Originally published in Of Dreams and Schemes 22
Just a few more steps, Hans. A few more steps, and you will have water. Left foot. Right foot. You cannot stop. You are a German officer. If you give up, you will be a disgrace to the Fatherland.
Hauptmann Hans Dietrich paused in the brief shadow of a looming boulder long enough to remove his hat and wipe his sleeve across his forehead. A ludicrous motion; the blazing desert noon dried up his perspiration before it could trickle down into his eyes, sucking the moisture from his body. He knew the desert well, knew if he did not soon reach water he would not survive. But less than a kilometer from here, the wadi broadened out into an oasis. If he climbed up from the dry watercourse, he would be able to see the waving fronds of the three palm trees that marked his only hope of survival.
He had been pitched from the halftrack during the course of a running battle with the Rat Patrol, who had come to harry the arms convoy he and his men guarded. While his sergeant had no doubt seen him fall, he could not abandon the battle for one man, even his commanding officer. His duty was to guard the convoy, and Dietrich had drilled into his men the necessity of duty. Honor, he found, was slightly more difficult to impart, but Sergeant Hartmann was a good man, an honorable man. He would radio in his captain's position as soon as he could. Rescue would come.
In the blazing Saharan heat, rescue might not come in time to save one man without water and shelter. Dietrich knew this stretch of the desert very well. It seemed as if he had been battling the Allies across every square meter of it over the past three weeks. Intelligence reported the British were planning a major offensive--all the more reason for the convoy to reach its destination--and the sands would run with still more blood, the blood of young men, little more than boys, boys dying to the whim of a madman....
Don't even think such things, Hans, he cautioned himself. He loved his country. He would die for his country, and much of the time expected that he would do so, out here in the vast, unwelcoming sand so far from everything he loved. What galled him was that he might die because of a man who steered Germany along a path Dietrich could not stomach. He was a German officer; he would fight, even die, for the Fatherland, and for his duty as a soldier. But if he died, it would not be for the Nazi regime. It would be for his country, his people, his duty, and his honor. Surely those were values worth dying for.
He slapped his hat into place, drew a shaky breath, and forced stiffness into his quivering legs. Not far now, Hans. Not far. He listened carefully. No sound at all, no voices, no engines. Only the endless sshhh of sand against sand in the wind that stirred the desert into constant drifting motion and made it seem alive, an enormous, brooding, pitiless presence. A man could go mad staring out into the desert, a man could realize how small he was in the overall scheme of things, how alone....
He completed the final fifty meters by willpower alone, stumbling around the last bend to the sight of water sparkling in the sunlight, the three palm trees offering up a patch of shade right beside the water. His mouth long dry, Dietrich could practically feel his taste buds come alive at the sight. Water. He had made it.
"Stop right there!"
The bulky shadows in the shade of the palm trees resolved into a man, a man in the uniform of a British private, a man pointing a Webley revolver right at Dietrich. The makeshift bandage encircling his head didn't conceal the blood that had run down the left side of his face. He'd mopped it out of his eye, but the head wound had shed copious amounts of blood, in the nature of such wounds. The young man was short, compactly built, his hatless head revealing dark hair sticking up untidily around the edges of his amateur dressing. Brown eyes squinted up at Dietrich, who had the advantage of the sun at his back. But his Luger was buttoned into his holster, a foolish mistake that would cost him dearly. The British soldier didn't look much past twenty, and he wasn't tanned enough to have served out here long. His bottom lip quivered slightly with pain and nerves, but he held his chin up with that particular brand of dogged stubbornness Dietrich had observed in Englishmen before. Sergeant Jack Moffitt, for instance. At least he wasn't facing Moffitt or his brother Rats this time. Yet in a way, that would have been a peculiar comfort. Troy would never keep Dietrich from water, even if he took him prisoner. The American sergeant might try to kill him in battle, but this was not a battle, except against the odds. Troy might be a hard man, but he knew the difference. Dietrich doubted this wounded young soldier did.
"Raise your hands," the man said, and then switched to halting German. "Hande hoch." From his accent, Dietrich could tell he was less than fluent. He might know a dozen phrases, no more.
Dietrich obeyed the command. He had no intention of being shot if it could be prevented. From the tightness of the Englishman's mouth and careful grip on his weapon to keep it from trembling, he was on his last legs. If Dietrich could wait him out, he might lose consciousness and resolve the struggle.
