July and August rolled past the Kompanie along with the breeze and no sooner did mid-September take their places. The blazing scorn from the sun ceased its attacks on the men save for a couple of days, but ultimately gave in to the fortunate winds. The French countryside remained as breathtaking as ever, immune to the coming seasons.
However, the beauty of the countryside was quickly forgotten. Surprise attacks from the French Resistance rattled the men, whether it was a single gunshot, feigned charges, botched grenades, or even ambushes in the dead of night. The injuries ranged from a mere graze to amputations to severe casualties. A man Meine had known since training, Joseph Pfeiffer, received significant shrapnel to his thigh during an attack in August, tearing the muscles to ribbons and shattering the bone. On the way to the field hospital, the medics were forced to amputate in the vehicle, despite pleads from Joseph to wait. Three days later, Smoke got word that he died from shock before they even reached the operating table.
Smoke popped a cigarette in his mouth and groaned, easing himself into the driver's seat of the Kübelwagen. "Please tell me we've been out here for more than three months, Martin."
"I wish I could, sir. Three months, two weeks, and five days." Martin looked to his watch. "Oh, scratch that. Six days. But, forgive me for saying, we shouldn't focus so much on the days and rather deal with the more important matter on hand. Sir, the French, as much as I hate to admit it, are becoming more dangerous to the safety of our men. Yes, those battles were nothing more than failed skirmishes, but after what Major Lange suffered, I fear it's only a matter of time until we're dealing with those losses."
"I understand your concern, and I agree." Smoke pulled out his lighter and rolled it twixt his thumb and index. "Hitler and his troops practically paraded into France without so much as a gun pointed at them. You've heard of the Maquis, ja? They're twice the pain of anyone we've dealt with; they actually plan their attacks instead of rushing in head first. Last week, Major Lange and I communicated over radio. No doubt we were being listened upon, so he engaged in casual conversation. Before he cut off, he told me that when he was hunting with a friend, he said that 'the dog started to chase the hunter'. At first, I was as baffled as a kid waking up to find no presents under the Christmas tree, but..." He waved his hand in circles. "Considering where we are and the situation, it didn't take long."
The realization struck Martin. "They're hunting us, sir."
"I'm afraid so, Martin. We're isolated, separated from the closest division by at least 100 miles..."
"Sir, that's not possible. We have the best army the world has seen since the Romans, I'm sure of it! The French army was scattered when we took over; and, I know I said they were dangerous, but they are not capable of taking us out like... like game. We can take them!"
"We can adapt and overcome this, sir, I'm positive. All we have to do is..."
"Martin. Relax, I have it all under control." Smoke shook his head. "I have requested someone from the Eastern Front to aid us in our rat problem."
"Only one? Sir, that's...!"
"Martin, will you let me finish!" Smoke shook his head once more. "He's all we need for this little issue, and from the praise I've heard, he's taken out close to one-hundred men since his transfer there. He's perfect."
The confusion grew in Martin's eyes. "Sir, I'm really... I'm not sure what you're getting at."
A chuckle arose from Smoke. "And that's why you wouldn't do well as an officer, my friend. You look at the war through a wide lens and see the whole battle; officers prefer a much more narrow lens. No offense, of course. Now, the man I speak of is one of the best snipers I've had the pleasure of serving with. Perfect marks in everything, comes from a well-known family, has a brother in the SS, and so on. Has never wasted a round, meticulous in everything he does, and has earned a pretty nasty reputation among the Soviets and their cronies."
Martin began to grow tired. "Who is this person, sir?"
"He's scheduled to arrive within the next five hours. If all goes well, we'll be out of the woods, literally and figuratively, etc.." With a flick of the lighter, Smoke took a drag from his cigarette and slouched his shoulders. "Tell the men Volk Steiger is returning to the Kompanie."
¤ ¤ ¤
If Vogel was seen as the model of the perfect Aryan, Volk was the candidate for the perfect soldier. Everything about him was the life of a military man: born into a former general's home, received his education at a private school where he attained the highest marks, and the one man to steal the heart of every woman and become the envy of every man. Before the beginning of the war, Volk joined the Heer, where his prowess as a sniper was quickly noticed by many and he was shipped off to a sniper academy. There he emerged one of the best, though no one was the least bit surprised.
