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Other Nifty historical stories by Tragic Rabbit: Some Enchanted Evening and Lucky Strike Hit Parade 1941.
Read TR's fiction at www.tragicrabbit.org
-a TR story-
-a TR story-
Fighting was hard during the nine-mile drive from Bastogne to Houffalize; a series of bitter attacks and counterattacks in steadily worsening weather. The Ardennes Offensive was all too effective; eight German armored divisions and thirteen infantry pushed towards Antwerp against minimal American resistance. In desperation, Patton threw the 17th Airborne, the 87th and 35th Infantry, and the 11th and 6th Armored Divisions into his defensive line, now stretching 25 miles from the frozen Oerthe River to the Clerf. But the Ardennes forest was dense, the cold fog thick, and now the snows began to fall in earnest.
Both sides reinforced the sector with every available gun and intensified the fight as the snows fell ever more heavily across the Ardennes, the snowfall gradually building up roadblocks of icy white. In a weeklong artillery duel, Patton's renewed attacks collided with Manteuffel's efforts to eradicate the Bastogne bridgehead, but the frontline failed to move in either direction. Elsewhere, despite having less than fifty-five tanks operational, and with astounding heroism, the 5th SS Panzer Corps attacked the III Corps' 6th Armored Division with the most ferocious tank fights seen since Lorraine; the Tiger tanks proving far better able to maneuver in harsh weather than anything opposing them. Allied Americans eventually fell back across the entire front as the heavy snows continued unabated, units in disarray, supply lines severed. And if machines of war didn't function well in low temperatures, how much more so human men?
German advances continued along the First Army line near the Elsenborn ridge, and through the center of the XVIII Airborne Corps line, until a general quiet finally descended along the front. Winter had won this battle, at least for the moment. In many areas, the fields, forests, and roads were encased in waist-high snowdrifts, impeding the movement of both fighting men and their supply vehicles.
Soldiers, German and American alike, struggled to remain with their companies, fighting the elements and each other in a world gone deathly cold. Many were cut off; some wounded, most short of rations and fuel, and all waiting desperately for the weather to clear. Bastogne and the little village of Houffalize, like the rest of the Belgian Ardennes, lay under a blanket of ice-capped snow. The display of motionless artillery, tanks and huddled soldiers formed a sprawling, martial Christmas creche, heralding nothing but death for all concerned. The time was late December; the year was 1944.
That night in Houffalize, cold and all alone in the dark, Pvt. Charlie Evers woke up covered in blood.
Charlie could still see the Jerry's unshaven face, the tired man crouched and looking up, then raising his rifle to the American who appeared out of nowhere. Why hadn't he looked first? Like slow-motion film, each infinitely small movement the German made flowed into the next as if underwater, steady and slow and horrifying. Rifle to shoulder; grimy finger twitching on the trigger; those brown and bloodshot eyes on Charlie's. The muzzle of the gun seemed enormous, vicious, a deadly snake lifting its head to strike.
Fear, the fear always shocked Charlie, no matter how often it came; it punched him in the gut, made him need to piss and shit, made his heart start machine-gunning his ribcage, made his hands tremble. And with those shaking hands, he'd pulled his sidearm on the Jerry, but not fast enough. No, not nearly fast enough.
Charlie squeezed his eyes shut, lying there in the snow. It hurts, it hurts so bad, Mama, I'm hurt; I'm hurt. He felt tears hot on his cheek and moaned aloud.
Instantly, someone was at his side, shushing him and lifting him gently up from the blood-soaked snow. Charlie clung to the rough dark wool of the stranger's uniform, terrified, all army training forgotten; in his pain he became only a boy, a boy who was hurting. The stranger carried him, half dragging him, towards a shadowed house some distance from the road. Charlie was whimpering, the movement hurt him awfully, but he tried to help, setting his feet down when he could to take his weight.
They moved slowly through snowdrifts, the stranger pushing the stuff aside with nothing more than the bulk of his body, and finally entered the open door of an abandoned house. It was cold and there was no light anywhere, but it was indoors and Charlie was glad. The other took him through the house, to a bed in a back room, and laid him down on top of the crocheted lace coverlet. Charlie sank down into the soft cotton mattress with relief and, once again, he slipped into oblivion.
