Meine had soon discovered the battle had only lasted a little over an hour; the sun still stood high in the sky, overseeing the wreckage of the fight. It was just past 1700 hours, but the battle itself seemed to stretch into eternity. Near the church, the soldiers carried the countless wounded to buildings that weren't marred by gunfire or shrapnel. To everyone's dismay, the ambulances had yet to arrive as the numbers of wounded rose through the roof. The less fortunate lay in a crooked row along the street, their faces covered either by a helmet or a simple cloth, their dog tags resting upon their chests. Chaplain Ritter, bible in hand, stammered out prayers to the dead, begging to God to forgive their sins. Inside the church, Smoke and Martin were occupied with their own tasks: writing to the families of those who had fallen.
Silent, Meine and Max rummaged through the salvage of the town, tossing crushed bricks into one pile and support beams and broken walls into another. Whatever furniture they could find was directed to the center of town. Max said nothing to Meine; he almost acted as if his friend wasn't even there. Meine did what he could to fight off the feeling of guilt, but it took a tight grip on his mind, hooking itself into the small crevices of his head. His act could have resulted in Max's death
it already cost the lives of those who were killed.
Minutes passed before Meine turned his head. "Max
His back to Meine, Max tossed another brick into the heap.
Meine cleared his throat and spoke again, this time louder, "M-Max?"
Nothing. Max calmly walked past Meine to another house, grunting as he pulled away a beam.
His eyes began to dam up tears. He forcefully swallowed a whimper and took a step towards his friend. "M-Max, I
I-I'm sorry. What I did was horrible
I made an unforgivable mistake! I messed up
I could have gotten you killed!" He began to shake. "Hauptmann Smoke trusted me
you trusted me, and I let you down. V-Vogel was
he was right
At that moment, Max whipped around, scowling. He moved to Meine and pressed his finger into Meine's forehead. "Don't you even think for a second that piece of garbage Vogel is right, you hear me? I don't care what he's talking about; he is never right. As for what you did, it's past. Yeah, you messed up. Everyone makes a slip! You're not the first person to screw up in their first battle, Meine. I bet Martin cried like a little girl when he saw a gun pointed at him
" He did a quick scout of the area, then looked back to Meine. "Don't center your whole life on this. All it's going to do in the long run is bite you in the ass, trust me. I don't want to see you wallowing in pity and beating yourself up over this. Take a breath, exhale, and feel better." He clapped him on the shoulder, turning him around. "Now, let's get back to work and be happy again, hm?"
Meine felt himself pushed forward to a small mass of boards and stone leaning into a hole of a shack. He recovered his balance and adjusted himself correctly, glancing at Max, who swore loudly as a large splinter delved deep into the skin under his middle fingernail. Meine put on a small smile and went to his charge at hand, grabbing and tugging back a thick board.
The splinter trapped between his teeth, Max carefully strained the sliver free when a loud cry broke into his ears and an unknown figure crashed into him, almost sending both to the ground. Anchoring his feet, Max swung his body, catching a spooked Meine just in time. The young man appeared to have seen a ghost; Max could easily feel Meine's heartbeat thudding against his bones. His face was pallid, eyes open to the fullest.
"Hey, easy...! What the hell's with you?" Max frowned and leveled him back on his feet.
"S... so... something moved!" Meine thrust a finger towards the pile, scurrying behind Max. "I saw it!"
"Oh, for God's sakes... You're probably still shaken from the fight; you're just seeing things! Inanimate objects can't act on their own." Scowling, Max stepped over to the shack, nudging the pile with his boot. "Seeeee? I'm moving it with my foot
! Quit being so paranoid and ge
The top of the mound shifted again. Suddenly, the eerie sound of claws scraping against a hard surface filled the air, an unknown force pushing against the pile. With a swear, Max leaped away, swiftly grabbing a brick and holding it high above his head. Meine hopped back in surprise, pinning himself against the house.
"S-see?!" It was Meine's turn to frown, pointing again. "I w-was right!"
"Yeah, for once!" Max dared not to look away. "What the hell is it?"
"It might be a person... they could be hurt!" Meine began to make his way to Max, but froze when the mysterious force grew stronger, chunks of stone and wood tumbling down to the earth.
Max whipped his head around, glaring. "And it could be the enemy, waiting to put one in our heads! Find something sharp... There! Use that stick and get over here..." He gestured to a long splinter of wood by Meine's foot.
