The Trenches Germany September 1944
A shell exploded not ten feet in front of the line. Despite the days and nights the men had spent in their hellish hole in the earth, some jumped at the sound.
Others barely twitched.
They’d been holding the line nearly a week, waiting for reinforcements. Though word kept coming through that the men from Airborne would be shoring them up, none had arrived. Some of the men were bitter, but Brandon Ericson shrugged at their comments without replying. He was certain the men from Airborne had been sent out.
They just hadn’t made it yet. Gut instinct warned him that the paratroopers had been dropped from their planes with all good intentions. Some of them had tangled in the trees. Others had been shot down while their chutes were still billowing in the absurdly blue skies. Some of them had met death on the ground.
And some were wasting away in the enemy’s prison camps. No lack of intent or valor left them as they were now. Just the brutal determination of a foe determined to conquer all Europe.
“Jesu! That was close!” Corporal Ted Myers muttered, crossing himself. His pale blue eyes were bright against their red rims and the dark grime on his face. Beside him, Jimmy Decker started to shake. What began as a trembling turned suddenly into a full-force spasm. Then Jimmy slammed forward, crashing against the wall of earth that shielded them, and back again.
“Better get him out of the line,” the lieutenant said quietly. “Back to the infirmary.”
“Ain’t no infirmary anymore, Lieutenant,” Sergeant Walowski said. He leaned back against the earth and sank to a sitting position, drawing a cigarette from his pocket. “Caved in last night.”
“The medics have something else rigged up. Myers, get Decker out of here,” the lieutenant said. He stared across the earth. Pretty soon, dusk would fall. Until then, there would be another barrage of mortar fire. After that, the enemy would make a run at their position again. He didn’t need anyone in the line who was cracking. They’d held here now for nearly two weeks under impossible odds. They’d done so because, for the most part, the men were crack shots. They weren’t budging, and from where they were, they could have a field day with troops approaching them—even the trained professional German soldiers who had been ordered to root them out.
Still, they could only hold so long. The enemy powers had ordered those soldiers—family men, many of them, like their French and American counterparts—to give their lives, as many as need be, for the Fatherland. They’d just send more and more troops, night after night. Even if fifty of the enemy were killed for every one of his men, eventually, they would fall. Unless reinforcements could reach them. And quickly.
A whistling tore through the air.
“Take cover!” the lieutenant ordered. Myers, running with the shell-shocked Decker, ducked and kept running. The men remaining in the trench flattened themselves. This one didn’t explode quite so close.
“Keep down!” the lieutenant warned, and sure enough, the first explosion was followed by a second, and then by a third. On the last, great piles of earth fell like rain upon the already filthy men, but there were no cries of pain, no shrieks indicating an imminent death among their shrinking number.
“They’ll be coming through the dusk and fallout,” the lieutenant warned. “Remember that ammo is low.
Hold your fire until I give the command.”
“Don’t shoot till we see the whites of their eyes,” Myers muttered.
“Hell, we’ll never see the whites of their eyes in this powder and dirt,” Lansky said. Lansky was something of an old timer. Forty-five when the war had broken out. He’d joined up anyway, two days after his son was killed in Italy. By then, the recruiters hadn’t cared much about his age. He was a damned good man to have on the line. He’d learned to shoot hunting in Montana and he rarely missed his mark, no matter what the conditions.
“Every shot counts,” the lieutenant reminded them all. He was less than half Lansky’s age, but Lansky never batted an eye at an order. Lansky had proven to be his best friend out here. He’d seen action at the end of the First World War. He’d learned a lot about digging into the trenches, and he had a way of giving damned good suggestions. Quietly. Without irritating even the officers with higher ranks than the lieutenant’s.
He saw Lansky’s eyes now. “They’re coming,” Lansky said. “I can feel it.” The lieutenant gave him a nod. And a moment later, Lansky was proven right. From out of the dusk, powder, and drifting dirt, the soldiers suddenly appeared. Knowing that they were within sight, they let out strange cries, like warriors of old. Maybe battle never changed, the lieutenant thought. Just the time, the place, the argument. Maybe men needed to scream, to run into a maelstrom of bullets, even if they were armed and prepared to deal out death themselves. Perhaps a battle cry was a man’s last roar to heaven or hell that he was, indeed, alive.
“Fire!” the lieutenant shouted.
The earth seemed to split apart with the roar of the guns. The line coming toward them stumbled and broke. The eerie battle cries turned to screams of pain as men fell and died.
