The damned heat of the mid-July sun beat down upon the men, hundreds of pounding boots pressing into the earth. Beneath the steel helmets, sweat fell from flushed faces as the soldiers trudged on behind the Kübelwagen transporting Smoke, with Barth taking the wheel. About ten meters behind hummed the Opel Blitz, hauling rations and weapons. The fields of France seemed never-ending. To the right of the Kompanie marched Martin, who wasted no time yelling at any speaking or a foot being out of step. His throat was beginning to dry; he had been barking orders since they left before sunrise, leaving little to no evidence of a campground even existing in the field. Nonetheless, he continued his tirade. His eyes as daggers, they focused on a particular soldier, whom he specifically had placed on the outside of the middle rank.
"Keep in step, Hexenkopf! Lift your head up, and relax your fists." Martin flashed a smile and turned his head, quickly moving ahead to another rank. "Eichel, what the hell did I tell you about swinging your arms like a moron...?!"
Max let out a relieved sigh and briefly wiped under his chin. "How long have we been marching? It feels like we've been going at this forever!"
"It's only been six hours, you big baby," said Emmerich, who was marching right behind him. "I'm guessing we got less than twenty miles to go."
Max rolled his eyes. "We've never marched this much back in training. Hell, we barely marched since we got here...!" He let out a deep breath and wiped his forehead. "They could have just as easily flown us to our destination..."
"Good luck with that." Armin was next to Emmerich. "The Luftwaffe wouldn't be so merciful as to give us a little lift... You know how pilots are. Nothing more than stuck-up rich boys who brag about how they can land a plane."
"Hey, watch your mouth." Max barely turned his head, eyes narrowed. "My dad was a pilot and flew in the Great War, let me tell you! He even flew beside the Red Baron before he got shot down."
Armin smirked. "Yeah, yeah, we heard this a million times, Max. Shot down behind enemy lines, crashed into a frozen lake... used his wits and escaped back to Germany, etc."
"While wounded, I'll have you know. Hit in the arm and leg! Did I tell you two about the time he slipped past a large battalion of British soldiers whi..."
"While dressed as a priest, yes! We have heard them all, especially me." Emmerich scowled, pinching the bridge of his nose. "How about you tell us the time where he named you after his friend's dog?"
Max just glared at him and fell silent.
"Wait, what?" Armin's smirk grew. "He was named after a dog?"
"Mhmm! When his dad and friend were little, his friend had an ugly mutt named 'Max', and when ours truly was born..."
Max clenched his fists again. "You better shut your mouth, Em, before I shut it for you."
"I'd love to see you try, cousin!"
Max moved to turn his body and slug Emmerich in the face when Martin magically appeared beside him, clapping a tight hand on his shoulder. "Are we having a problem, Hexenkopf...?"
"Nooooo, sir." Max took a deep breath and looked to the Feldwebel, putting on a teeth-clenching smile. "Everything is fine
"Let's keep it that way, hm?" Martin put on a smile of his own and looked to the others. "Keep it up, boys. We have a few more miles to trek before reaching our destination."
"We're not going to be the only ones holding the town, right, sir? We are going to have backup?" Armin asked.
Martin shook his head. "Major Lange has no men to spare, Fahn. Those French bastards, as much as I hate to admit it, got him good the other night. They planted explosives under his artillery and vehicles, blew everything to hell. Thirty men were killed, and the hundreds wounded are stationed at our destination. We don't want those frogs taking any more than they already have." His face turned grave. "The French aren't all we have to deal with
Chances are the British will be close behind."
"That's, what, two-hundred plus men against us?" A scowl creased across Max's face.
"We can only hope it's not, Hexenkopf. For now, focus on shutting the hell up. The last thing I want before the battle is a bunch of men pissing their pants because someone couldn't keep their mouth closed. Remember, the safety of those wounded is on our shoulders."
Emmerich looked. "What do we do if we're outnumbered, sir?"
"We let our secret weapon pick them off until they turn tail, that's what."
Armin raised an eyebrow. "'Secret weapon'? We don't have any artillery, though..."
A grin of confidence flashed on Martin's face. "We have one thing they don't: a sniper. As long as Steinmann keeps his bearings, our casualties should be down to a minimum."
Armin's face turned uncertain. "Steinmann? Really? You sure you want to make that decision?"
"I already did, Fahn. The kid ranked just under Volk; he's the best chance we have until we get a replacement. The Hauptmann has faith in him, and that's enough for me to believe it..." Martin looked ahead, then back at the soldiers, his infamous scowl appearing. "Now, mouths shut, eyes forward, and keep marching!"
* * *
By late afternoon, the unit had eventually reached the town, welcomed by a stream of doctors running to and fro to numerous buildings, uniforms covered in dried blood and torn bandages. Those who were able to walk hobbled across the streets, usually accompanied by a medic or a more able-bodied man. Meine felt all color in his face sink at the sight, hands wrapping tightly around the leather sling of his rifle. From the corner of his eye, he spotted two men hauling away a groaning man on a stretcher, half of his head masked by crimson-dotted dressing. The stagnant rank of what smelled like almonds crawled up his nostrils and slithered down his throat; he gagged and almost doubled over.
