Three hours had come and gone. The wounded were finally transported away from the town in a long parade of vehicles, and with them left the many recommendations for the Iron Cross. From the distance, scattered civilians watched on as the soldiers took leave of the town, frowns plastered amongst their faces; in less than a day, a town they took years to build and cultivate had become nothing more than a poor man's land. The Opel Blitz, to their chagrin, was damaged in the battle, and while most of the supplies were spared, others were not so lucky. Upon inspection, twelve tents were mangled beyond repair, Meine's and Max's included. For substitution, they were instead given a single blanket.
The unit found shelter among the dense woods, placing the Opel and Kübelwagen a hundred feet from their campsite and slopping together average camouflage upon the patched tarp. Silent, the men set up the tents, taking care to watch for any one glimpse of the French Resistance that would be lucky or stupid enough to sneak into a camp filled with over one-hundred Germans.
Flopping onto the ground, Max wiped the grime from his hands and watched in questionable envy at Emmerich. Thankfully, his cousin was just grazed above the ankle during the fight, but it didn't mean he couldn't sport a limp.
Emmerich glanced over and smirked. "Don't get pissy at me; I didn't shoot your tent."
"No, but it's not like the others will let me bud in. We're family! Just for one night, come on."
"Yeaaaaah, no. I remember our sleepovers, and I certainly remember being kicked in the face all the damn time. It might have happened when we were eight, but it's not gonna happen again. You're on your own."
"It was one time!"
"Three years." Emmerich scowled. "You almost broke my nose twice! Why don't you go share with Meine?"
"Because his got ruined, too. 'Sides, it's not like he noticed; he's been babying the mutt since we left." He gestured over to a wall of crates where Meine sat with Ambros and Chaplain Ritter, both men patting and scratching the dog from the tip of his nose to his tail. Max rolled his eyes and said, "Why Smoke let him keep the dog is beyond me."
"The way I heard it, you encouraged the idea."
"Only because that ass Vogel reared his ugly head in."
"C'mon, he doesn't seem so bad. The dog, I mean. He keeps Meine happy, he's out of our hair... what's not to be happy about that?"
Max looked to his cousin. "The mutt is a sitting duck for the frogs, that's what. I don't wanna see him go through it." He shifted a little, crossing his legs. "How's the foot?"
Emmerich lifted his foot inches above the ground and hopped over. "Hurts like hell, but it could be worse. Surprised you didn't get hit."
"Nah, I'm just bruised up, is all." He winced and carefully rolled his shoulders, groaning faintly. "Those old rocks did a number to my back..."
"So lay down, moron. It's going to do you no good whining about it like a woman."
Rolling his eyes, Max flattened his back against the cool forest floor, a relaxed sigh breaking from his lips. It did feel nice against the black and blue blotches painted on his back, he had to admit. In his mind he envisioned his home in Munich, a small two-story building built between a family-owned butcher shop and an ornery woman by the name of Eva Nebelburg. Whatever happened in the neighborhood, she would be the first to blame Max. Sure, she was right more than half of the time, like when a rock was innocently thrown through her kitchen window and someone was trespassing on her roof in the middle of the night. But he had his clean streaks now and then, honest! Just not when she was around.
His eyes were close to shutting when a sudden force struck his stomach. His upper body and legs folded up and inward, eyes bulged out as a black smudge zoomed past. He didn't need to look at the muddy paw print on his jacket to know what the hell just stepped on him.
"Son of a bi..." Max staggered up, doubled over and swearing to the high heavens. "MEINE!"
Meine and Ritter looked up.
"Your damn mutt just ran over me!" Max coughed for air, clutching his sides.
"Oh, I'm sure it wasn't too harmful...!" Ritter stood, adjusting his cap. "He's a playful little puppy! He didn't do it on purpose!"
"Purpose my..." Max grumbled the rest of the sentence and managed to straighten out. "At least get the mutt a leash so he doesn't run anyone else over."
"We're a-already on it!" Meine smiled and held up a fairly strong rope. "Herr Ritter's working on his collar right now!" He began to hum and went back to fitting the clasp onto the handmade leash.
Max bit his tongue to stop himself from saying anything else and walked off to bother others, muttering incoherently.
Meine fiddled with the rope. "Why... did a man like yourself join the military? Aren't religious men, w-well... don't you avoid conflict?"