Without a sound, Meine did so, wobbling over to his friend's side, the 'weapon' resting in his tight grip. Max adjusted the grasp in the brick and gently kicked the heap of rubble, waiting for a reaction. As if on cue, a powerful blow came forth, small bits flying in all places. A cloud of dust spewed into the open and a low-pitched growl reached their ears. Hastily, Max moved to charge, but Meine threw the stick aside and wrapped both arms around Max and jerked him back.
Meine, what the hell!? Let me go!"
! It's not an enemy!" Meine cringed and stuffed his face into Max's back, letting out a muffled cry as Max's heel came in contact with his foot.
"What?!" Glaring, Max looked to the shack, his eyes planted on a shape peering out at them. It looked too small to be a human, or the enemy for that matter, yet it had two large points on either side of its head. An enormous tan paw came into sight, followed by another one, clumsily fumbling for a sturdy foothold. There was a louder growl.
Max's reaction went from anger to utterly pissed, a deep scowl twisting his face. You've got to be kidding me... Son of a...
A young dog squirmed out from the shack, every inch of its body enveloped in dust. Its beaded brown eyes were glued on the two new strangers and its bushy tail began to wag. Without warning, the dog let out a mighty sneeze, the dirt that once concealed him soaring near and far. The top of its fur was colored black, and bled down to its middle, where a sea of tawny flooded his bottom half. The erect ears, square muzzle, and curved forehead were a dead giveaway to the mutt's breed: a German shepherd.
Meine's squeal stabbed at Max's ear drum as he let go and zipped past him, towards the dog. Before the dog even had a chance to act, it was swept off the ground and cradled in his arms. The puppy's tail slapped at Meine's shoulder, its pink tongue happily dangling from the corner of its mouth, hind legs fluttering madly.
"Max, he's... h-he's adorable!" Meine got to his knees, laughing as the puppy nuzzled his neck with his nose.
"Yeah, a real looker." Max paused. "How the hell did you know it was a... ah, nevermind." He shook his head. "Now, tell it to get. We still have this whole road to search."
It was as if Max ordered him to kick the dog. Eyes wide, Meine pulled the animal closer to him. "And leave him to fend o-on his own...? He was probably stuck in there during the battle, Max! P-poor thing must have been a-abandoned..."
"It's not our problem, and it's not going to be our problem! So, let's just innocently shove the little bastard back into the shed and be on our merry way." Miming the dog being in his arms, Max moved to the shack and threw it through the hole. "Now, let's see you do it."
" Meine whimpered, then a smile spread across his face. "We can keep him! He c-can come with us!"
Max stared, dumbfounded. He slowly moved a hand over his eyes, keeping back a spell of laughter. "Are
are you serious?" His voice was high, almost shrill. "Did you manage to, oh, I don't know, forget just where we are? If so, then I would be honored to remind you."
The puppy flopped his head back and forth between the two men, their words nothing more than jumbled slurs to him. He instead turned his attention to one of Meine's pocket flaps and began gnawing on it, growling.
"I know where we are
but, we can take care of him! He'll be safe with us!" Meine's smile grew and he scratched under the dog's chin. A sense of tranquility swelled through him, the burning memories of the battle slowly passing on.
"Oh, no. No, no, no, no, nooooo!" Max's hands cut through the air. "No, no, and no! We have enough trouble as it is without some disease-packing stray around. Get rid of it and let's go!"
"We can have a doctor look at him, then!"
"For starters, human doctors wouldn't bat an eyelash at animals, and there are no veterinarians around! I doubt Smoke will even let him come. Second, we are in the middle of a war. We are going to be shot at by the enemy, and chances are they're not going to care if an innocent animal gets in the way. Meine, that dog will be a hell of a lot safer here than he would be with us." He let out a sigh when he saw Meine's smile falter. "C'mon, Meine, let him go. The last thing I want you to see is the dog being killed for no reason. He'll be fine here; he might have a family that's worried to death about him."
"If they were worried, they w-wouldn't have left him here!" Meine brought the dog closer to his body. "I'll protect him! I'll..." A small wave of tears welled in his eyes. "I'll make sure no harm comes to him... a-and..."
Max knelt down next to Meine. "The dog doesn't deserve to be in danger. Look at him; he's not even a year old. I know you don't want to do that to the mutt. We'll find him a nice house to stay in, alright?"
"I..." Meine licked his lips and looked to the puppy. He was still pulling on Meine's pocket flap, close to tearing it from the seams. "Are you sure we ca..."