The town was of past centuries, with cobblestone roads and buildings built by countless bricks. The roofs looked to be made of rotting wood tied in with patches of felt near the edges and middle. The bell tower close to the center of the town stuck out like a sore thumb. To the right of the town rested a large hill decorated with brick walls, some small enough for a child to hop over, others not even the greatest athlete could muster. On the left stretched miles upon miles of fields, seeming to be untouched by man's hand. What lay on the other side of the small district was beyond Meine's knowledge.
The Kübelwagen rolled to a stop and Smoke hopped out, pulling off stray grass blades and tossing them aside. "Alright, men, I want trenches dug all around the perimeter of the town! We have only so much time before battle. Half of you, get to digging, and the other half, assist the medical team in evacuating the wounded. There are about one-hundred and fifty soldiers that need to get the hell out of here." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a cigarette. "I want rifles loaded and MP40s at your side; mistakes will not be tolerated. Grenades will be at the ready. I do not want anyone leaving the trenches to charge headfirst into the enemy. Steinmann, you're with me. The rest of you, get to work. Dismissed!"
It was as if someone had taken a large cleaver and chopped down the middle of the Kompanie. One half silently made their way to the buildings while the rest trudged over to the Opel Blitz for shovels and the like. Meine remained in his spot until he saw Smoke gesture him over.
As soon as the young soldier reached his side, Smoke gently patted him on the shoulder. "First thing's first, kiddo. Your spotter?"
my what, sir?"
Smoke held in a sigh, lowering his head and pinching the bridge of his nose. "Your spotter, Steinmann. You know, the one who
spots your targets or anything coming your way? Don't worry, it was my fault. I should have explained this to you last night. Do you have anyone in mind?"
Meine was silent for a moment, names racing back and forth and around his head, bouncing off the walls. Before he could even properly consider, his mouth blurted out, "Max
The two men heard Martin groan a few feet away at the mention of Max's name. Smoke ignored it and smiled. "Good choice! Martin, go find Hexenkopf and tell him to meet us at the bell tower in thirty."
"Yes, sir." Martin saluted and went on his way, almost dragging his feet.
"Come with me, son." Smoke wrapped an arm around Meine's shoulders, leading him down the road. "Now that we got that taken care of, I need to make sure you are prepared for this job. I don't want to come and find that belfry empty, you hear?"
"Y-yes, sir. It won't happen, sir, I promise
"Good! Oh, and relax on the formalities when we're alone, son." They turned into a narrow alley. "I could tell the second I saw you that you're
skittish, for lack of a better word. You're not one to take advantage of your new position, right?"
"My thoughts exactly." Smoke nodded to himself. "I know I had forced you into this job, Steinmann, but the last thing I want to happen is losing half of these boys to the enemy. We're doing all we can to get a real sniper out here, but right now, you're all we have."
Meine said nothing, instead chewing on the inside of his lip.
Once they stepped foot into a new street, a voice called out. "Hauptmann?"
The two men simultaneously turned their heads to the left, spotting a tall, lean man hastily heading their way, waving a hand over his head. Over his eyes were small spectacles, more fitting for a child than an adult. He looked to be no older than forty, yet there was faint evidence of graying hairs sprouting out from under his cap. Meine blinked in surprise at the appearance of the soldier, his eyes falling upon the violet collar tabs resting around his neck, then down to the palm-sized silver cross pendant dangling from his necklace. Along his right arm was a red and white band, another cross in the middle.
"Are you the Hauptmann of the Kompanie that just arrived?"
"Yes, Father. Who might you be?" Smoke didn't notice the growing confusion on Meine's face.
"Adolph Ritter, Chaplain. Major Lange appointed me and another to help with the assured safety of these poor souls, sir."
"Is that so...?" Smoke was rolling the cigarette between his fingers in mild anticipation. "Does the good major bring any news?"
"Of course, sir. The major had left behind three MG 34s for your use in a building behind the bell tower. He says they are fully operational and are well-equipped. About twenty minutes ago, we got word that the Opel Ambulances are on their way; if there are no surprises, they should be here before the enemy is." Adolph adjusted his glasses.
"That's good to hear, Father. I apologize, but we need to be on our way..." Smoke tapped his fingers on Meine's shoulders and began to walk away.
Smoke turned. "Something else, Father?"
"Yes, sir. Major Lange has given the order that from here on out, I am to be apart of your unit." A small smile of pride sneaked onto the Chaplain's face. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a folded letter with a large-looped 'L' on top and held it out to Smoke.
Grabbing the paper, Smoke snapped it open and stared at it for only ten seconds before folding it back up. "Couldn't have picked a better time for this, Lange... Well, then. Welcome to the Kompanie, Father. Go and locate Feldwebel Kappel and inform him of the order and supplies from Lange. He'll be the man who never smiles." Smoke smirked and jokingly nudged Meine.