The Kompanie stood at attention alongside a narrow, dirt road close to their camp, keeping all eyes open for any sign of the coming Kübelwagen with their old comrade inside. Soldiers whispered to one another about Volk's experiences on the east: 'The Russians probably use bears to sic on our comrades', 'Do you think he's immune to the cold by now?' and 'I heard he shot a Bolshi through his eye at over 500 yards away and the bullet hit his partner in the head'. Even Ritter decided to tag along; he had somewhat of a fascination with the snipers of the Wehrmacht and admired their discipline and training. Beside him sat a seven-month-old Ambros, whose size had nearly doubled during his time around his new family, but still retained his puppy behavior.
Upon hearing of Volk's return, Meine nearly jumped for joy. Since his new position as the sniper, he ran non-stop on edge. His sleep was most affected by the change; every other night he would find himself staring at the sky into the ungodly hours of the morning. Max was fully aware of this and offered all the suggestions he could make up, but as ridiculous or smart they sounded, nothing worked. Not even Ambros curling up into his stomach helped, to Meine's disappointment.
Standing next to Armin, Meine muttered, "Do you think he'll still be the same...?"
"Hard to tell, really." Armin shrugged. "I was over there for seven months, and I was fine... then again, I didn't get very far. I'm sure he's fine, though. Volk is indestructible, remember."
Meine's fingers pulled at his sleeves. "As long as I don't have to be one anymore, I'm fine... He'll be better of a sniper than I'll ever be."
"Hey, don't bring yourself down, kid," Emmerich said, standing behind Meine. "You've got us outta a couple bad snags. Hell, you scared a couple of those frogs shitless. Give yourself more credit."
Martin jabbed his index finger into Emmerich's back."All of you, shut it! When Volk arrives, the Hauptmann wants to see you, Steinmann." He looked up, raising his voice. "Attention, Kompanie! Vehicle approaching!"
On cue, all heads whipped towards the road, picking up the faint humming of the Kübelwagen's motor. Within seconds, the olive green vehicle appeared out of the trees, the Iron Cross creased over the hood. An NCO sat in the driver's seat, Volk in the passenger side, his piercing, small eyes set forward. As they got closer, everyone was shocked to see a bandage bound around his neck, close to his Adam's apple. Though his jacket concealed all but a glimpse of the white bandage, some already had a good idea of how it got there.
"Welcome back, Volk. Good to see you still in one piece," Smoke said as soon as the jeep rolled to a halt.
Saluting, Volk climbed out and towered over Smoke. "It's good to be back, sir. I hope I didn't miss out on too much of the fun." He hefted a large bag from the bed of the jeep along with his rifle, slinging it over a shoulder.
"Trust me, the fun is just beginning." Smoke turned his attention to the NCO. "Tell Major Fleischmann I give him my utmost thanks, Unteroffizer. He can have my sniper back when we're done with him."
"Will do, sir." The young man tilted his oversized helmet back. "Will there be anything else...?" His hands were ghost white, fingers fusing around the steering wheel.
"That will be all, son. And a bit of advice: relax a little, and stop choking the wheel. If the French see a jittery man like yourself driving alone, they'll put you down quicker than water puts out a fire. Now, they're not going to mess with someone who looks like he has something up his sleeve, you get me?"
"Don't think, do. When you leave, harden your eyes, slouch the shoulders, and if you can, smirk. There's a reason confidence exists!" He walked over and slapped a hand on the man's shoulder. "Safe travels."
"God be with you, sir." He shuddered and with a shaky salute, backed down the road until he was able to turn and roared into the distance.
"Let's hope the kid gets out of here alive. I'd hate to see his wife receive the news..." He glanced at Volk. "I saw him wearing his wedding ring under his jacket. Now, onto the important news. We're in a bit of a problem, you know."
"I read the report Major Fleischmann sent with me, sir."
Smoke nodded. "Then I don't need to go into details. We need you to take care of them before they take care of us. I don't know how dangerous the Soviets are, but I do know that the French are nothing compared to them. This should be nothing short of a chore for you."