"What the hell are you two doing?" Vogel's voice rang out as he appeared from an alley,
his uniform spotless save for a couple smudges of dirt. His face, however, was tarnished with the same ugly scowl.
Max rose to his feet and stepped in front of Meine. "Our job, what does it look like we're doing?"
"Looks to me like you're taking a break, Hexenkopf. You two are in enough trouble as it is; do you purposely want to be sent away for insubordination?" Vogel sneered. "I can have that arranged in no time."
"I think you should focus more on yourself than us. That tower had a damn good view of the battlefield, and I seem to recall you bolting out of the trench and..."
Vogel jumped to strike Max, but stopped at the last second, his attention now on Meine. "What the hell is that?"
Meine looked to him, confused. "What...?"
"That!" Vogel gestured to the dog.
A smirk came upon Max's face. "Why, that's a dog, my dear Vogel! I figured you would know, since your mom is one!" He hopped out of the way when Vogel punched at him.
Snarling, Vogel glared at Meine. "Get that thing out of here! We're not here to babysit..."
Meine looked to the dog, a faint smile on his lips as he started to scratch behind the animal's colossal ears. In a matter of seconds, the dog's legs stiffened and his body turned limp. Eyes shut, a deep groan purred through his throat and out his mouth. Meine couldn't hold it in anymore and he giggled.
This only intensified Vogel's anger. Reaching for Meine, he latched a hand over his shoulder and jerked him to his feet. Yelping, the dog tumbled from Meine's arms and landed with a thud, lying sprawled on his side. The young soldier moved to free himself, but it was futile.
"Do you think this is funny, Steinmann?! Because of you, we lost soldiers, fellow Germans! I should do us all a big favor and kill you where you stand."
Max grabbed Vogel and pried him from Meine. "None of those were his fault, Vogel, so shut your damn face before I shut it for you."
"Stay out of this, Hexenkopf!" Vogel turned to Meine. "Get rid of that dog, now!"
"Meine, don't move!" Max stuck a hand in front of Meine, his eyes on Vogel. "That dog isn't going anywhere."
Meine looked at Max, shocked. But, you just...
Vogel looked close to popping a blood vessel. "What did you say...?"
"You heard me. The dog stays." Max glanced at the dog, rubbing his chin. "It can... be the mascot!"
"Mas... What?!" Vogel's face flustered. "Have you lost your mind?"
"Nope! C'mon, you remember how those fools from Infantry Division 221 always flaunted around their dog? That nasty little devil of a beagle? Well, we found something better!" He gestured to the dog. "And who greater than a breed hailing from the Fatherland?"
"The only difference being that the beagle was smart. This
it looks like he was dropped on his head, and we look bad enough as it is."
Max shook his head. "With a little touch-up and some training, this little monster could scare the Russians. Besides, how could you say no to a face like that?" Forcing a smile, he looked down at the puppy, who remained on his side, tail beating the road.
"And what about the Feldwebel and the Hauptmann?" Vogel crossed his arms.
"Smoke loves dogs; the man practically owns a hundred of 'em."
"Whatever it is you do, I will be no part of it. When you're done dawdling around with that flea-infested mongrel, why don't you take some time to find wounded?" With a sneer, Vogel spit on Max's boot and turned back into the alley.
In a low voice, Max muttered, "Yeah, and why don't you find yourself a shallow grave..." He kicked most of the spittle away and looked at Meine. "Well, come on! Got to finish the rest of the road!"
"But... Max, you said we shouldn't keep him, and... Now you do?" Meine rubbed his arm, puzzled.
"To be perfectly honest, no, but the last thing I want to happen is for Vogel to flaunt around and brag about how he's right. Now, how about you take that... the dog to Smoke, see what he thinks." He looked down at the dog, his smile faltering. "Looks like he was dropped on his head," he added in a hushed mutter.
Holding in another squeal, Meine picked up the dog, embracing him. "Th-thank you, Max...!" He laughed as the puppy licked his neck.
"Yeah, yeah, now get. I got work to do, and you owe me for this!"
