskirts of the village served them well, and they were in the forest within minutes, although Ned slowed them down and Hardy and Weis had to support him on either side. Once they were in the forest, they took a few moments to breathe and get their bearings, although Weis was in a hurry to keep going. Léonie and the doctor couldn't help looking behind and shedding a few tears over having to leave their home behind.
"We need to hurry," Ned confided to Hardy in English. "Once they find Dunst, they'll be able to figure out pretty fast where we went."
Hardy nodded grimly and encouraged the group to carry on.
They did fairly well for several hours. It wasn't nearly dawn when their luck began to turn against them again. That was when they heard the bark of a dog behind them. Weis said something under his breath in German, but they all guessed what it meant.
"They've got dogs tracking us," Hardy said grimly in English, probably echoing what Weis had muttered. "There's no way we can throw them off the trail now."
"There's one way some of us could make it," Ned replied.
Hardy hesitated. "If we do that, I'm staying behind with you. I don't even care if you order me to go on."
Ned sighed in frustration, but deep down, there was a selfish part of him that was glad he wasn't going to have to do this alone. "All right. No point in arguing, I guess. We can at least tell the Martels and Weis to go on ahead. Maybe if the Germans catch us two, they won't think to look for the others."
"I don't think so," Hardy replied. "They're looking for a German deserted, not two Americans. There's no way they'd mistake us for Germans. We wouldn't even be able to tell them that our American uniforms are a disguise since we don't speak German. But the Martels might get away, if Weis stays back with us and we put up a fight to hold the Germans back."
"Okay," Ned agreed. "We'll have to try it."
Weis agreed to the plan with a stoic nod. The Martels protested a little, for they had grown fond of all three, even Weis, but they realized that to stay behind would mean practically certain capture. They agreed in the end, but they didn't go on until Léonie had cried over and hugged and kissed all three and even Dr. Martel had kissed them all on the cheek, much to their discomfort.
Then the three soldiers found what they thought would be advantageous spots to hide and waited. Ned and Hardy were close together in a spot where Ned could lean against a tree stump. Weis was a few yards away, standing behind a tree. While they waited, Ned placed one hand over the pocket where he had shoved one of those letters to Nancy and prayed that whatever happened, she would be all right, at least.
Weis was watching his two companions silently with an unreadable expression. Ned wondered what it must be like to be preparing to fight against your own people, even if you did disagree with them now. He also wondered what would happen to Weis if they did get through. He was, after all, a German soldier, and although he'd proven himself to be opposed to Nazism, only Ned and Hardy could attest to that fact.
There wasn't much time to wonder, though, for at that moment, several German soldiers with dogs came bursting through the woods. Weis was the first to open fire on them, and then it was all the confusion of a firefight.
Ned wasn't sure how long it had lasted. Moments like that didn't seem to obey the rules of time. There was no sense whether it was a few minutes or longer, but since such things usually don't last more than a few minutes, Ned guessed it must have been only a short time. During that short time, Weis was hit and he slumped against the tree that he had been using for cover.
Ned and Hardy would have met the same fate soon, except at that moment, someone else began shooting, and not at the two Americans. They were firing at the Germans. Within another minute or so, the Germans had been pushed back, and Ned and Hardy could breathe. Then Hardy crawled over to Weis to check his pulse.
"Well?" Ned asked.
Hardy shook his head. "It's too bad. I'd hoped he'd get through. We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him, you know."
"I know," Ned agreed.
They both bowed their heads. Neither of them cared much for this business of war, and they had both realized long before now that Weis had never truly been evil at heart. He'd been misguided, certainly, as many people had been by false ideologies and evil before and would be after. Weis ought to have had the chance to work to heal the deep wounds he and others like him had been instrumental in causing. But at least he had taken the chances he could.
A crackle a few minutes later made them both look up. They saw three soldiers standing a few yards away, aiming rifles at them.
"Qui êtes vous?" one of them asked gruffly.
He was no doubt astonished when Hardy began to laugh. "They're French," he said not even thinking right away to answer in that language. Then he remembered and began explaining as quickly as he could in French, remembering to add that the Martels were no doubt still nearby.
Ned also grinned in relief. He had never been so glad to have a rifle pointed at him in his life.