Volk's eyes scanned the area, tapping his fingers on the strap. "This is their playground. Right now I'm looking at ten, twelve amateur sniping spots, two expert spots at best." He quickly gestured to them all. "It'll take a while, but I'm sure I can adapt to this environment, sir. I'm doubting they'll get desperate enough to blend into the trees, but to be cautious, keep an eye out..."
"We have some flashlights left over, Volk. Those should work..." Smoke nodded to himself. "We'll make it work. In the meantime, I need you two to go on a couple of scout missions, to see just what we're dealing with."
"We'll do ou... wait... two?"
¤ ¤ ¤
"Just what we need: someone like Volk strutting his ass around," Vogel mumbled under his breath and leaned against a tree.
Max was close enough to hear him. "That someone is going to make sure we don't get killed tonight, and I'm not going to lose any sleep because of it. Better we have him than the SS breathing down our necks."
"I'd sure as hell feel safer if the SS were around, then we wouldn't be in this mess! Hiding in the woods like animals, that's what we're doing. If they were here, we could be in Paris by now."
Max shook his head. Any mention about the SS turned Vogel into a drooling dog. Hell, he could have been the leader of their fans if he wanted; he knew everything about them from their uniforms to their leaders to their history. Now, anyone who didn't quite know Vogel would ask: if he's so in love with them, why not join up? Only a select few knew the reason, Max included. It was a fateful night on the eve of 1938 in a fancy hotel in Dresden. Vogel was on the brink of becoming a member of his precious heroes and proceeded to celebrate with a lovely girl, who accidentally forgot to mention a very important detail to the young man. Long story short, Vogel knocked up a local Hauptsturmführer's daughter and barely missed a bullet to the head.
"Hmmm, living it in Paris with grubby little bastards in black following your every move... Yeah, I'd rather jump in a frozen lake." Max turned his head. "Volk may not be the most likable person, but he's the only guy fit for the job, and I'm okay with it."
A sneer plastered on Vogel's lips. "We'll see about that. Oster told me that when Volk was on the east, he snapped and killed one of his comrades because they couldn't kill a Soviet."
"Oster? Please, that moron couldn't tell the difference between a cow and his own mother. People don't 'snap'; Volk didn't 'snap', and I'm pretty damn sure that I won't wake up to find him holding a knife to my throat."
"The last thing you need is another mouth, Hexenkopf." Vogel looked behind him to the small group of soldiers gathered around Volk as he entertained them of his time in the Eastern Front. Children, all of them!
Max waved him off and walked over to the group, catching the last bit of Volk's story. "And if it weren't for the flak screaming in the distance, I doubt none of us would have survived the ambush. That was my first night in battle over there, the end." Volk glanced up. "Alright, story's over, now get. I have business to take care of..."
Yeah, same old Volk, Max thought with a small smirk. He waited until the soldiers left to speak. "From the looks of it, I'd have to say you made quiet the number of fans, Steiger. Didn't think spending what, three months, over there would make you more famous than Chaplin. What's your secret?"
"Not being a complete moron, unlike yourself." Volk smirked as well and held out his hand. "Good to see you again, Max."
"Likewise." Max took his hand and firmly shook it. "How was it over there?"
"Hot, barren, and polluted with Soviets. How's the fight over here standing?"
"Not as exciting, I'm afraid. But, with your help, we'll have it easy the rest of the way." Max pat him on the shoulder. "So, ah, just between you and me... what's this secret mission Smoke has you going on?"
Volk's eyes scoured the campsite. "Soon as I find my so-called partner, I can let you in. Where's Steinmann?"
"If he's not with the chaplain, he's with his dog. I wouldn't ask about it."
"I'll make a note of that, thank you..." Volk shifted in his place. "Smoke really chose him as my replacement? I'd imagine you or even Eichel, but not the runt of the litter."
"Hey, it's because of him most of us are still around, so give him that credit at least."
"I'll argue about that later, I need to get going. See you around, take care of yourself." With a smile, Volk firmly shook Max's hand a last time and took his leave. He soon stopped and turned his head. "Remember what Feldwebel Schreiber used to say?"
"Yeah, yeah... 'head down, ass up'. Thanks for the warning, mom!"