When he woke the next time, fretful with fevered pain, he was warm and dry and there was light from a fireplace. His chest burned, seemed torn inside; his left side was pierced with a shaft of fire. He felt fragile, as if he'd been opened up and his insides laid bare, and he had no feeling in his left arm. Each beat of his heart felt enormous, excruciating, as it pumped against the pain in his chest.
He couldn't remember how he got hurt; he couldn't remember anything before the filthy and frozen ditch his platoon had spent the night in. Bastogne? Houffalize? He'd lost track somehow and, oh God, what was Sarge gonna say? But Sergeant Jackson wasn't here...
Charlie opened his eyes. His shirt was unbuttoned and another boy sat beside him on the bed, carefully washing Charlie's chest with a cloth periodically wrung out beneath his line of sight into what sounded like a metal basin of water. Charlie could hear the quiet splashing sounds and smelled soap, something floral that reminded him of home. The boy's touch was gentle but sure. An antique carved clock on the mantle provided an undercurrent of ticking, tapping time while the young man nursed him, chiming softly on each quarter hour. The fire licked noisily at the hearth, now and then snapping audibly. It felt wonderful to be, at last, warm and under heavy bedcovers. How long had it been? So much like home.
It was the stranger in the dark, the one who'd carried him into this house. He looked up now, sensing that his patient had woken, searched Charlie's face and then smiled cautiously. He squeezed out the cloth into the basin and continued working, glancing again at Charlie's face. He was maybe 18, but probably not even so old as that, Charlie thought, slender but strong looking, his face, pinched and white with cold, was fine-boned, and his eyes were a deep and serious gray. His hair was dark; thick disheveled curls hung over his forehead, obscuring his face as he frowned at Charlie's chest.
"Die Gewehrkugel muss raus." He said quietly, and looked up again into Charlie's eyes. "Laesst du mich das machen?"
A Kraut! Good Lord! Charlie struggled to remember the Army rules for when you met the Enemy, what you were supposed to say...and not to say. What he could remember from the manual he'd been issued was `Was kostet das?'- How much?-and something else. That all-important phrase a GI was supposed to say to any German.
"Gib auf!" Charlie whispered weakly, but he felt pretty foolish asking someone to surrender while lying on his back.
The German boy laughed softly, his tired eyes amused. "Warum schliessen wir nicht Frieden, zumindest fuer heute?"
Charlie stared at the other boy, uncertain of his meaning but hearing no sound of battle in his tone. A Kraut, yes, but he looked like any other boy, his hair mussed and his eyes friendly. Charlie studied the face of The Enemy, but could find nothing in it that matched what he'd been told about Germans, about Krauts. He was just a boy, just another boy. Just another boy who was right now looking into Charlie's eyes intently.
"Ich heisse Aloys. Aloys." The German said, tapping his chest, his eyes on Charlie's, then he touched Charlie carefully on his injured chest. "Und du?"
Charlie frowned. Al-o-ees? He took in a breath and, without taking his eyes from the other boy, from Aloys; he touched his own chest weakly, and a little defiantly.
"Pvt. Evers, with the American 87th." Charlie said, his faint voice clipped, but then, looking into the German's sad eyes, he relented.
"I'm...Charlie, my name is Charlie," He told Aloys, and taking a deep breath, he clarified, "Charlie Evers. I'm...from Lubbock." He hesitated, and then added, speaking slowly and carefully as if that could make his English understood, "Um, that's in Texas. Texas. Lubbock, Texas. In the good old U.S.of A."
Aloys smiled, his eyes tired but the gentle light behind them very real, and very unexpected to Charlie. Tentatively, Charlie smiled in return. This guy Aloys didn't seem like any German he'd met before, that's for sure. Charlie didn't think to realize that all the Germans he'd met before had been at the other end of his M-1.
"Texas." Aloys repeated, still smiling; the way he pronounced the vowels sounding oddly flat to Charlie's ears.
Charlie shook his head, and then groaned when that made the pain worse. The other boy frowned.
"Die Gewehrkugel muss raus." He repeated firmly. He shivered, glancing around the room and to the fireplace. "Es ist innen hier so kalt!"
"What?" Charlie tried to say, but it was closer to a croak. He stared hard at the other soldier, as if he could read the meaning right there on the boy's face. But the wash of pain was too much, it overcame him, and he sank down again into unconsciousness, carried away with the dark surf. Fear. Muzzle rising slowly, finger on trigger, eyes on Charlie.