Chuckling, Ritter looked to him. "That is true, my dear boy. When I was younger, I was fascinated with the armed forces and went to join during the Great War. Unfortunately, I was denied. My eyesight was a hindrance; without my glasses, I'm as blind as a bat. But, I digress. My coming to the Heer was not entirely voluntary, you see. I was conscripted in 1939, just after our forces entered Poland. I was leaving for my church one morning when the SS came to my doorstep with a single sheet of paper. It said that should I refuse to aid the Führer's cause, I would be arrested for treason." He paused to push up his glasses. "So, the next day, I was shipped off, promoted to a Oberleutnant, and placed in Major Lange's division up until today. What about yourself? You seem more out of place than I do!"
"Oh! Well... I don't like to think s-so. I was conscripted, too, and had to leave my brothers and father. If I didn't leave, my family would be... labeled as cowards, and I could never forgive myself if that happened. Besides, Hauptmann Smoke said the war could be over in less than a year...!" Meine offered a weak smile in hopes of raising his spirits.
"Well, we can certainly hope, my son." Ritter placed a hand on his shoulder. "It wouldn't do any good to dwell on it, now."
"Yes, sir..." Meine slightly tugged at his jacket sleeves. "Can I ask another question?"
"Of course! What is it?"
"D-don't take this the wrong way, but... do you agree with what we're doing? The fighting?" Meine's voice was barely above a whisper.
Ritter's eyes traveled to his cross. "You should be careful of what you say out here, Meine. Such questions... could fall upon the wrong crowd. We are out here to ensure the victory of Germany, even if it means spilling unnecessary blood." He leaned to Meine. "No, I do not agree at all. As a man of God, I know there are other alternatives to assuring victory for Hitler's goal, and this is not it. Germany and Europe has already suffered enough in the Great War; and we certainly don't need a repeat."
'The wrong crowd' meant only one thing: the SS. SiPo, Kripo, RSHA, SD or SA... it didn't matter what you called them. They were all the same. It didn't take a detective to know there was tension between the Wehrmacht and SS; they cooperated as well as oil and water. While the 'common folk' were out doing the dirty work, the pretty boys leaned back in their chairs, shined boots propped on the table and swimming in imported alcohol. Day and night, the SS and the Gestapo ruled the streets of Germany and its occupants. Whatever they wanted, they got one way or another. Meine had no trouble saying he despised them all; he was among friends on that topic.
"We should just be happy we're not fighting on the east," Ritter continued. "A good friend of mine is over there with his regiment, and he told me that nearly a quarter of the men had died. Now, my math isn't the best, but their casualties are more than the men in this small unit. But, I digress...!" He smiled and pinched the temple arm of his glasses. "It's getting late, and no doubt Hauptmann Smoke will want us to turn in early. Why don't you go find that mischievous little pup? I should have the collar done by tomorrow!"
"O-oh, great!" Smiling, Meine stood. Perhaps it was because he wasn't officially an officer or soldier, but he found Ritter to be relaxing to talk to. "Um... can I say something...?"
"I just... wanted to thank you f-for Ambros. I promise, I won't let you down."
"You're very welcome; I'm glad I could help." The priest pushed his glasses back again and walked off, cheerfully waving to random soldiers.
With a proud grin growing on his face, Meine moved through the campsite and to his spot, where a the blanket and his rifle lay. To his surprise, there was nary a scratch upon the weapon; it was just clouded in dust. He'd remind himself to clean it later. Elsewhere, he saw small groups circled around tents, heads hanging low and passing sheets of paper all around. He then turned his attention to Barth making his way down the aisles, calling out numerous names and shooing off lingering men in an irritable manner. Letters, of course! Meine thought, mentally slapping himself. No wonder everyone's so eager.
"Schafer... Pfeiffer... Bidermann... Will you please get back?! I can't focus with you all hassling me like puppies...!" Huffing, Barth recollected himself and reached out more envelopes from the pack. Meine inched closer. "Let's see... Fahn... Fleck, Moehle, Reiss... Eichel, you have five... Hexenkopf, both of you... and... ah! Kappel! That's all I got, now stop pestering me or I will report you all to the Hauptmann."
There were some swears and gestures, but the men went back to their tents. Meine remained in his place, his expression turning crestfallen and eyes drifting aside. Truthfully, Meine wasn't surprised; since he arrived in training, he had received no word from his family. No updates on his father's condition, no word about whether or not their financial status worsened... it was like they vanished off the face of the earth. Yes, he would be more than happy to write and tell them about all his friends and his experiences so far, but...
"Meine!" Max waved him over to where he and Emmerich sat, enjoying news from home. Meine placed himself beside Max. "You ever been to Munich?"