But Dietrich needed water and needed it badly. He wasn't sure how long he could hold out without it. Surely German resourcefulness could reason a way around British obstinacy.
"You have captured me," he said, unable to keep the wry note out of his voice. "Unless you want your prisoner to die of thirst, would you allow me water?" He did not like asking; his pride was strong. Yet in a situation like this, one that did not rely on principle, his pragmatism intervened.
"Stay back," warned the young man. "I'll shoot."
"Yes, you will shoot. Sound carries a great distance in the desert. My men will be searching for me. Then it will be you who will become the prisoner."
Relief darted across the young man's face at Dietrich's ability to speak English. Then his mouth tightened. "I'm not afraid," he insisted.
"If you were not afraid, you would have no need to say so."
Aflash of something that might have been shame filled the earnest brown eyes. The man's chin came up. He was tired, spent, in pain, face to face with his enemy, in a situation no amount of training could completely prepare him for. Yet he found the courage to meet Dietrich's gaze.
"Fear and cowardice are not the same thing," Dietrich observed. "You are young, perhaps you have not learned that. A coward would have concealed himself at the sound of my approach, or fired first to protect himself."
He wasn't sure why he felt it necessary to reassure the Englishman, but the words came anyway. The boy's spine stiffened and the chin lowered.
"You weren't armed," he said. "You have a gun, but it's in the holster. How could I shoot you?"
"There are many who would."
"I will shoot if you try anything. I am an expert marksman."
"That I do not doubt." Dietrich swallowed hard. His mouth was painfully dry, but he would not ask again. Instead he took one careful step toward the water, his hands still raised as if he were a character in an American western film.
"Unfasten your gunbelt. Use only one hand. No, the left."
He might be green, but he was not stupid. Dietrich obeyed, simply because he had no choice. He could not free his weapon before the self-proclaimed marksman could fire. When the Luger dropped, the boy continued, "Now kick it away." His muscles were tight, but he didn't gloat or beam with triumph at his temporary victory. "All right. Now take some water. I don't know how long you have been without it, but don't gulp it. Slow sips at first."
"You are most concerned for my welfare." Dietrich squatted beside the water, unwilling to go down on his knees and lose another advantage. He cupped the water in his hands and took enough to moisten his mouth. The urge to thrust his head into the water and cool himself, then to guzzle the water until he was sick was so strong he had to rein himself in to overcome it, but he did. The gradual sips eased his parched throat.
"I don't want a dead prisoner."
Dietrich suspected he was glad of the companionship of another human being, even a dreaded enemy. Had the young private ever spoken with an enemy soldier before today? He had evidently been in battle, sustained a head wound--possibly a bullet had grazed him--but this might be the first time he found himself close enough to a German soldier to look him in the eye. No doubt British propaganda told horror stories about the 'evil Nazis'. Dietrich had heard his share of tales about the British and Americans' cruelties to prisoners. While some soldiers could be cruel, could cut a man's throat for no other reason than the different uniform he wore, Dietrich had encountered enough British, American, even Australian soldiers to know that it was not possible to stereotype. In the heat of battle he could shoot to kill and would do so without hesitation when necessary. In brief moments away from combat, he had learned the enemy could possess humanity.
"Must you have a prisoner at all?" he said. "We both found this shelter. Perhaps we can go our separate ways."
Scorn flashed across the boy's face. "I'm not a fool, Captain. If it is true that your men are looking for you, they won't walk away when they find you here with a British soldier. They will either shoot me to free you or they will take me prisoner. Neither of us can set off across the desert away from the water. I may not be completely desert-savvy, but I do know that."
He also had the ability to think and reason. There was a rather upper class note to his speech. Dietrich had been to Britain in the pre-war days, and had spent enough time there visiting a cousin at Oxford with a week in London at the end of his trip to recognize in general some of the accents. The boy's speech patterns were not unlike Moffitt's.
"Perhaps not." Dietrich rose carefully and made certain to move away from his abandoned weapon so as not to alarm the young soldier. He sat down on a small boulder just within the edge of the shade but not so close as to make his adversary more jumpy. "We are both prisoners of the desert."
The boy's mouth tightened. "Need I remind you, I have the gun?"
"You have a head injury. I see pain in your eyes. You have lost blood. Perhaps all I need do is wait until you lose consciousness to relieve you of it."