The last things he saw were the worried look in the young German's gray eyes...and the light glinting from a wicked looking knife held up to Charlie's chest. Mama?
Everything went black.
Charlie dreamed of Lubbock and his high school football field. All the boys were running, he was running, he had the ball and he was running, running for the end zone. They were after him, but they were too slow, he was too quick, one by one, they all fell behind him, and he was running, running, the pigskin ball clutched under his arm. The end zone was approaching and Charlie raised the ball to spike it across. Suddenly, a defensive lineman rose up ahead of him, as if by magic, blocking him, standing his ground, not letting Charlie score; the other team's black uniform filling Charlie's vision until, just before their two bodies slammed together, Charlie saw his face.
It was the German boy, Aloys, his brown hair tousled and shining in the sunlight, his gray eyes bright and laughing. He grinned happily and then, just before impact, he carefully stepped aside... and Charlie crossed into the end zone, unopposed, victorious. As the home crowd screamed out, rising up and cheering from the stands, Charlie turned to look behind him, at the German boy, at Aloys. Their eyes met.
The German boy was smiling, and the Texas sun shone from his eyes.
"Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf,
Dein Vater huet' die Schaf,
Die Mutter schuettelt's Baeumelein,
Faellt herab ein Traeumelein,
Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf."
Charlie woke in the dark to the sound of singing.
Mama? He must have been crying, his face was wet, but what he noticed was someone stroking his arm, patting at him, and the singing; a low voice was singing. The fire had died, and the air on his face was like ice but the boy now lay beside him in the bed, both of them covered by quilts, and he sang very softly in the darkness.
It sounded like a lullaby but what were those words? Charlie's chest hurt badly but it was different sort of pain, some of the pressure was gone from inside. Weak, he reached up, under the quilts, to touch his upper body, feeling for whatever seemed so strange. He felt a tightness and his touch explained it, his chest was bandaged and the pain was definitely less than it had been before. He let his hand fall back to his side and sighed, then shivered. The air was so cold.
"Kalt," Aloys muttered sleepily under his breath, "So kalt." He snuggled himself closer to Charlie under the heavy covers.
Charlie's head felt light; he must be feverish. Maybe he was only imagining the voice, that singing. No, the boy was beside him, still crooning to him, soothing him back down into sleep. Charlie closed his eyes; he was warm next to Aloys and so very, very tired. Outside, the snow began again; soft flakes floating to earth in a landscape already utterly white.
Schalf, Kindlein, Schlaf.
Aloys slept. And as he slept, he dreamt of Bavaria before the war, of his Volksschule and his friends and his shepherd dog, Max. Of the Kino am Marktplatz where he'd seen movies with friends on Saturday afternoons, cartoons and newsreels and serials before every feature, of his annoying little sister Antje who would never stop following him around. Mama always said that he must include her, because he was the oldest, but she could be such a pest! And he dreamed of when he'd gone camping with his friends that one last time, just before he'd joined the Panzerhops. Klaus had told them ghost stories in the dark, the campfire lighting his face from beneath like a demon. Stories of ghosts; ghosts in the shadows, ghosts of the strange and restless dead. And Klaus, clever, handsome Klaus, two years dead in the snows of Stalingrad.
Vati had been so proud, had asked Herr Klaunig for a Portraitfotographie of his son, dressed in the exalted uniform and beret of the 5th Panzers. His son, ein Panzergrenadier. It then sat framed on Mama's mantle, alongside the photographs of her brothers, all dead in the war. Gone, gone away, gone to war and gone forever. Ghostly faces of the dead, trapped behind glass.
Such an honor for Aloys, picked for the 5th Panzer Division after training, and such pride shining in his father's aging eyes, so like Aloys' own. But in secret Aloys had wondered about that uniform, about what it meant, wondered about going away to fight a war. Him fighting? Shooting? Killing people, even those other, enemy, soldiers? Maybe being killed himself? And...what if he were a coward, what if he ran away and shamed himself? What if he were...too afraid?
He'd had such nightmares, such dreams; he'd hardly slept at all before shipping out. But the war itself had smashed all those old nightmares into nothing, the dirt and death past anything he had imagined from listening to old men's tales of glory. Nothing glorious in killing other boys, in going hungry, in fighting sleep in order to stay alive just one more day. No glory in days and nights of being so very, very afraid.