"Once, when I was little... why?"
"Would you like to go back?" Max smirked a little. "I told my dad about you in my last letter, and he wants to meet you face-to-face!"
"He... he does?" Meine blinked.
Emmerich grinned. "You should feel honored, Meine. Because, you know, Max's father was a pilot in the Great War and flew alongside the Red Baron!"
"You're just jealous because your dad was a bookkeeper." Max elbowed Meine. "You can't blame the poor guy; not everyone's dad can be a pilot."
"Brag all you want; it's just going to get you in trouble in the future." Emmerich folded up his letter and shoved it back in the envelope. "You get anything, Meine?"
Meine shook his head. "They're probably too busy to write... Ansel has to focus on his studies, Friedrich has h-his job, and my dad needs to worry about his recovery."
"Oh, please." Max rolled his eyes. "Em's sister was in labor for thirty hours, and she found time to write to him! It's not like they're pushing out a..." He cut off his sentence, clearing his throat. "My point is, you're out here risking your life for the glory of Germany, and they need to show their support for it."
"M-maybe... I have to go set up my bed. I'll see you tomorrow." Without another word, Meine carried himself away from the cousins and to his tent-less spot, plopping beside the blanket. Out of nowhere, Ambros plowed in and tumbled next to his master, panting. His tour through the camp was anything but boring, Meine could tell from the glint of excitement in the pup's dark eyes. His tongue lolled out, he placed his enormous head on Meine's lap, snorting from exhaustion.
"Did you have fun, Ambros?" Smiling, Meine scratched behind Ambros's ears. A loud growl meaning 'absolutely' followed by his tail pounding the floor was his reply. Meine chuckled. "Tomorrow, you'll have your very own collar, isn't that great? Herr Ritter just h-has to get you a tag and you'll be all set...! You'll be seeing a lot of places with us: towns, maybe some cities, forests like this one... and when the war's over, you can come home with me! It's been a long time since my family had a pet, and they would love you..."
Ambros didn't reply; he simply continued to wag his tail.
"I'd take that as a yes." Max appeared behind Meine and ruffled his hair. There was something in his hand. "I have a surpriiiise for you!"
"Surprise...?" Meine looked to the envelope.
"It seems that a special someone wrote to you, and it got mixed up with mine. No return address, but the handwriting says it all." He gently tapped the envelope against Meine's jacket. "Looks like you got an admirer, my good friend."
Perplexed, Meine took the envelope from his friend and stared at the loopy, cursive scripture upon the surface. Who on... who did he know outside of the family that knew he was here? And... what girl did he know? In Bamberg, the only girl he really interacted with was with the local baker's daughter, Kora Abt, two years his senior. They never engaged in any serious conversation, it was more along the lines of the casual 'hello', 'how are you', and 'good-bye'. Kora was sweet and polite, yes, and not bad to look at, but she was the type to stay blended in the shadows and avert attention from herself. She wasn't the type to write to someone she would speak to every other day, especially someone like Meine.
Tearing the seal aside, Meine pulled out the crinkled piece of paper and stared blankly at the note, the words a massive jumble to him. Nothing made the least bit of sense to him, and admitting to Max would make him look like a complete fool.
"Well? What does it say, Romeo?" Max nudged him. "Does Juliet send her 'everlasting affection'?"
"Oh, I... I think I got some dust in my eyes! I can't read a single thing. Could you read it for me...?"
An eyebrow raised, Max snatched the letter away and cleared his throat, slipping on imaginary glasses. Meine giggled at that; Max had a gift for making him laugh. "Let's see what we have here! Ah!" Clearing his throat again, he went into an 'authentic' British accent. "To the brave and heroic Meine Steinmann! You do not know me, as we have never met, b-but..." He faltered when Meine broke into laughter and he fought to keep a straight face. "But, regardless, since the day I laid my eyes on you, I knew I had to do whatever it took to find you again! I was there when you and the rest of Kompanie 510 graduated and set out to win the war. My name is Anna, and I live in Potsdam with my father and uncle. I believe you are the bravest and most courageous of the men out there, and I wish you nothing but the best for you and your friends. My only wish is that when the war is over, we are able to meet. Until then, however, I send... I send my deepest prayers to you. Love, Anna.
"Well, well," Max went back to his German and wrapped an arm around Meine's shoulders. "My little buddy has a crush! Aww, they grow up so fast...!" He sniffed and wiped away a pretend tear. "Soon there'll be little Meines and Annas running around..."