In a way, the words were a test. He had noted intelligence in the boy's eyes, and compassion in the warning not to drink too fast. The red of sunburn dominated his face, not the tan of a desert-wise battle-hardened combatant. He might never have fired a weapon in battle before. Surely he would have had a rifle as well. Dietrich knew British privates were habitually armed with Enfield rifles; it was to his advantage to know the weapons of the enemy. Dietrich glanced around for additional weapons but saw no rifle. Perhaps the boy had lost it during the battle where he had been wounded.
He hadn't been a part of the convoy battle. That had been Dietrich's men against Troy's. The young man might have even been wounded yesterday; the blood on his face and on his uniform was dry, although the desert dried things quickly. That meant he might not have much left in the way of food. If rescue did not come, in the form of Dietrich's people or even the Rat Patrol, the two of them might never leave this oasis.
It was not a good place to die.
The boy tapped the bandage. "This is not a problem. Wounds of the scalp tend to bleed freely; the blood vessels are very close to the skin. I have had plenty of water, and it bubbles up fresh and clear. I looked for traces of dead animals or birds before I risked drinking."
Stranded and wounded, he had still assessed the situation before he drank. Impressive control in one so young. "That was wise," Dietrich admitted. "When did you come here?"
The brown eyes narrowed. "If I tell you that, you'll be able to extrapolate--do you know that word?" he threw in politely.
Dietrich nodded in confirmation. "I do. You fear I will relay the information to my superiors when I am rescued and it will bode ill for your unit. I assure you, my superiors already know what battles and skirmishes were fought in this area and when. I fought in some of them myself."
"Then what you're really doing is angling to learn if I might expect rescue soon. You already told me your men would search for you. If you know the area, if you battled here, you will want to obtain information from me. Troop movements, numbers, armaments. I will not reveal any of that."
"You will offer nothing but your name and rank and serial number?" Dietrich prompted.
"And expect the same courtesy of you."
"Agreed. Perhaps we can dispense with serial numbers, and unless your uniform lies, you are a British private. I am a German captain, so I outrank you."
The boy's mouth tightened. "I am not in your army," he said through clenched teeth.
"You would appear to be an asset to your own." He leaned down to cup more water in his hands. It flowed smoothly and beneficently down his throat.
"My name's Higgins," the young man offered. There was no concession in his tone, but Dietrich heard a rather lost note that he unexpectedly understood. Perhaps he was not the only one who had felt the vast isolation of the desert, the sense that, trapped in it, a man lost all importance and became no more than just another grain of sand. To be known by one's name would once again personify a man, restore his humanity. "Private Jonathan Higgins. I won't name my regiment."
"I am Hauptmann Hans Dietrich."
"How do you do," said Higgins quite formally as if he had been well trained in polite behavior. "I trust you will forgive me if I do not offer to shake your hand."
Dietrich had to send a stern message to his mouth to still the quirk of amusement that wanted to curl up its corners. It would not do to smile.
"'Hauptmann is the German word for 'captain', isn't it? I recognize your rank. I have never spoken to a German officer before, nor to the other ranks. I have met Germans before the war, in England, and in India where I lived with my parents when I was young, even in Germany on a visit when I was thirteen. But I only speak a few words."
"It might benefit you to learn more."
"If that's intended as German propaganda regarding your possible victory, I must say it lacks subtlety."
Dietrich smiled in spite of himself. "Oddly enough, I didn't intend it that way. I have found a knowledge of languages other than my own to be beneficial."
"I do speak Hindi. I learned that in India. My father was stationed there. I speak rather fluent French as well. Simply because my German is limited to a few phrases doesn't mean I'm ignorant, sir."
"Nor did I imply such." Oddly enough, Dietrich realized he was enjoying this conversation. Higgins had, on several occasions, forgotten to point his gun directly at Dietrich. The odds were high that he didn't mean to use it, and Dietrich might well be able to relieve him of it eventually. For now, with no sounds of rescue carrying across the endless sand, the unlikely moment of simple companionship offered a curious hiatus in the heat of war. "I have found great benefit in knowing English."
"Have you run into other Englishmen out here?" Higgins caught himself. "I don't mean just shooting at each other. I wish there were other solutions, but those decisions are made at higher levels than you and I can attain. I meant face to face like this."
Dietrich nodded. Yes, he had endured enough face-to-face encounters with one Englishman, Moffitt, and of course his American companions. Sometimes their encounters took place through the sights of weapons, sometimes they came more quietly, with a more human touch. In a sense, the Rats were familiar enemies, almost, at times, friendly enemies. If the need arose, he would kill them in the heat of battle and not regret the action, but he would regret the loss. As long as he knew he could do his duty if need be, he would allow himself the right to regret, to be a human being as well as an officer.