And all he'd really wanted, though never dared to tell a soul, all he'd thought about as the war began to fill the news and talk of his teenage years, was to have one single special friend. A boyfriend, someone to hold his hand and smile at him, someone he could love. A boyfriend, a sweetheart; ein Freund. And then, the war. No more wishing for a boyfriend, no more little sister, no more Max chasing rabbits, no more cowboy movies at the Kino. Just the war, tanks and guns and endless moving, endless orders and maneuvers, and him endlessly cold and forever ready to be killed. Und kalt, so kalt.
Sleep, little one, sleep; your father guards the sheep.
Schalf, Kindlein, Schlaf.
Charlie woke to the pounding sound of morning 88s, and small arms fire in the distance. His head hurt, his chest ached and burned, his mouth was dry as dust. Light glaring off fallen snow filtered in through lace curtains, illuminating the abandoned bedroom with its tidy chintz covered furniture, all lightly layered in dust. Framed faces decorated the walls, photographs of serious men and women in the antique styles of long ago years. The air was chill, less so than in the night, but still with a bite. Noise at the fireplace told him where Aloys was; Charlie heard the crinkle of paper and the sound of a match striking. Faint smell of sulfur, then of smoke, and Aloys was at his side.
"Ich bist kalt, sehr kalt." Aloys said quietly, then asked, "Hast Du durst, Texas?"
Charlie struggled to sit up. With a smile, Aloys reached around him to plump the pillows into support. Charlie smiled back at him, hesitantly. Texas? What the heck?
"My name is Charlie," he said, touching his painful chest, "Charlie Evers."
Aloys' eyes brightened. "Guten Tag." He said formally, grinning. "Main Name ist Aloys. Aloys Oschmann."
Charlie laughed, albeit weakly. "Nice to meet you, Herr Oshman."
"Oschmann." Aloys corrected, while pouring water into a glass from an earthenware pitcher. An opened can of soup sat beside it, had Charlie eaten earlier? He wasn't hungry now, but he was horribly thirsty. Charlie watched Aloys fill the glass, licking his dry lips.
"Und nenne mich nicht `Herr'," said the German, "sondern nur Aloys. Herr Oschmann klingt wie main Vater. Nenne mich einfach Aloys." As he spoke, Aloys prized open the battered looking aspirin bottle beside the pitcher. In the fireplace, the fire roared up higher, gobbling up one by one the fat logs that Aloys had fed it. The room warmed slowly, the chill December air reluctantly retreating before the invading heat.
"Oschmann. Aloys Oschmann." He repeated obediently, and held out his hand for the glass. But Aloys put it to his lips and helped him drink it entirely down, pausing twice to let Charlie swallow the proffered aspirin tablets. The glass finally empty, Charlie fell back into the feather pillows with relief, then shook his head when Aloys offered the soup.
"Thanks. Thank you." said Charlie.
"Bitte." Came Aloys' automatic response.
Bitte? Not a word from the U.S. Army manual on the Germans, not a word Charlie had heard before from The Enemy. But he was finding it hard to keep thinking of this boy as The Enemy. He remembered his dreams of the night before and smiled again at Aloys. Who thought his name was `Texas'.
"My name is Charlie but I'm from Texas. You know, Texas?" Aloys raised an eyebrow, his eyes intent on Charlie. "You know," Charlie continued, "where the cowboys come from. Texas?"
Aloys immediately sat up straight. "Cow-boiss?" He repeated, awestruck, his accent heavy on the American word, "Bist Du ein Cow-buoy?" he asked, his eager meaning obvious.
Charlie laughed. Some cowboy he would make, he'd never been anywhere near a horse. But Aloys was not to be deflected.
"Kennst Du Jeen Autry?" Aloys asked, excited, his eyes shining.
Gene Autry? They watch Gene Autry movies over here? Charlie chuckled and shook his head, trying to imagine that famous all-American cowboy talking in some goofy Katzenjammer Kid accent, then gasped as his chest shot through with sharp pain. Aloys, his face anxious, checked Charlie's bandages, clucking and then rearranging the tape. Charlie leaned back, his eyes half-closed, and watched Aloys work. At last, the German boy was satisfied and looked up, right into Charlie's face, just inches from his own. His breath caught, he stared at Charlie, his gaze captured in the bright blue of far-off Texas skies.