* * *
"We give him glory as we give you into his arms in everlasting peace, to be prepared to return to the denser reality of God the Father, creator of all. Amen, amen, amen
" Chaplain Ritter rose to his feet for the umpteenth time, his bones moaning from the exertion. Pushing his spectacles up the bridge of his nose with a clenched hand, he readjusted the violet stole draped about his shoulders and held in a sigh, mourning eyes watching as two soldiers covered the young man with a thin white cloth. They stopped at the base of his forehead, taking care to avoid disrupting the cross made of olive oil. Ritter uttered out his thanks before turning away, his eyes incapable to bear the sight of the soldiers placing the body upon a stretcher and hauling him away. Ritter let out the sigh, relaxing his hand and gazing upon the Erkennungsmarke that rested in his palm, reading what little information lay on the thin strip of metal. O-negative blood, hailing from Kompanie 548
nameless to the Chaplain. He appeared to be no older than twenty-one.
"How are you holding up, Father?"
Ritter almost jumped at the voice, his eyes whipping to his right, spotting Smoke. Dark circles played under the Hauptmann's eyes, his lips horizontal along his face. In one hand he gripped twelve sealed envelopes bound by a mere string, and in the other were five more envelopes. Ritter didn't need to ask what they were; his mind already registered the evidence.
"I did what I could, sir. I hope it was enough to guide them where they need to be," Ritter responded. "I'm sure the families of those who passed will appreciate your letters of condolences."
"I hope you're right, Father. It's the one letter every family dreads to open
When I was in Poland, I had a young man die in my care. I was put on leave and I felt it was best to deliver the news of his death personally. His wife and mother screamed and blamed me for his passing." A somber smile was forced on his lips. "It grieves me to write how their son, brother, husband, or father was killed, but they deserve to hear it, and not cling to false hope."
Slipping off the stole, Ritter gave a nod, then gestured to the identification on his palm. "I figured you would want this. Major Lange had made it clear we were to keep these for
"Give that and the others to Kappel
" Smoke called over a passing medic with a clean uniform, handing him the envelopes. "Find Stabsunteroffizier Barth and give these to him. They are to be delivered today, if not later." He gave his attention back to Ritter. "Where is Kappel, by the way?"
"I believe he went to supervise the men and their work." Ritter paused. "Do you know where Grenadier Steinmann is? He looked troubled, so I figured a little talk would help ease his nerves..."
Smoke shook his head. "He's just a little shaken up is all. Everyone gets the jitters in their first battle; Steinmann's no different." He sniffed, his nose scrunching up as some dust crept into his nostril. "All he needs is time to recuperate and he'll be right as rain in no time."
The Chaplain put on a smile of his own. "I'll trust your word on that."
Both men turned their heads, eyes open with surprise. Meine came hurrying into the area, smiling widely, his arms packing along the puppy, who was off in his own little world. Ritter and Smoke looked to one another, equal confusion playing on their faces.
Smoke was the first to recover and he walked over to the Grenadier, Ritter following. "Where in God's name did you find that, Steinmann?"
"Max a-and I found him in a shed, sir." Meine knelt down, gently placing the dog on the ground. "We think he was in there for the whole battle
Getting on his knees, Smoke gently grabbed the scruff of the animal's neck, examining his eyes, lifting up his jowls, looking into his massive ears, and finally running his fingers across his belly. Smoke let out a low 'Hm', then lifted his head to Meine. "You said he was in a shed?"
Smoke frowned a little. "Father, how long ago were the civilians evacuated?"
" Ritter tapped a finger on the back of his left hand. "Four days, more or less."
"That sounds about right
Sounds to me like the dog was in there for that long; his family or one of the medics must have put him in there. You can begin to feel his ribs." Smoke scratched under the puppy's neck. "Good thing you and Hexenkopf found him when you did, or who knows what would have become of him."
A touch of pride flashed on Meine's face. "Thank you, sir
!" he exclaimed.
"He doesn't even have a collar, but he doesn't seem to be a stray
Other than that, though, he seems pretty damn healthy. But, what are you planning on doing with him, son?"
with your permission sir, I would like to request
" Meine cleared his throat. "R-request that
It was like Smoke read his mind. "You want to keep him?"
Falling silent, Meine nodded.
" Smoke rubbed his neck, standing. "I don't know what to tell you. I'm all for having a companion and all, but
That dog doesn't look one bit experienced for battle. I would hate to bring him along and have him scared to death at the bombs. It wouldn't be fair to him. The best we can do for him is to let him go."
"B..." Meine started, then went silent once again, hanging his head.
"Ah, sir, if I may...!" Ritter tapped Smoke on the shoulder. "Perhaps it's not a bad idea... A word, sir?"