"I have," he said. "I find your compatriots men of stubbornness and courage. You do not disappoint, Private Higgins."
The young man's face glowed, then he squashed the emotion and suspicion filled his eyes. "If you're trying to lull me to get my gun...."
"Would you shoot me in cold blood, Private?"
"Certainly not. But I will shoot if you attack me."
Dietrich shook his head. War did strange things to men. Here they sat at a water hole, each cut off from his army, neither able to take a prisoner back to his own lines. To face each at gunpoint seemed stupid and pointless, but Dietrich knew that were their positions reversed he would not relinquish his weapon, either. They might talk with relative amity, but they were enemies, at war. The situation could alter at any moment.
One aspect of the situation was already changing. The angle of the sun shifted, creeping into Dietrich's shade, invading his territory. If he didn't edge closer to Higgins, he would find himself exposed to the blazing sun. Not that he wasn't far more accustomed to it than the wounded man. Yet the newcomer to the desert had chosen his location carefully. Until late afternoon, his position would remain in full shadow. Had he selected it by choice? By accident? Dietrich suspected that he had made a conscious, reasoned choice, and his respect for the young man grew.
"I have no plans to attack you," he said. "I feel no need to 'capture' the oasis." Tense and wary, he eased fractionally into the full shade. "This is not an attack. It is simply a strategic relocation, out of the sun."
Higgins slid off to his right just far enough that Dietrich would have shade and yet maintain his distance. Dietrich watched him carefully for evidence of dizziness. His movements were slow, deliberate, but if he were dizzy, he kept traces of it from his movements. He did sink his teeth into his bottom lip but that could have been the result of pain. "I would strand no one in the sun," he said. "Not even an enemy."
Dietrich was stranded at the oasis, if not in the sun. It wasn't the gun that kept him at arms' length. What good would it serve either of them for him to attempt to remove the weapon? Unless he acted rashly, he did not believe Higgins would shoot him. Why provoke an unnecessary confrontation? Until his men came to rescue him, they could share the shade, converse as men and not as enemy soldiers. Perhaps by then he could convince the other that a bloodbath would serve no one.
So he said whimsically, "What is an enemy?"
Higgins stared at him as if he'd lost his mind. More than pain wrinkled his brow beneath his circle of bandage. "You are. You're a Nazi."
"Am I? I am a German officer, as loyal to my country as you are to yours." He emphasized the word 'country' very slightly. An astute man might notice. Dietrich intended to say no more. Although the odds were astronomical that Higgins could be an SS officer or a member of the Gestapo in disguise, Dietrich felt no urge to reveal his political beliefs to a chance-met enemy. He smiled. "Are you of the school that believes anyone who wears this uniform tortures small animals and dines on babies for breakfast? An 'enemy' soldier is a man who, but for an accident of birth, might have been British, French, American, Italian, Russian. He is raised to be proud of his country and to fight for it. Do you think a German is any different in that respect from an Englishman? I have come to know one Englishman fairly well, even if it is across a battlefield. I have found him worthy of great respect."
Higgins stared at him as if Dietrich were a complex mathematical formula that he needed to solve. "You are not what I expected," he admitted.
"Nor are you what I expected." Dietrich smiled faintly. "What you are discovering is a truth neither army wishes us to consider, that an enemy soldier is simply a man. To personify the enemy, to see his strengths and weaknesses, his loves and hates, his values and ethics, is to give him a face. How much easier to shoot at a nameless target, an 'evil' Nazi, for instance, than to shoot a human being."
Under the bandage, the brow scrunched further. Dietrich could almost visualize the other's thoughts. His training had turned each German soldier into a cardboard target. It was, perhaps, the surest way to emerge from a major battle with one's sanity intact. To go into battle believing that one was killing adored husbands, beloved sons, esteemed fathers, men who laughed and cried and were real, was to twist one's soul. Dietrich had learned very quickly that in the heat of battle, his enemies must remain faceless. But he had also learned what some men failed to learn, that it was possible to take time to remain human. He found that same quality in his most persistent enemies, the Rat Patrol. Banding together with them for survival, to rescue that child from the well, for instance, took away some of the bitter isolation of the desert and eased the conflict of honor he faced daily. Even now, he watched, measured the distance to his own weapon, and registered every twitch of Higgins' hand. Not to do those things would be foolish. But a part of him craved contact with a human being who was not one of his men, for whom he was responsible even when they were idiots or no more than cold-blooded killing machines.