"Of course, sir. I shall see you later!" And with a wave and another adjustment of his glasses, Adolph slipped past them and into the alley and vanished.
As soon as they continued to the bell tower, Meine asked, "Sir?"
"Why did you call him 'Father'? He wa... I mean he looked younger..."
Smoke loudly cleared his throat to hide the laughter escaping his mouth. "Ah, sorry, son! Your family wasn't religious, I take it? A Chaplain's like a priest, part of the church. Out here, they're in charge of making sure we keep to our faith and... God forbid..."
Meine frowned a bit. "And what?" Deep down, he wished he'd kept his mouth shut.
"To perform last rites to the dying." Smoke placed the cigarette between his lips and took out a box of matches, not yet bothering to light the cheap roll of tobacco.
Meine fell silent, his mind fighting off images of his unit lying in a suffering, mangled heap. His hands clenched the rifle sling as Smoke led him towards the bell tower, the sky filled with the preparations for the upcoming battle. Despite his best efforts, nothing derailed his thoughts away from the present. His gaze slowly diverted to the cracked cobblestones, his footsteps labored. Two more blocks and a right turn later, they found themselves engulfed in the growing shadow of the belfry, the shade welcoming an odd yet cooling sensation.
Max was leaning against the tower, his combat helmet tilted to cover his eyes. His hands, knees, and uniform was covered in filth; he had been helping with the trench effort. In his arms, he cradled a scope, much larger than the sight on Meine's rifle, almost double in size.
"Are we awake, Hexenkopf?"
As if on cue, Max straightened his helmet and pushed himself from the wall. "Unfortunately, sir. Feldwebel Kappel said I was to meet you and Steinmann here?"
Smoke nodded. "Steinmann picked you to be his spotter. You will be finding targets and the like, understand?"
"Yes, sir. The Feldwebel wanted me to inform you that the trenches are half-way done, the MG 34s are up and ready, and the ambulances should be..."
A loud bang cut Max's sentence. From the southwest side of the town, a bright red light erupted into the sky, an ear-piercing whistle not far behind. Meine yelped and quickly clapped both hands over his ears, cringing at the noise. Max winced, clenching his teeth. Smoke, however, took a step forward, his dark eyes watching the flare begin its descent back to earth. He quickly looked to Meine and wretched his hands away from his head.
"The enemy is less than half a mile away. Get up there, both of you! Now!" Smoke hurriedly pushed Meine to the ladder, Max following close behind. "Do not fire until you have a clear shot, you hear? No mistakes are to be made here!"
Before Meine could even muster a word, Smoke rushed off, pistol unholstered. He looked to Max, icy beads of sweat swarming down the back of his neck. Max shook his head and pointed up towards the wooden platform. Part of Meine just wanted to get up there and hope he would survive this one battle; the other part wanted to punch Max in the head and take off running. Against his better wishes, Meine tilted his helmet back and slowly climbed to the platform, barely having a chance to actually test the endurance of the boards before Max nearly shoved his lower half up, almost sending him head over heels. With a frown, Meine crawled to the nearest window before noticing something missing from the tower: the actual bell. His eyes glanced to the ceiling, seeing a thick, metal hook screwed into the stone. He pressed his back against the wall, turning his head to the view outside. The trenches were not deep enough for everyone to securely hide in, the MG 34s spread thirty feet apart from each other and pointed at the dirt road leading into the forest.
"What?" Max slowly moved past Meine and over to the opposite side of the opening, setting the scope on the stone sill.
"Are you afraid...?"
Max's eyes looked to his friend. "You want the truth?"
"I am afraid, Meine. I'm doing all I can not to piss myself..." He put his eye to the scope. "Okay, I see 'em... French and British, infantry. Can't be more than a hundred and fifty... Get your rifle ready."
Without a word, Meine did so, the butt-plate cushioned against his right shoulder, the stock perched upon the stone. He wet his dry lips and lowered his head, immediately catching sight of the enemy. The French... they wore nothing more than mere civilian clothes, yet they charged head-on, howling like mad dogs. Behind them was the real enemy: the British. Leading them rode a round man on a white stallion, his sword slashing at the air. If Meine didn't know better, he'd think the charging of the British could have caused an earthquake.
"Alright, got a couple limeys setting up a machine gun by that solitary tree. They got a direct opening into mowing down our men and that building... I don't know if there's wounded in there or not, but we can't take chances. Move your rifle... about five degrees to your right. Forget about the rest of the Brits for now."
"Whe... Oh, I see them now!"
"We're on borrowed time, Meine. Fire..."
Meine's rapid heartbeat drummed out all the noises, his body freezing. He saw them, two young men, perhaps his age, younger even... Strings coiled menacingly around his muscles and lungs. His body trembled, his eyes wide and brimming with untold fear. He couldn't...
"Fire..." Max's voice sounded distant.
He placed a quivering finger on the trigger.
He squeezed his eyes shut, barely moved the barrel up, and fired.