¤ ¤ ¤
The moon's guiding light pushed through the surrounding clouds and into the forest, painting a path for the two men. No blade of grass was flattened, no twig or branch snapped beneath their boots. They were miles from the campsite, leaving at the instant the sun set upon command. The night was their cloak as Volk and Meine slithered through the trees and brush, over a large stream, and a small ravine. There they came across a small arms storage, concealing rifles, pistols, a shattered crate of British grenades, and more. Volk quickly disassembled half of the arms and buried the firing pins five feet away before the sound of footsteps came from the distance.
To Volk's annoyance, he had to slow down twice for Meine to catch up; his replacement obviously wasn't fit for his duties, whether it be through a flat clearing or a rocky path. "Hurry the hell up, Steinmann!" he hissed. "If I have to wait one more time, you're on your own."
Silent, Meine trudged on. There was no need to reply when Volk was in this mood; no good would come out of it. He instead took longer strides, eyes moving from the dark grass to the winding path and back to the grass. Meine feared to speak up or tread on his own path and managed to follow his comrade's footsteps, taking in small pride that he could blend his footprints with Volk's. He could feel a steady gaze pressing against his back; deep down, he wished he hadn't.
Instantly, Volk halted, quickly falling to one knee. Meine followed suit, clapping a hand over his mouth as his shin came in contact with a small rock. Volk turned and whispered, "You hear that?"
Meine lifted his head, his ears searching for whatever sound that caught Volk's attention. Not the distant screech of a bird, the chirp of the nearest cricket, or the creaking moan of a tall tree was to be heard. Gentle winds crept through the trees and branches, rustling the hordes of leaves, an unsettling howl snaking its way to the clearing.
"Volk, I... I don't think I'm hearing anything."
To his shock, Volk nodded. "Exactly. Something's not right; this place should be filled with noise. You know... birds, insects, that sort of shit." He shifted in his place, resting his scarred rifle on his thigh. He gestured to the hill before them. "Sneak up there and see what's ahead. Be as quiet as possible, you hear?"
He didn't need to be told twice. Like a skilled hunter, Meine inched to the top of the hill, keeping as low to the earth as possible. If the Maquis were indeed watching them, he might as well give them some sort of a challenge. He zigzagged to and fro between the trees, each step as quiet as its predecessor. Rule one of being a soldier: never run in a straight line. Everyone and their mother knew that going in a straight line was being asked to be shot.
Meine slipped behind a tree, turning his head to scour the landscape before them. In any other situation he would freely gape in awe at the sea of trees that stretched into the rolling hills, but in that sea swam the predators. From where he stood, he could make out two dim lights, separated by no more than 200 yards. Eyes squinted, he looked through his scope and discovered them to be fires, just barely seeing the wispy smoke arise from the flames. He signaled Volk to come up and pointed to the spots, quickly sparking the sniper's interest.
"Do you think it could be them?" Meine whispered.
"It could be, but I'm not positive. We can't get a good view from up here; they're hidden by the trees." He shouldered his rifle and stared at the lights. "Alright, listen up. Smoke told me of your 'skill', so you're going to start using it. See the light on your left? You're going to that. Should you see any sign of the resistance or those fucking Brits, you shoot them. I don't care who they are. If they're holding a weapon, you make it so they never get up. You're a sniper, and a sniper's job is to protect his comrades." He pressed a finger into Meine's chest. "I have a fiance I want to get home to alive, and if you screw that up, I will make it so I haunt you to the brink of insanity. Go."
¤ ¤ ¤
Meine pushed and pried himself through what felt like an endless mass of thorn bushes, the menacing spears resting just seconds from his eyes. The barbs hooked and pulled at his uniform, snagging any threads and even his skin when the need to free himself came. One thorn successfully stabbed deep under a fingernail. His body flattened against the cool grass, he crawled to a fortunate opening and clambered onto a fallen tree, leaning the rifle against the log and taking a moment to catch his breath. He winced as a sharp pain shot up his right arm and looked down, seeing a stream of blood running from where the thorn entered his finger. His left hand lingered above the wound, then suddenly tore it free. He shoved both hands over his mouth to muffle a scream, eyes tightly shut.