He might talk like this with Moffitt. Troy was too pragmatic. Not because he wasn't an intelligent man, but because he was in charge and took his responsibility seriously. He simply wasn't the type to wax philosophical. Perhaps he did with his own men. Dietrich had known few Americans and had at first been inclined to stereotype Troy as a "cowboy", who rode in shooting. There was far more to Sergeant Sam Troy than that, of course. That was the whole point of the discussion.
"I see what you are saying," Higgins admitted, his voice slow and full of his thoughts. His gun hand lowered slightly to rest against his knee, but Dietrich suspected it was because he was caught up in the subject rather than becoming suddenly trusting. "I've considered the war, of course. One does. But for me, the enemy was just that, a faceless, nameless target. It wasn't made up of individuals."
"The evil Nazi?" Dietrich asked wryly.
"Precisely. Yet now I see it. An enemy is not necessarily evil. He is just a man who is on the other side."
"Quite true." Dietrich hesitated. "I mean no intrusion, but how serious is your wound?"
Higgins realized his gun was down, and he jerked it up again. "No offense, Captain, but my wound will take care of itself."
"Were you grazed by a bullet? I know there was a skirmish in this area yesterday. I won't expect you to confirm that was where you sustained your wound."
Higgins nodded once. "The wound is slight. I have drunk enough water to assist me with the loss of blood. Since I could not set off across the desert--I have no way to carry enough water for survival and I have lost my hat--I chose to remain here."
Dietrich saw a certain hollowness in his eyes and realized the young man had prepared himself to die here, alone. The arrival of Dietrich had changed that, but death was only slightly less acceptable than becoming a prisoner of war. Still, a prisoner had a chance to escape, to be exchanged, to be freed eventually when the war was over. Death offered no such options.
"My men will come," Dietrich offered. "They knew where I fell, and would radio my position. They would know I would make for this oasis. It is known to my army."
"It's known to mine, too," Higgins admitted. "That's how I knew to come here."
Dietrich cupped another handful of water and sipped it slowly. "You need water," he suggested.
Higgins narrowed his eyes. He still expected tricks, and Dietrich knew that was good. Without such survival qualities, no one could last long out here. But he hesitated, shifting the grip on his weapon.
"I give you my word of honor I will not jump you while you take water," Dietrich promised. To do so would alter nothing, and it would not betray his country or his duty. When his men came, he would be freed. At that time, he would prefer to see Higgins made prisoner rather than shot out of hand. He despised the thought of such a waste.
Higgins met his gaze head on. Dietrich waited calmly. After a second, Higgins nodded. "Thank you," he said formally, and scuttled down to the water. He even set aside his gun to drink. Dietrich waited calmly for him to satisfy his thirst. The Englishman stripped off the bandage to reveal a long, narrow gash just above his right temple. He mopped at it with the bandage, then secured the now-wet strip of cloth into place. At the coolness of the water, his muscles relaxed fractionally. All during the process, he darted measuring eyes toward Dietrich, who sat calmly in his patch of shade and waited for the moment of truce to end. Finally Higgins retrieved his weapon and returned to the heart of the shade. The boy even shifted slightly to the east to allow Dietrich to move away from the still-encroaching sun.
For a few moments, neither man spoke. Higgins was young enough that he had not entirely learned to mask his thoughts; it was plain he was engaged in a fierce mental speculation about Dietrich, about German officers, about everything he'd ever been taught about war. He didn't set aside his gun, though, and while Dietrich could hardly be glad of that, he found it good that the young soldier's wary instincts had not been dulled by their moments of human contact. He did let it rest against his knee instead of aiming it directly. Dietrich's own Luger was distant enough that Higgins could shoot before Dietrich could reach it.
In the silence, Dietrich listened to the desert. A distant convoy's engines would beat across what seemed impossible miles, the hum of a passing airplane could cut through the vast stillness. Yet no sound disturbed the afternoon except the sshhhing of the sand and the two men's breathing. It was not yet time for rescue.
The sun moved relentlessly across the sky. Dietrich measured it with his eyes, trying to determine the length of time to sundown. His wristwatch had taken the brunt of his fall, and it had stopped running at the moment of impact. So much for the strength of German design, he thought ruefully. Higgins wore a watch, but Dietrich chose not to inquire about the time. He had been in the desert long enough to know the angle of the sun, to judge the hour. It was perhaps four-thirty. Was that time for British tea?
