Friday, January 20, 2012
“As Heart And Blood” Episode 8 – PART II by Christopher Marcus
The man who until moments ago had been Marcel Carstagnol, lay still on the floor. A pool of dark blood slowly spread under him.
Had he had connections to Communist partisans or not? Did he even know about the weapons cache – that it had been buried on the grounds behind his house? He never had a chance to fully answer before Jäger had killed him.
It was as if answers did not matter to Jäger, Javier thought. Was it the same for everyone else who had been fighting in a war for too long now? Since when? 1940? 1939?
Javier’s grim reverie were broken off, when somebody began screaming inside the bedroom which was adjacent to the house’s dining room. It was Marcel’s wife – Charlotte. They had locked her in there with the children:
“Marcel – Marcel – qu'est-ce qu'il passe? Qu'est-ce qu'il passe? Marcel!!”
Now Javier also heard crying – it was Jean and Marie, the children.
“Tell her to shut up – and to shut them up,” Jäger said to Javier “ – or I will have the brats shot.”
Javier felt like throwing up. Still he went into the room and did his best to try to calm down the woman. He knew a few phrases of French from school but he found out that Charlotte, who had been born in France, understood enough Spanish to be clear about Jäger’s sincerity.
And when it was clear to her what had happened – that Marcel was dead – and what she was expected to do now, she simply dropped back on the bed, but in an awkward sitting position, like a puppet whose strings had been cut. All she cut manage to do was huddle Jean and Marie.
They all looked very pitiful and Javier felt deeply sorry for them. But he knew that he could not – would not be allowed to – say anything comforting to. Nothing. He was, after all, responsible.
He went back into the dining room because he could not stand being in there with them anymore. He closed the door behind him.
Jäger was standing at the big dining table, inspecting the catch:
“Five Tokarev SVT40 semi-automatic rifles, three Model 1891/30 bolt-action rifles, and a DP28 Dyegtarov light machine gun," he noted with some satisfaction. "Not bad – not bad at all." He then looked at Javier:
"Quite an inventory to have buried behind once’s outhouse if we are only talking about left-overs from the Spanish Civil War, wouldn’t you say?"
Javier said nothing. He felt like a ghost.
One of the men who had held Marcel down grinned loudly. It was the big Swede – Larsson – who had also been in the Waffen-SS Division Nordland – just as Jäger. He was standing over Marcel’s corpse, and, after having lit a cigarette, he threw part of the ash on it.
“Well,” Jäger sighed “ – this is not usable for sniping, obviously, but I suspect far worse. Mendoza’s people have picked up weapons, air dropped here and there by the Bolshies … then he has handed them on to the locals on both sides of the border – locals he felt he could trust enough to help him, when the Bolshevik offensive finally came.”
“Good thing we came here first, sir,” Larsson said.
“Yes,” Jäger agreed. “It is our job, after all – too find the enemy before he finds us.”
Some hours later, Javier met up with Miguel at the partisan hunters’ camp. In the weeks they had been together since the ambush on their old regiment, they had not particularly come to like each other – which would probably have been against all odds anyway. But now at least it felt like there was a mutual understanding of the necessity of respecting each other – for the sake of survival, if nothing else.
Miguel smoked a cigarette, looking on disinterestedly as the men – some former SS, some odd Wehrmacht soldiers left over from Blaskowitz’ evacuation of Southern France when Operation Dragoon hit in August ‘44, and some Javier had no idea where came from.
A bunch of fucking mercenaries .... And he and Miguel and Dominic were now part of that bunch. But they had also sworn to fight on the same side as those mercenaries. Or whatever they were.
“You look like shit,” Miguel said, not making fun.
“I feel like shit, too,” Javier said.
“Was it rough down there?”
“Jäger shot the village leader – the man I had lodged with. At least he let the wife and kids live … ”
“God only knows … ”
“No, you idiot,” Miguel spat and threw away his cigarette, “Why did Colonel Fascist shoot that man? I thought you said the village was clear.”
“I thought it was but … perhaps Jäger had guessed something I hadn’t. We found a weapon – several in fact.”
“So there was a reason,” Miguel said flatly.