Askance, Smoke rose and Ritter led him a few steps away, a plan of some unknown sort sparkling in the Chaplain's eyes. "What are you on about...? Don't tell me you're agreeing with this."
"Sir, sir, now hear me out." Pushing up his glasses, Ritter smiled. "I have read about dogs being a sort of... oh, what's the word...! Ah, that's right. Therapy, sir. My neighbor's cousin had this program that would train dogs and have them visit soldiers from the Great War who were stricken with shell shock. After a couple weeks, it was as if they were cured. At first, I was doubtful, b-but I saw it for my own eyes...!"
Smoke sighed and pulled out a cigarette. "Get to the point, Father."
"Look at him, sir. Steinmann, I mean. He's at ease; at peace! I have a feeling that this dog could be his escape from the horrors of this war. It's as if God himself made it so these two could be united! Steinmann saved the dog, s-so..." Ritter had to hold back a high giggle. "So in return, the dog saves him!"
Smoke nearly dropped his cigarette, his mouth agape. With his free hand, he caressed his temples, mumbling incoherently to himself. His eyes moved over to Meine. The Grenadier was laughing while he fended off an onslaught of kisses from the dog, who had no trouble overpowering Meine and pushed him onto the road, wagging his tail so fast it was a black blur. The frightened, scarred Meine from more than a hour ago had vanished.
He looked back to Ritter. "You're sure about this? Positive?"
Ritter nodded, still smiling. "More sure than I have about anything else."
"Alright... Let's pray that you're right." With a loud clearing of his throat, he straightened out his uniform and walked back to Meine, his arms folded across his chest. "Up, Steinmann!"
Snapping back into the real world, Meine shot up, just about falling backwards from the rush.
"I... The Chaplain and I talked it over, and we decided to give it a shot. The dog will be with the unit until further notice. He is your responsibility, got it? We're only doing this because the dog snaps you out of it... Ritter and I will get him all checked out. We'll be leaving to set up camp in three hours, so get your butt in gear and move it."
"Y... y-yes, sir!" Meine put up a salute, his chest puffed out.
"Good. I will see you in three hours." Turning on his heel, Smoke marched off, calling out Martin's name.
A heart-warming smile grew on Ritter's lips and he turned to Meine, hands behind his back. "Congratulations, my son! He'll grow up to be a big, strong companion."
"Thank... thank you, sir! I can't thank you or Hauptmann Smoke enough..." Meine knelt down once again, hugging the dog. He paused, looking up at Ritter. "What should I name him...?"
"I think I have a name..." Smiling, Ritter moved down to Meine's level. "How does 'Ambros' sound?"
Meine looked to the puppy. "Do you like that? Ambros?"
At the mention of the name, the dog's ears shot forward. He jumped to his paws and crouched, rear in the air and wagging furiously. A broad smile came upon Meine's face, a feeling of immense bliss coursing into his body.
"I think he likes it," Ritter chuckled.
"M-me too! How did you think of the name, sir?"
"Oh! Well, when I was entering my priesthood, one of my mentors was Ambros Spielmann. He passed away recently, but he was a wonderful teacher, almost like a father to me." A distant, thoughtful look simmered in the chaplain's eyes. "He gave me a new outlook on my life
B-but, that is a story for another time. How about you take Ambros with you, and I'll try to find him a collar? We can't have our newest member to walk around like a stranger!"
"Oh, yes, sir!" Meine stood and clapped his hands together. "C-come on, Ambros! Let's go."
Barking once, Ambros complied with leaping bounds, nearly tackling Meine in the process.
Still kneeling, Ritter looked back to the Erkennungsmarke, the vague identification engraving itself into his mind. He knew virtually nothing about this young man, what his name was, where he lived, or if he even had a family. There was nothing that separated him from the other sixteen men he had given the prayer to; they could have all been related and Ritter would have never guessed. A pang of regret struck him. He could have taken the time to give assurance to the wounded that were stationed in the town, but the most he did was give them a pat on the back, say hello, and move on to the next soldier.
He had only met the boy not three hours ago and he was an open book. Shy, but easy. Not the most social as a child, probably didn't have a lot of friends for that matter, yet it didn't take much to put a large smile on his face; he could have pretended to be a mind reader and make up Meine's life story and would have been correct. If one man was a cinch, then the rest of the unit should be just as simple.
Forgive me, God, for my sins I laid upon those lost souls, Ritter thought, but allow me to repent with these men of your blessing.