As if gifted with temporary mind-reading ability, Higgins glanced at his wristwatch. "I regret I can offer you no refreshments, Captain," he said.
"Nor I you, Private."
"Water for tea," Higgins said regretfully, confirming Dietrich's guess. "I remember the wonderful scones Cook would prepare for us. Have you ever had clotted cream?"
Dietrich closed his eyes and thought back reminiscently. "Yes, once." His mouth watered.
"Clotted cream and strawberry preserves, fresh baked scones, cucumber sandwiches."
Dietrich had to admit the idea of cucumber sandwiches lacked any appeal at all. He would rather have good bratwurst. So he laid his imaginary plate in his mind, rich with potatoes and vegetables, topping it off with good German bread, the kind his mother baked, steaming hot from the oven. He had eaten a hot meal more recently than Higgins, who must have already disposed of any rations he'd had on him when he was cut off. The Americans always carried something in their pockets; the ubiquitous chewing gum Private Hitchcock appeared to live on, or delicious chocolate bars. Dietrich had nothing. Higgins had nothing. Water would sustain a man far longer than food alone. But Dietrich's men would come before he had time to be hungry.
The sun crept on. They shifted cautiously to stay within the palm shade, a curious dance of advance and retreat, the gun still the point of contention between them. Dietrich watched a lizard that lay baking in the sun on one of the rocks that abutted the edge of the wadi. Cold-blooded creature that it was, it had nothing more to do but soak in the heat. Battles would come and go, and it would still crouch on its stone, content in the sun, glorying in the sun. Dietrich almost envied it.
It was harmless; his men had seen them often in such locations, baking on the rocks. They had even eaten them to supplement inadequate rations. Dietrich considered this one in the light of a meal; if rescue did not come, they could catch and kill it, although there was nothing to burn to cook it. Could they slice off enough palm bark and let it dry in the sun? Lizard raw utterly lacked appeal, although he knew it could come to that.
He was never sure what provoked the lizard. It was hardly psychic, able to read its sudden inclusion on the supper menu. Maybe the shifting shade signaled a need to move. It flicked its tail, a movement Higgins must have noticed out of the corner of his eye. Then the creature scuttled to the side. In the stillness it made a surprising amount of noise.
Higgins proved how tightly strung he was. Before he had time to identify the sound and movement, his hand convulsed around his weapon. In the hugeness of the desert, the shot rang obscenely loud. The pain that shot through Dietrich's head at the impact flung him backward against the sand.
As he plunged into darkness, he heard Higgins blurt, "Oh my God," in horrified realization.
** *** **
"Can you hear me? Captain Dietrich? Hauptmann Dietrich? Answer me."
Dietrich opened his eyes, then squinted fiercely against the pain that throbbed through his head and the fierce glare of the sun. Even in that moment of pain and confusion, he could tell that only minutes could have passed. "You shot me," he said reproachfully.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to."
"I'm sure my mother would have treasured your apology if you had killed me."
Higgins flushed bright red. "I hadn't realized how tense I was until the lizard moved. It was ludicrous for me to assume that your men could have crept up so silently that I heard no vehicles, but I must have."
Dietrich could have soothed him, but he chose to wait. "What is the nature of my injury?" he asked instead.
Higgins hung his head. "It's much the same as my own. I realized too late and tried to pull the shot. I assure you, Captain, I was not even actually aiming at you."
"Had you been, no doubt you would have hit me directly between the eyes, as you are an expert marksman."
The lad's mouth tightened. "I would prefer not to kill you, sir. I hope it will not be necessary. For this, I do apologize."
Only a Brit could say it in those particular tones. Dietrich almost heard Moffitt in Higgins' penitent speech. "Did the lizard escape?" he asked.
"I didn't pay attention. When I saw you fall, I had more important things to consider than lizards."
"They are quite edible, Private."
"Lizards for tea?" His mouth quirked. "Allow me to bandage your wound, then I will stalk my prey. Er, does one eat it raw?"
"Only as a last resort," Dietrich replied. He wished his head would stop pounding like savage drums, but he didn't believe the wound was serious.
The look in the boy's eyes, however, was extremely serious. He grimaced at the thought of raw lizard, but the unappealing idea didn't erase the shadows from his eyes.