And yet, where the line had been broken, new men came rushing in, and the battle cry they had taken up seemed to soar and echo into the darkening sky. “Fire!” he roared again, and another barrage filled the night, and more men fell. But like ghost soldiers, the enemy kept coming, more soldiers filling in where the others had been. The line was coming closer and closer, and the enemy soldiers were firing as well, aiming blindly for the trenches.
Again, the roar of bullets. Powder filled the night so thickly that it was almost impossible to see anything.
They heard screams, and knew more men had fallen.
And knew that they were close.
A soldier burst into view, throwing himself into the trench, gun aimed at Lansky. The lieutenant used his own weapon instantly and instinctively as a mace, cracking the enemy with a vengeance on the back and neck. The man fell before he could get off a shot, but others were coming, almost upon them.
“Fire at will!” he roared in the night. In a minute, it would be a melee, the enemy would be in the trenches, a man wouldn’t know who the hell he was shooting anymore. Rifle fire rattled explosively in the night as the defenders shot almost blindly at the enemy encroaching upon them. A soldier caught a bullet in his gullet and fell into the trench, on top of Lansky. Lansky pushed the dead man aside and took aim again.
Then, out of the night, came a howling. It wasn’t the battle cry of the enemy. Eerie, uncanny, like the scream of a thousand banshees, or a cry from the damned in the deepest pits of hell. It was so startling, so deep, so soul-wrenching that, for moments, neither side fired a single shot.
The silence was as eerie as the hell-hound cry that had stilled them all.
MacCoy, the boy from Boston, spoke softly. “May all the saints bless us and preserve us!” he whispered.
All hell broke loose; the baying began again, along with the sound of wild shots, shots fired from the trenches into the dust and darkness, shots fired at the approaching enemy, shots that whistled into the darkness.
The thunder against the earth. As if cavalry were upon them ...
The screams began, screams coming from the German soldiers, while they could still see nothing in the whirl of powder, earth, and dust before them.
“Hail Mary, full of Grace ...” MacCoy intoned.
“Blessed Lord!” Lansky cried, and it was a prayer and a curse, for a German soldier burst out of the haze, covered in blood, falling in upon them and to their feet. Their eyes fell instinctively to the man in the muck.
And that was when the creatures came.
Wolves, but not wolves. Some were silver, some were black, some were tawny. They had the form and structure of the canine beasts, but they were larger, and their eyes .. . their eyes were different. Their eyes saw, and knew, and the machinations of thought and cunning could be seen in them as they sprang, seeming to sail and fly above the soldiers in the trenches and then they came pouncing down.
“Fire! Fire!” the lieutenant roared.
Guns blazed, animals fell, men fell, the trenches themselves became a mire of men and blood, German uniforms, American, cloth so bloodied, ripped, and torn, it couldn’t be discerned. “Fire, fire, fire!” the lieutenant thundered again and again, and he heard the deafening rat-a-tats as his men obeyed his command. At his side, Lansky’s body was suddenly wrenched up and away. He saw Lansky fall before the trench just as another bloodied, terrified member of the German elite came hurtling in upon them, eyes open in death.
“Lansky!” He went flat, crawling, down, down against the dirt, determined to drag Lansky back to the relative safety of the trench. Bullets, wild and stray, whistled above his head as he inched along.
He was struck. He didn’t know by what. He felt the weight, a terrible crushing weight, upon his back.
Then the stinging at his nape. A bullet, a bayonet, a knife ... he didn’t know what. He just felt the stinging sensation. Not even real pain ... just the thrusting ... and the sting.
He’d been hit.
By fire? By one of the rabid wolves? But he was breathing. Alive and breathing. And still crawling.
Lansky lay just ahead, at his side. Lansky, the crack shot. He had to get him back. Sweat dripped into his eyes. Not sweat. Blood. His vision was blurring. He refused to die in the mud; he refused to lose the battle this way. He inched forward, aware that more and more of the dust and haze seemed to be filling his vision from the inside. He looked where Lansky lay and saw his countryman’s hand. He reached out, catching his friend, dragging him toward him.
As the body came near, he screamed aloud himself, recoiling. Lansky had no head.
Despite the horror, his scream faded. His lungs burned. His entire body seemed to be afire, and yet, in seconds, that fire seemed to be fading to a strange cold. Cold.
Death was cold.
He was dying. It was his life’s blood dripping into his eyes. Oozing from his veins through the stinging gash at the back of his neck. What dim light there had been was fading away completely. Just as sound.