This Ami was so...so handsome, and the look in his eyes so open, so warm, so direct; it seemed to pierce Aloys' heart. And he did look like a cowboy, this American, in Aloys' eyes, Charlie looked strong and handsome and just the sort to follow the Cowboy Code of conduct. Endless afternoons of westerns had colored Aloys' thoughts of cowboys, of Americans, of how men ought to be with one another. Honorable, gentle, honest, courteous, kind. And he refused to let the war change those thoughts.
Aloys had secretly wanted to be a cowboy, despite the dearth of them in Germany, and had always tried to honor the Cowboy Code. He'd carefully written the Code out into his Schulheft, carrying those rules around with him through sunny Munich schooldays and then home at night to his own room, where Gene Autry's honest face watched him sleep from the Tumbling Tumbleweeds movie poster over his bed. The Cowboy Code seemed like such a good way to live your life, especially right now, as he tried to follow the sixth precept, `Er muss Leuten in Not Helfen'. A Cowboy must help people in distress. Und er muss nett sein. Gentle, being gentle, that was easy somehow, with Charlie, though not what a Panzergrenadier of the 5th Panzer Abteilung was supposed to be with the Enemy. Not what his father would ever understand, either.
But, looking into Charlie's eyes, Aloys knew there was something more to this, these days and hours struggling to keep the other boy alive, there was somehow more to the two of them meeting in snowbound Houffalize at this awful, bloody Christmastime than simple chance. This was not just any injured soldier; he and this boy, they could have been friends, and maybe more than friends, had the war never happened. He was sure of it, sure of this cowboy, this Ami, this American.
Had the war never happened. Aloys sighed heavily.
He had woken up that night, disoriented, to the sound of Charlie crying in the snow filled streets of Houffalize, and had never once hesitated. It was only later, in the firelight, that he'd seen the other boy's face, heard his voice speaking in the sounds of friendship, despite the artificial wall of language. Not to mention the wall of war itself. But that war was far away from this homey room, silenced under the snows of the Ardennes, and those rules weren't the ones Aloys wanted to live by. Er muss nett sein. Charlie had been so badly hurt that Aloys hadn't been sure he'd live through that first night. He had woken up to comfort the Ami several times, finally wrapping his arms around him under the pile of quilts until, warm and snug, they had both slipped back down into sleep.
"Charlie?" Aloys said softly, still sitting beside him on the bed.
Charlie smiled at Aloys and, reaching to the bedside table, retrieved the St. Christopher medal that his mother had given him when he was drafted. Saint Christopher, Protect Us. He undid the clasp and leaned closer to Aloys, placing the silver chain around the other boy's neck. As he refastened the clasp, whispering the same prayer his mother had when she'd put it around his own neck, tears in her black eyes, he found himself ensnared again by Aloys. He released the chain to lie against the other boy's chest, but didn't lean back into the pillows. Saint Christopher lay shining against Aloys' smooth skin.
Losing himself in Aloys' wide gray eyes, Charlie swallowed hard but didn't look away. "Yes?" he asked, his voice hoarse. This close to Aloys, he felt hot, as if his fever were returning, and almost dizzy. In all his life, Charlie had never had a boy look at him this way before, the way Aloys was looking at him now, so close, so very close. He remembered the night before; the two of them wrapped together fully dressed under a mountain of covers, and flushed; Aloys' proximity now igniting something else in his body, despite the pain in his chest, his general weakness.
Aloys was beautiful, he realized suddenly, and his smile brought, again, an answering one from Charlie. That smile, so like Ingrid Bergman's, so European, so elegant, a movie star smile on the face of this rumpled German soldier. Oh, that smile, those eyes, that incredible smile, and those eyes looking right into Charlie's own. Charlie closed his eyes, unable to look any longer, not understanding, or perhaps understanding too well, his own intense reaction. He felt Aloys' breath on his skin, warm and sweet in the cool air. Charlie was trembling, and not from his injury. He licked his dry lips, his eyes still shut.
Aloys kissed him.
Those lips were silken-soft and light on his, brushing across just once and then withdrawing. It was too much and yet not enough, not nearly enough. He made a noise of protest and opened his eyes to see Aloys searching his face, his brow drawn in worry. Aloys had kissed him! A boy had kissed him, his first real kiss and right here in the middle of the war. That one of the Enemy had kissed him didn't even cross his mind. This was Aloys, not the Enemy.