“That doesn’t make it any less wrong,” Javier said and looked at him, ready for another challenge. He was no longer afraid of Miguel. There were far worse things to be afraid of than the big Cuban ox.
But Miguel had apparently made up his mind about something, too. For he came over and put his big paw on Javier’s shoulder. For a second Javier wished that Miguel had not been big, and ugly and Cuban … then at least it might have mattered.
“You know, Gonzales,” Miguel said, “you’re all right. The way you killed that partisan-shithead … and I had you pegged out for a fag, or a coward – or both … from the beginning. I was wrong. I mean it.”
“Maybe I am still a fag … ” Javier said, too tired to guard his words.
Miguel thought it was a joke. He laughed heartily: “Maybe, amigo – but you sure as hell are no coward.”
Javier was about to say something, but then he saw the look in Miguel’s eyes: Miguel had heard it too … the hum of airplanes. Many, many airplanes.
They kept staring at the gray mid-day sky for a few minutes and that was enough.
Coming in over the mountain was a swarm of Soviet planes – the largest Javier had ever seen. After only a few minutes the gray sky turned into black – so many were there.
“Jesus – ” Miguel burst out ” – they cover the whole goddamn sky. There must be at least five hundred … ”
“At least five hundred …” Javier whispered.
Someone in the camp behind them shouted orders frantically – in German and Spanish. Movement erupted all around, as men struggled to pack their things, get their weapons and be ready for anything. Suddenly the distant thunder of artillery which had for a week now been a strange habitual background noise grew in intensity, and the earth trembled and they could feel it with absolute certainty; it was not imagination.
Javier started back for the camp. They had been standing in a small clearing about a hundred meters away, but those hundred meters felt very far now – a long stretch to run for cover, or to jump onto a wagon –
Miguel caught his arm: “Now – ” he whispered hoarsely. “Now we go – away from that shit, Jäger and his Nazis. I don’t care if we are shot as deserters. And I know you don’t care. Now – ”
Javier looked back at the tents that were rapidly being pulled down.
“But Dominic … ” he said. The Haitian was still there, only a few hundred meters away – but inside the tent of their Croatian doctor, Mihailovic, and he did not seem to get any better. Many days he could barely walk. Jäger had kept him with the unit out of goodwill, for aside from his wounds he was also a Negro, which wasn’t exactly an advantage around here.
Out of goodwill … or so Javier had thought.
“Dominic was always as good as dead anyway – ” Miguel hissed, still holding Javier’s arm – “they only kept him here so Jäger had some kind of guarantee we would not split.”
Javier tore his arm away from Miguel’s grip.
“I’m not leaving Dominic.”
“Christ … you sound like Theresa of Avila, man – ”
“I’m not leaving him,” Javier said, firmly. “You can go, Miguel.”
“What is this, Javi-boy – some kind of martyr-thing? – Or is it because you feel guilty for all those people Jäger shot while you looked on – ”
Javier’s fist hit Miguel square in the face. The Cuban did not fall, though. He just looked surprised at Javier, then felt his nose and the trickling, warm blood. All around them there was a whirl of thunder now, as if the artillery barrages themselves had been aimed upwards – up towards their mountain and not straight forward at the Spanish and American bunkers in the valley.
“You can go,” Javier said, determined. Maybe Miguel was right, but he just knew that he could not leave Dominic. Maybe it was stupid. But he had had enough. He had had enough of being that other thing Miguel had called him, again …
… a coward.
But above the sky burst into a hissing, flaming inferno as the first jets of the RAF and USAAF engaged – Below, in the narrow valley leading from Laruns towards the Spanish border, the ground shook under a massive artillery barrage and plumes of smoke and debris unfolded themselves like flowers of death.
Javier shuddered too, involuntarily. If this really was the Soviet’s final offensive ... soon there might be no one left alive in these mountains to call him anything ever again.
Next episode: All hell breaks loose as the Soviets finally smash through the Pyrenees Line at Laruns, their goal to capture Spain once and for all. ‘Nuff said.
Comment from the author: I’ve made a printer-friendly compilation available containing of all episodes in “As Heart And Blood” so far. You can also read my own short stories at http://www.shadeofthemorningsun.com , including a companion story to World War III 1946 – set in the present. – Chris