Faint voices swung to his ears and his skin turned cold. He slid behind the log, dragging his rifle with him, and noticed a near visible gap between the ground and the tree. Meine maneuvered his body onto his side and peered into the pale-lighted clearing, catching the sound of crunching grass and sight of rusting brush. He remained still.
Three pairs of boots emerged from the brush, the bottom of their pants soaked and splattered with mud. Their panting was loud, raspy. From where he lay Meine saw no guns, but he could easily see a grenade nested in one of their belts. The legs on the far right had a graze below the knee, and it looked to be days old. They spoke in low tones, but it wasn't in French, nor was it German. Brits! He shifted the helmet off his ear, listening as the frantic men questioned one another. One stamped the ground and began to walk in circles around his friends; he was the most panicked of the three. The man with the wounded leg soon stopped him in his tracks and shook him once before hissing what Meine could tell was an obscenity.
Just as quick as they arrived, they hurried off. Slowly, Meine rose and saw the muddy footprints rush off deeper into the woods, towards the fire only yards from where he knelt. Rising shadows coiled about the trees and plants, shifting into hunched giants and hideous devils. Meine shook away the monsters from the fairy-tales and positioned the weapon, propping his elbow upon his knee and digging the stock into his shoulder. Through the scope he caught sight of four soldiers huddled close to the roaring flames. The fear strewn on their faces was only challenged by the terror marching in Meine's eyes. One soldier, a man with bright red hair, turned to look behind them. Meine's heart nearly skipped a beat; the man was looking in his direction! The bridge of his nose was directly in the center of the scope, his eyes staring deep into Meine's soul. It felt as if time had slowed down for that event only. Meine didn't budge, continuing to watch the man's calm expression. Did he even see Meine, and if he did, why wasn't he alerting his comrades? Meine steadied the rifle onto the log, lifting a heavy finger over the trigger. The tip of his skin brushed the curved metal.
Then the red-haired man turned away and leaned inwards, arms vanishing between his massive legs. One of the soldiers, an older man with silvering hair, jerked his hand over the fire and towards his large companion, speaking harshly. Seeming to ignore the elder, the redhead straightened himself out and placed an object upon his lap, looking to his friends. They said nothing and merely gazed into the fire. Meine saw no fear in their eyes; only defeat.
Meine adjusted his scope with one click, licking his dried lips. He wished they had noticed him and fled the area. To shoot them while they remained oblivious... it was unfair. However, Volk's words before they departed were still fresh in his mind. Always cheat; always win. The only unfair fight is the one you lose. You are judge, you are jury, and you are executioner. He hated to admit it; he knew Volk was right. The lives of his friends were at stake, the lives of Max and Ambros were in his hands. He relaxed his shoulders and leaned forward, his left eye beginning to close.
Suddenly, the large man grabbed the object in his lap and lifted it into his arms. Meine froze. It was a small guitar! He ripped his finger away from the trigger and had to make sure his eyes were not fooling him. He clicked the scope back, then forward again. His eyes spoke the truth; it was no weapon, it was an instrument. In fact, from where he sat, there were no weapons. He squinted his eyes, watching the large one pluck a few strings, then move to tune them. Meine watched with intense curiosity, the mission completely slipping through his fingers. Without missing a beat he hopped over the log and crept closer, keeping his steps silent upon the blades of grass and his body hidden amongst the fauna. He slipped into a small depression and settled the rifle on a dead stump, clicking the dial back a few yards. All four men were now resting in his sight; he was face-to-face with the large soldier and his instrument. He was fully aware of Meine's presence, secretly glimpsing ahead of him every few minutes before returning to his guitar. Meine kept a tally of those glimpses, still as a statue. Distance was his ally, the forest his labyrinth.
It was then that the music began.
The strumming melody of the guitar wrapped itself around Meine's body, and like a blanket projected warmth to the young soldier. Memories of home blinded his vision, cradling him back to the streets of Bamberg and into the arms of his beloved mother, Annalyn. There they sat, the fireplace alight, shape-shifting embers bouncing in their eyes. A seven-year-old Meine sat snuggled in his mother's lap, his favorite fairy-tale book clenched tightly in his toylike hands. His mother embraced him in her frail arms and rocked him back and forth, her brown locks falling upon his head. It was the night before Christmas Eve, yet no tree was mounted in the corner, decorated to a child's content, observing the colorful presents of different shapes and sizes. The war had left a terrible scar on the household and their financial status, leaving Tavin with little choice but to work day and night to keep a roof over his family's heads.