"M-Max, s-s-stop!" Meine's face was brick red, his own tears rolling down his cheeks in a fit of wild laughter. He slowly managed to calm down and grabbed the letter. "So... sh-she's from Po... Potsdam? My mom was born there!"
"Ah-hah! It's destiny, mein freund." Max placed the letter back in the envelope and shoved it into Meine's jacket. "There, it can be your good luck charm."
Beaming, Meine opened his mouth, but was quickly silenced when a loud rip pierced their ears, causing the two friends to turn their heads. Ambros threw his head back and forth in a vicious manner, his jaws clamped tight around the thin fabric of a blanket as if it were a rabbit. In a flash, Max was on his feet and was at the dog's side, grabbing what he could of his blanket and pulled, digging his heels into the earth for leverage. However, all was for naught; Ambros easily gained the upper-hand and jerked his prize free from Max's clutches and pranced to Meine, laying on his belly and wrapping his paws around his catch.
"That son of a... Give that back!"
Meine got to his feet. "Max, stop! He's just playing...!"
"Playing?! The bastard has my blanket, or what's left of it!"
"He didn't know! I..." Meine bit his lip and looked around. "Um... Um..."
Meine's eyes fell to his own blanket and a small smile came. "W-we can share mine!"
"What... Meine, what?!" Max fought to keep his voice down to avoid getting attention. "Meine, just take it for yourself. It's summer, and the last thing I need is something to keep me hot in the middle of the night."
"No, n-no! Ambros ruined your blanket, and I can't let you go without yours. It's not right... I'll stay on my s-side, and you stay on yours, deal?"
Silent, Max raised an eyebrow and stared at him, then sighed. "Fiiine, but if your tiny little feet even come close to my face or gut, I'll toss you in the nearest lake. We clear?"
Meine's smile grew and he nodded. "I promise, I w-won't do anything like that!"
"Good..." Undoing his jacket, he balled it up into a pillow and neatly placed it on the ground. If the circumstances were different and they weren't in danger of being ambushed by the French, he'd undress to his socks and briefs. Here, though, Max Hexenkopf wasn't about to be caught off-guard.
After spreading out the gray sheet, the two men crawled in and got on their respectable sides. Meine curled as best he could into a ball, using his right arm as a pillow in lieu of his jacket. Max yawned and bent his knees slightly, gripping the corner of his side and tucking it under his cheek. Sleep was only a hairsbreadth away when he heard the all too familiar padding press onto the blanket and slump right in the middle.
Max let out a frustrated sigh. "Meine, tell me that's not who I think it is."
"He has a right to be here, Max. He won't bother you." Meine shifted in his place.
"Alright, but the same rules apply to this mutt...!" Max huffed and shut his eyes. "G'night."
Meine's face shaded pink. "Good night, Max."
* * *
"You know what?"
Meine remained silent. For a while, the only sound among the men was the crackling of the fire and the chirping of crickets.
"I said, you know what, Meine? And I expect an answer when I ask you something!"
A movement under the blankets the two men had shared, and Meine yelped out in pain. Meine gave a yawn and said, "What is it, Max?"
"Alright. You know what, Meine?"
Another moment of silence, then Meine finally answered. "What, Max?"
"I think I've got a pine cone up my ass."
Silence once more.
"A pine cone."
I think there's more than one sticking up my ass. At least three, I think
"What makes you think I'd actually want to know this?"
Max shrugged underneath the blankets. "I don't know. I just figured it'd be a fair warning, just in case somethin' pokes you in the ass. 'Cause pine cones in the ass isn't comfortable
"Then why don't you move?"
maybe because your skinny ass is in my way?"
"I don't have a skinny... b-be quiet!"
"Yes, you do! What do you call this?!"
"Ouch! Damn it, Max, stop pinching me!"
"Will you both shut up and just get to sleep?!" A third voice spoke up. Both men recognized it as Emmerich. "We don't want to hear you groping each other in the middle of the night! It proves to be rather awkward!"
"Okay!" Max hissed at Emmerich across the fire pit. "But just for the record, it's hard to sleep with pine cones up your ass!"
"I don't want to hear about the pine cones either! Just get to sleep!"
" Max huffed. "Fine. But you know you're jealous 'cause you don't have anyone like Meine to sleep next to at night and keep you warm! Meine's the perfect heater!"
"Oh, shut up!" Meine squeaked.
Max sighed. "Oh, alright!" He rolled over to face away from Meine and shut his eyes.
Twenty minutes later, everyone around the camp fire heard Max mutter, "Still can't sleep with pine cones up your ass."