Aloys. Aloys, who watched cowboy movies back home in Germany. Aloys, who had sung him to sleep in the night when he was hurting. Aloys, to whom Charlie's first words were a demand for surrender. Aloys, now watching the emotions play over Charlie's face, who suddenly leaned in to kiss him, again, this time a little less gently.
And Charlie surrendered. As he kissed Aloys back, as he kissed his first kiss, he thought of the football dream and the image of Aloys in the Texas sunshine. No, Aloys was not the Enemy. He lifted his arms to encircle the other boy's waist and pull him closer, heedless of his wound. Right now, Charlie felt no pain, none at all. Nothing had ever felt this good, this right, before. And the war was far, far away from this room and this German cowboy.
Without standing, Aloys shrugged out of his uniform, piece by piece, breaking and then resuming the kiss between each article of clothing. His shirt, his heavy winter undershirt, his black boots, his black woolen pants, and finally his socks and long underwear lay piled on the bedside floor. Panicking slightly, Charlie pulled away to stare at Aloys, sitting naked on the bed beside him, his face flushed with embarrassment and desire. Charlie had seen boys nude before, of course, at school and sometimes swimming in the creek, but never like this, never after sharing a kiss, after sharing a fevered night.
And where Charlie's eyes were drawn was very different, Aloys' little soldier, none too little in actual fact and conspicuously uncircumcised, was standing full to attention. His eyes were bright on Charlie as he lifted up one hand and, hesitantly, cautiously, reached out to touch his fingers to Charlie's face. Charlie let out his breath in a rush at the contact; Aloys' skin felt so warm, so very warm, almost hot, as his fingers stroked down Charlie's lightly stubbled cheek to his throat. Aloys looked even more like a movie star without his clothes, he seemed so perfect to Charlie, so pink-tipped and golden, almost angelic. He was beautiful, thought Charlie; and there was no flaw in him.
"Du sind so schon!" murmured Aloys, and leaned in to run his lips across where his fingers had been. Charlie moaned softly, arching back to expose his neck to the delicious attack.
Tenderly, careful of Charlie's injury, Aloys lifted up the covers and slid between the sheets to lie beside Charlie, his bare flesh against the other boy's pants and bandaged chest. Charlie turned to face him, their arms entwining instinctively as they pulled together, snug beneath the covers. Charlie could feel the other boy trembling against him, and hugged him closer.
Aloys kissed him again, their heads side-by-side on the goose down pillows, the full length of their bodies pressed together, cocooned beneath the quilts. Aloys took Charlie's hand and drew it downward, until Charlie's fingers surrounded his saluting soldier, both of them gasping in shock at the contact. And then Aloys' hand reached under to open Charlie's fatigue pants without looking, by feel alone. When the direct touch came, flesh on flesh, Charlie groaned aloud.
Together, kissing urgently and breathing hard, they brought each other sweet pleasures there in that small town bedroom, the terrible war frozen in the Belgian snow outside, the winter sun shining through the window and across the bed where they lay entwined. And afterward, Aloys fed him tenderly, spooning the soup into him between salty kisses until Charlie could take no more of either. They slept; sated, both exhausted, thoroughly warmed inside and out.
Charlie's chest hurt only faintly now, he was weak but he would recover, he realized with relief, as he fell slowly down into the depths of sleep. He would recover, in every way, and all because of Aloys. And he had no thought of enemies or U.S. Army manuals on Germans as he thought of Aloys. In his mind's eye, as he tried to slip into those dreams of Texas, he saw only the shining, smiling face of a certain German Panzergrenadier. Aloys. Then, the dreams overtook him, shipping him home and far, far away from all the fighting.
In the distance, the 88s started up again, the big guns keen to kill despite the snows, thumping the very earth itself in their impotent fury. But in the little room, with flames crackling and popping safely in the fireplace, the two soldiers were at peace.
When Aloys woke, it was night and the room was cold and dark, the fire reduced to glowing embers on the grate. So kalt. He shivered and stood, careful not to wake the other boy, and hastily pulled on his clothes. The fire then responded to his efforts by blazing up again brightly, eager for the wood and kindling he heaped on it, lighting up the room with warm reds and yellows that banished the shadows into corners. Under the covers of the bed, Charlie stirred, muttering in his sleep in English, then settled back, his breathing rhythmic, even.