Annalyn brushed her fingers against Meine's cheek as his eyelids grew heavy, casting him off to sleep with his favorite story, Red Riding Hood. However, she could only get so far before he couldn't bear to hear anymore, especially the part where the wolf scarfed down the innocent, defenseless grandmother. Back then it was rare for her to get through a whole story without Meine plugging his ears or picking another story. He buried his face into her shoulder, his grip loosening around his treasured book and falling limply to his lap. He felt his body lifted and whisked into his bed, tucked in with his stuffed dog Treue, and given a soft kiss to his forehead. He squirmed in a fit of joy and pulled the heavy quilt over his head to hide his red face. Annalyn couldn't stop herself from laughing and knelt to his bedside. She grabbed Treue and laid it by his stomach, watching in amusement as a thin arm popped out from the covers and felt around for his dog.
She gently grabbed his hand. "Good night, my little engel. I love you..."
The music came to an end, and with that Meine snapped back to the present. He whipped his head around, shocked to find himself back in the forest. His eye shot through the scope and to the soldiers. All four remained in place, gazing in a mix of awe and serenity to their large friend. One man even broke down in tears, shaking and curled into a ball. His sobs echoed throughout the sky and towards the stars.
It soon struck Meine; they were all aware of him, whether it had been the large man telling them, or his presence was that apparent. He lay there, no more than fifty yards away, ready to steal the lives of these four men in the dead of the night. His hands began to tremble; what right... what right was he granted to kill them on foreign soil, away from their friends and families?
You are judge, you are jury, and you are executioner.
Meine's body quaked, scalding tears brimming in his eyes. He shoved the rifle away and slammed his fist into the ground repeatedly until the skin from his knuckles was bloodied ribbons dangling by a thread. A loud hiss ran through gritted teeth and he squeezed his hand next to jacket, blocking the stinging agony as best he could. In a heartbeat he swiped up the weapon and stumbled into the dark forest. He tripped and tottered aimlessly, his actions endlessly replaying in his head. He had disobeyed an order, again; he had spared the enemy. The soldier shook his head and leaned against a tree to catch his breath. His knees gave in and he slid to the forest floor, mumbling incoherently. Volk... oh lord, if Volk found out, he wouldn't waste any time reporting him to Smoke. He would be shot for disobeying a direct order, probably arrested and shipped off to a faraway prison for the rest of his life...
Bang... Bang... Bang!
A monster hounding down upon his unsuspecting prey, the shots howled for but two seconds. Three shook the woods, one after the other. There was silence for a moment, stretching into minutes before a fourth round sucked the air from Meine's lungs. His whole body grew tense, his widened eyes descended to the earth. The ability to move returned and he moved to stand, but a sudden force brought him crashing against the tree. Stunned, Meine could only watch in terror as Volk's hands pierced into his arms and pinned him against the rough bark, dark eyes ablaze with fury.
"What part of 'kill' did not go through your fucking head, Steinmann!" Volk threw him aside, waiting until he struggled to push himself up to jab his boot into Meine's side. "You're a sniper; you're supposed to kill! How stupid are you, really! The men you allowed to live could have found allies from the resistance and ambushed us, killed us!" He roughly pulled Meine up. "I wasted four of my rounds on your rats, you sniveling little coward."
Meine balled a fist and thrust it towards Volk, but it was parried and Volk's fist struck Meine across the face, under the dark bruise forming below his eye. Volk shoved him down and he collapsed with a thud, the world spinning and colors hovering about his eyes.
"It's people like you that cause our soldiers on the east to die. You hesitate and pull shit like that, and the next thing you know half of your unit is dead from the savage Communists. If we were on the east I would not blink an eye to kill you where you stand... Your kind should be the ones buried, not our soldiers. This is my one and only warning to you, Steinmann. When I tell you to kill, when I tell you to pull the trigger, you will pull that trigger, and you will spill blood. Refuse, and I put one between your eyes. Get up, we're going."