"It was an accident," Dietrich heard himself say.
Higgins tore a strip off the bottom of his already-ragged shirt to serve as a bandage, and he carefully wrapped it around Dietrich's head. Dietrich could feel the wetness of his hair, not only from blood but from the water Higgins must have used to clean the wound. It would dry quickly, but for now it felt rather good. He allowed Higgins to complete the dressing without speaking.
"It's war," Higgins said finally. "While I am not of pacifist nature, I can see how war can destroy one's humanity. I will continue to fight, as I must. Yet I hope I will not do so without due thought."
"No one should," Dietrich replied. He repressed an urge to pat the young man on the shoulder. He had known how tense the other was, had been achingly careful all afternoon to do nothing to trigger such a result.
"I put the gun down," Higgins said unnecessarily. "I'll take it up again if your men come."
"That would be foolish, Private. If they come, they will outnumber you. They will see that I have been wounded and they will not be merciful. I am not saying you should surrender to me, simply that both of us should wait under truce."
"I don't believe your men would honor such a truce," Higgins said doubtfully. Dietrich could see that he feared retaliation for his accidental shot.
"They will obey my orders. However, leaving you here when they come is not an option. Your men have not found you. Perhaps they will not. To be a prisoner of war is hardly an ideal option, but think well, Private. It is a better option than a slow death."
"My side might come first, you know." Dietrich considered that answer to be a case of "whistling in the dark". Yet the bravado in Higgins' words was an attempt to hold up under the face of doom.
"Yes, they might well," Dietrich agreed. Troy and his men could show up at any moment. They might have seen Dietrich fall from the half-track. They would view him as a valuable prisoner. They might even return to search for him on the same grounds he had just offered Private Higgins. Being a prisoner might also save his life.
Would the Rats willingly save his life?
Under the correct circumstances, he suspected, perhaps, they would.
"You remind me of a British sergeant I have often encountered," he said instead of continuing the pointless argument about who might come first. Perhaps no one would come at all. Speculation was pointless.
"Who is he?" Higgins asked as he secured the dressing into place.
"Sergeant Jack Moffitt. I have encountered him on many occasions."
"Moffitt? I know him. Well," he added hastily, "if it's the same Jack Moffitt, I met him once. I studied with his father. I took a summer's course in archaeology when I was fourteen. My father arranged it. We went out to Egypt." He smiled suddenly. "Professor Moffitt found me irritating, I fear. He said I asked far too many questions, that I spoke more than was appropriate. Yet I learned a great deal from him. His son was there. He's older than I am; he was already an adult. I knew he was out here, and I hoped I would run into him. If I don't, and you see him again, I hope you will convey my greetings to him."
How British that sounded. Dietrich tried hard not to smile. "I shall do so," he agreed. He sat up and the lad reached out automatically to steady him.
"I'm very sorry I shot you," Higgins persisted.
"I accept your apology. This is not a battlefield; here we shall honor our truce."
The private's eyes flashed gratitude, but he didn't speak it. Instead he added with a sudden flash of humor and youthful resilience, "And here we shall stalk the deadly lizard."
Dietrich had to fight very hard to keep his mouth from puckering with amusement. "We shall do so," he said.
"Perhaps it had better be I," Higgins volunteered. "I have had a day to recover from my wound, but I do know that, at first, it hurt like blazes. You remain in the shade and I shall bag our dinner."
"We shall forego our dress uniforms for the occasion," Dietrich agreed in precisely the same tone.
They met each other's gazes with utter solemnity, then, as if on cue, both of them laughed.
Into the surprised silence that followed the shared laughter, the distant roar of engines seemed a startling intrusion.
In that split second, both men grabbed for their weapons. Higgins had his first, of course, since he didn't have to draw it from its holster. They stood facing each other, shocked at the abrupt turn of events.
Higgins looked down at the weapon he held, then he gave a resigned sigh. "I hope it is wisdom to know which battles to fight and which to refrain from fighting," he said, and slid the gun into his holster.
Dietrich buckled on his Luger, but he didn't draw it, either. He had recognized the sound of the approaching vehicles. It was one he knew well, often to his cost. "In this case," he said regretfully, "I shall be the one to refrain. It is your side who has found us first."
Higgins strained to listen and his face brightened. "American jeeps, I believe."
"You won't fight them?"
"What would it serve at such a time to fight and die? I am not required by my duty to defend the oasis. I would live to fight another day."