Aloys settled into an overstuffed chair to watch as the room warmed, standing guard automatically over his American. Charlie. His cowboy American. Aloys smiled secretly, happily, to himself, hugging his arms close against the cold. Charlie would get better, Charlie must get better, and, most importantly, Charlie must never be too cold, too hungry. Charlie. A boyfriend, finally, but snatched from battle, their momentary happiness unearthed in a landscape of misery. A boyfriend, a sweetheart; ein Freund. Mein Freund. Mein Cowboy Charlie.
The fire grew steadily and the temperature rose until Aloys could no longer see his own breath. He sighed, leaning back into the upholstered chair to wait. He was patient, could wait; he could wait forever. He had already waited so very long, and been so very, very cold. But the wait was worth it. Aloys watched as Charlie slept on, far from a waking world of war.
Sleep, child, sleep...your father guards the sheep.
Charlie woke alone in the homey Houffalize bedroom.
The fire was dead in the grate, the room once again winter cold. He pushed himself up to sit on the bedside and reached for the water pitcher. There was a light frosting of ice across the surface of the water; tapping it, he poured himself a glass of water, and drank it down gratefully. He looked around the room, disoriented, stark light streaming through the ruffled lace window curtains. No Aloys. Nearby, he heard a tank motor gunning hard, gears stripping and catching roughly. Voices in the distance, the familiar rise and fall of American accented English. Artillery fire much too close, maybe one street over, and a single far off explosion.
Charlie sighed and reached for his shirt, draped neatly over the bedpost. He held it up before putting it on, the left chest was torn and decorated with dark blooms of dried blood. He checked his dressings, finding them tidy, recently redone by efficient hands. His eyes moved hopefully around the room again, his heart seeking what his mind knew wasn't there. The backs of his eyes stung; he had never thought of goodbyes but, had he done so, he'd not have thought to do without.
No promises, no farewells. Would he never see Aloys again? German, he realized with a start, Aloys was a German. Better not to see him again, not while this war ground on, crushing young lives under tank tracks. Crashing sounds from down the road and the screech of metal heralded the arrival of an armored division. The noise intruded strangely; not so long ago, he had been inured to it, accustomed as he was to the martial mechanics of death. In his mind, he grasped at the past, at Lubbock and football and friends back home. And one friend, one special friend, so much closer.
Lacing up his boots, his thoughts gone inward, Charlie smiled, a little sadly, at the memory of a young German cowboy, a midnight lullaby and the fiery feel of flesh in the dark. Charlie closed his eyes and ran his fingers across his lips, remembering.
With one last sigh, Charlie stood up and surveyed the room. The furniture sat forlorn in the harsh light, abandoned by its owners, an inanimate casualty of war. He picked up the last of the crusty bread and the small hunk of cheese and then, chewing, left the cold, quiet room; its old clock ticking off the seconds on the mantelpiece, just as if someone were counting. Just as if it, too, were not abandoned. Outside, he stood blinking in the sunlight as he buttoned up his Army-issue coat.
Snowdrifts piled up high against the little house, almost to the eaves, the wide expanse to the road was swathed entirely in white, with no path visible. Sighing, Charlie began to walk, his knees plowing, with difficulty, through the three feet of accumulation that remained. He looked up into the moody gray sky, its light painfully, nakedly, sharp.
Something red flashed by, catching his color starved eye.
A cardinal sailed in to land in the skeleton of an apple tree just ahead, his brilliant plumage a blood red splash against the white landscape. As Charlie passed under him, he began to twitter, dancing along the naked branch. Charlie looked up at the cardinal, at the only movement visible in a world of suspended animation.
A flicker of life; a color of death.
He paused to watch the bird; standing still beside the tree, unwilling to reenter that awful arena, willing it all to just end. As he moved to go, his vision caught something dark amid the snow, buried beneath the barren fruit tree. Something black, nearly hidden in the whiteness.
A boot. A heavy-soled black military boot sticking out from a snowdrift. Charlie hesitated, looking back once at the house, and then at the crimson bird dancing above him. A boot, but you learned not to be too curious in the wake of a war. Your eye learned not to see so that your mind could stay sane. Sane, now that was a laugh. Where had Aloys gone this morning, last night? Had he crept from their bed like a thief, in stealthy silence, only to disappear? And if a thief, what had he stolen, after all? Charlie placed a hand, on instinct, over his wounded heart, the bullet hole suddenly painful. He closed his eyes to the sun, the bird, the darkness in the snow.
The cardinal chirruped once, sharply.
Charlie opened his eyes, suddenly alert, suddenly anxious. He dropped down in the snow and slush, his knee sinking into icy mud, and began to brush the snow from the boot. The bird followed his movements, cocking its head to one side and then the other critically. The boot was soon joined by its mate, and then by two wool-covered legs, all stiffened with death and winter, the awful thing revealing itself in stages like a conjurer's trick. Charlie began to shovel the snow away with his hands, his injured heart now pounding in his chest. The rough wool of the pants, though soaked with snow, felt horribly familiar to Charlie.
He pushed at the snow, sending it up in fountaining flurries; angry now and frightened, he made his way up the corpse, snow coating his hair, his face, his eyelashes, as he worked. When he reached the chest, Charlie stopped, stunned. He sat back on his haunches, fighting the urge to lean his head back and howl at the sky. There, against the open shirt of the buried soldier, atop smooth skin waxy with days of death, lay a shining silver Saint Christopher medal.
Charlie had put it there himself the night before.
He felt dizzy. He felt sick. But he couldn't cry, there was nothing in him that could cry, not after learning to fire a gun scant weeks after high school graduation, not after learning fifty ways to kill another man. The Army had taken all of Charlie's tears, or maybe it was just the death everywhere that had dried them up, the stinking corpses of cows in the French fields, the bloated bodies of other boys in ditches. Charlie couldn't cry, but he could hurt, and he hurt deep inside his bullet torn heart. He looked up into the tree; the red bird had flown.
Aloys' head was still covered and Charlie couldn't bring himself to clear the snow from that handsome face, didn't want to know what frozen death had done to it. The deeper snow around the body was dark with old blood; Aloys had bled out here, alone and cold and far from his home in Germany. Oh, it had been cold when he died, yes, so very, very cold. Deadly, deathly cold. Aloys was always cold, he had said, so very kalt that nothing had had the power to completely warm him. Not the fire, not the quilts, not even Charlie, not for long. But Aloys had tried to keep him warm; Aloys had tried to staunch his wound. And he had done it, too. Charlie would live.
But no one had been there when Aloys died, cold and alone; bleeding out red into the white, heat into the snow.
Charlie sat there, silent and motionless, beside the icy corpse while the sun traced an arc across the sky and down to the forest horizon. He puzzled over the last few days, fragments of ghost stories told over boyhood campfires coming back to him, but couldn't focus his thoughts on anything so unlikely. Fever, it must have been the fever. Just the fever that had kept him company in that pretty little house, not this boy; dead before Charlie found his own bullet on a Houffalize street.
As the light melted away, and the snow began to freeze brittle, Charlie stood. He stared down at the half-covered body of the boy he'd been meant to meet, the boy he should have met some other place, some other time, and felt his heart also begin to freeze over, begin to harden into stone. Soon it would be hard enough and tough enough to find his platoon, his sergeant.
The noise in the town told him that the intermission was over; the curtain was going back up on purgatory. Surely it was only his imagination that he could smell the death from here, scent the dying and destruction all across Europe. Shopkeepers, little children, soldiers, collie dogs, entire towns; all smashed down, flattened into the earth, left burned and bleeding when war passed by.
The filthy smell of death was enough to drive you mad.
Charlie began to walk towards the road, his eyes looking only ahead. He never once glanced back; to the apple tree, to the unlikely cowboy, fallen in the Belgian snow. Pvt. Evers had to find his unit. Pvt. Evers belonged somewhere, somewhere else. As he trudged, the absence of a certain weight on his shoulder gave him pause. Just what accustomed, heavy item was missing? Ah, yes. His M-1, lost in the streets of Houffalize when he was shot. Well, no worries, the Army was always willing to issue guns. Largesse of death; plenty for everyone.
Charlie marched on, eyes forward, toward the lights of Houffalize.
Behind him, Aloys slept alone under white quilts of snow.
Sleep, little one, sleep.
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Other Nifty historical stories by Tragic Rabbit: Some Enchanted Evening and Lucky Strike Hit Parade 1941.
Note: Der Cowboy is a work of fiction and all characters are imaginary. Work is copyright and author retains all rights. Do not download/copy/post/link without written permission from the author. If you enjoyed the story, contact the author, your emails and your enjoyment are why he writes. TragicRabbit11@aol.com