"In a POW camp? I am told the Americans do not mistreat their prisoners. I know a few Yanks. They are...rather different than we British. Yet they also have integrity."
Did Troy have integrity? Yes, there was no question. Dietrich nodded and prepared to wait.
The jeeps breasted a dune and pulled up side by side at the edge of the wadi looking down into the small oasis. Troy and Moffitt stood at the 50 mm. guns and the two privates, Hitchcock and Pettigrew, held hand weapons.
"Don't try anything, Dietrich," Troy called down.
He raised his hands away from his Luger. "I am not so foolish, Sergeant Troy. Today you have the advantage. Did you destroy my convoy?"
"Most of it," Troy replied. He could have gloated, but he didn't. "Who is that with you?"
The boy snapped a salute, although no one in the jeeps was an officer. "Private Jonathan Higgins reporting for duty, sir."
That snapped Moffitt to attention. "Not Johnny Higgins from Giza?"
Higgins waved his hand as if he were greeting someone arriving by train. "The very same, sir."
"Did you hold Dietrich prisoner?" Moffitt asked. He and Troy exchanged glances.
"For a time, yes."
"Did he overpower you?" Troy wanted to know.
"Actually I did not," Dietrich replied.
"We formed a truce after I shot him." Higgins was not the type to conceal his actions. "It would have been pointless to sit here and die at gunpoint."
"In fact, when you arrived we were prepared to stalk wild lizards for dinner," Dietrich said in some amusement. He did not look forward to his future as a prisoner of the Americans. Yet this time at the oasis had not, in spite of his wound, been all bad.
Troy actually grinned, although he wiped it off his face posthaste. "That won't be necessary, Captain. You'll be dining with the other POW's, tonight."
A distant rumble cut through his words and he stiffened, at full alert.
"Perhaps not," Dietrich said smoothly. "That sounds like my rescue."
"We're outnumbered, Troy," Moffitt said in an aside that barely carried to Dietrich and Higgins. "Get up here, Johnny."
Higgins hesitated, then he turned to Dietrich. "Your people will pick you up?"
"Jack and the others won't take you back?"
Dietrich looked up at Troy; their eyes met across the distance that separated them. "No," said Dietrich. "Not this time." He smiled faintly. "That does not mean my men will not pursue them, of course."
"They won't catch us." Troy sounded supremely confident. Dietrich would, just once, enjoy wiping that confidence from his face, but he knew how fast and mobile the American vehicles proved on this terrain. They would outrun pursuit and everyone knew it.
"Johnny!" Moffitt called again.
Higgins stuck out his hand to Dietrich. "It has been an honor to know you, sir," he said, very formal, very British, impossibly young.
"The honor was mutual," Dietrich agreed, and shook his hand. If they ever met again, it might be at the ends of rifles. He hoped it would not come to that.
Higgins beamed at him, all youth, idealism, and devoted honor, then he turned and galloped up the slope to the waiting jeeps. At the top, he turned and did his train-station wave. "I won't forget you," he called and flung himself in beside Moffitt, already talking eagerly.
Troy nodded at Dietrich. "Next time, Captain," he called down.
"I shall look forward to it, Sergeant."
Troy gave Hitchcock a poke in the shoulder. "Let's shake it."
The jeeps raced away.
Dietrich stood in his patch of shade beside the water and waited for the approaching Kubelwagens. War was a peculiar entity. It made enemies out of good men who might, in other circumstances, be friends. It put human beings against each other and made them kill in a kind of mindless determination that had nothing to do with reality or conscience. A man became an "enemy", a creature that was nameless, faceless, scarcely human at all.
Yet, at times, one could reach across the gap and touch humanity, decency. Sometimes, the gap was so narrow that one could barely see it at all.
"Godspeed, Private Higgins," Dietrich said softly just before his rescue party arrived. "And may I never see you in my sights." He couldn't wish that of Troy and the others. He knew he would face them again. He knew he might, one day, have to kill one or all of them. He could turn them faceless if his command required it, but he didn't like it. Duty and honor. Honor and conscience. War.
If not for those moments of humanity, no one could bear it.
He imagined Higgins' response, a faint, distant 'Godspeed, Captain Dietrich.'
In spite of his aching head, in spite of the nearly destroyed convoy and the vastly retreating chance to stop the Rat Patrol once and for all, he smiled faintly.
All in all, the day could have been so much worse.
He squared his shoulders and, ignoring his throbbing head, climbed up to meet his rescue.