Chapter One: Libyan Desert
There's no rhyme or reason as to how the mind of a soldier works in battle. Men holed up in a farmhouse will cook dinner in the middle of a sniper attack, setting the table with a checkered cloth and folded napkins, a platter of sliced fruit and cheese sitting in the center, like they were chefs in some Italian joint back home. You find that you don't think they're nuts for longer than that first stunned moment, that one second of rational thought in a place where hell's a-popping and nothing makes sense.
If there's no guarantee of a tomorrow, you need normalcy to ground you. And it's then you realize that maybe those cookin' fools have got a helluva good idea. You sit yourself down with them and stuff your face, while the whole damn war is going on around you.
You see a soldier fall into a ditch of mud and dead men, then come crawling out more worried about the photographs in his wallet than about cleaning his rifle. It sounds insane, but when you have the chance to, you squat behind a tree, bullets flying around you, and there, behind that tree, for just one second, you pull out your own wallet and flip open the pictures.
In a bar or at a canteen dance, when some dame finds out you've been in combat, she asks questions like, "Before a battle, do you think about heaven?"
"Do you think about dying?"
No. You're too damn afraid to. You might jinx yourself. You decide early on that no matter how much the enemy shoots at you, you'll be damned if you're going to get hit.
Kitty asked one night, "Don't you ever get scared?"
Everyone gets scared. Fear keeps you alive. But once you see the enemy, you don't have much time to be afraid. Or to think about it. The truth is, it's fear of the unknown that really gets you.
She understood. She lived with that kind of fear every waking minute. Maybe that was the night they fell in love, when they were alone, spilling their guts to each other, thinking life made no sense because they were damn near freezing to death in the middle of the Sahara Desert.
Just like now.
He was back in North Africa, in the desert again just before dawn, where it was still and quiet. The sand was hard and bare and so cold it was like lying on snow.
Through a perimeter of wooden crossed-stakes and entangled wire stood his objective — a bowl of Axis trouble hollowed out of an endless range of sand dunes in the Libyan desert. Dim lights downlit the corners of the buildings and the northeast side of the compound, where a convoy of trucks and tanks were lined up for fueling at first light.
From here it looked like a movie set, the type of place Gary Cooper stormed in Beau Geste. But this was 1942, a different time, a different war. This was real.
In less than ten minutes, Allied mission Foxfire would begin. Their job: to infiltrate Rommel's compound. Ten minutes after that, they would blow everything sky-high: the compound, the largest Deutsches Afrika Korps supply dump in the desert, and the Jadgwaffe's airfield.
He checked his watch...every few minutes.
Time moved at glacial speed. Seconds and minutes — measurements of a lifetime that have little meaning by themselves.
He waited. Tense. Edgy. Until 0400.
This was it.
He clipped a hole in the wire and moved forward, shimmying down a dune and up over another like some kind of desert viper.
He froze at the edge of the dunes, half afraid to look up because he didn't know if he would be staring into the barrel of a Kar98k or if the voice he'd heard had carried up from below.
Lt. Colonel J.R. Cassidy raised his head slowly to find he was alone in the dunes.
But below and from out of nowhere, a troop of armed soldiers ran all over the compound. Spotlights sliced through darkness, sudden and glaring. The place lit up like a ball field in October.
Rommel's men had been waiting for them.
U.S. Army Air Force Captain Red Walker set the last charge on the supply bunker, grabbed his munitions pack and rifle, then slung each over a shoulder. He moved quietly along the concrete edges of the supply building. At the east corner, he stopped before making a cold run for it. He'd seen men lay their charges, then act like jackrabbits and get their fool heads shot off.
A hundred feet of open space stood between him and the cover from a stack of Nazi oil drums. He had four minutes to get to the airfield before everything blew. Four minutes that could feel like a lifetime, or an instant.
A German officer stood in the middle of the yard, between him and those barrels. Red could try to take him out, but that was chancy. The guy was standing in the middle of the compound.
Red pulled back and checked the time, then leaned his head against the building and waited. Overhead was a clear night sky that sucked all the day's heat from the loose desert sand. The air was cold as ice. Twenty-two degrees had been predicted at the final briefing. Yet here he was sweating.
Nothing made much sense anymore. War changed things. Everything. The whole goddamn world felt upside-down, sideways, and jackass-backwards. For years all he'd wanted was to get out of Acme, Texas. But here he was in the middle of the desert, blowing up the compound of a man he'd never seen, an enemy from a place as far away from Wilbarger County as a rattlesnake was from the North Pole.
He waited a few more minutes, then stared out past the perimeter at the desert beyond and mile after mile of nothing but sand dunes.
Hell...and people said West Texas was an armpit.
He checked his watch again, then wiped away the sweat that trickled into his eyes. His mouth was drier than week-old bread. For just an instant, he thought about a big old Texas-sized glass of tea, sweetened with a handful of white sugar and poured over two handfuls of ice...about bluebonnets growing beside the road and the clean smell of a woman who washed her hair with lemon.
He shook his head and shifted, then looked around the corner.
The officer hadn't moved.
Should he run? He eased back, chewed it over. He'd wait. Once his charges blew, it wouldn't matter if he had to fire his rifle. It wouldn't matter if he fired a two-ton ack-ack. It would be too late. The den of the Fox would be on fire.
Cassidy had been on a dozen of these missions. He claimed the difference between living and dying was in the timing. He'd said it to Red and others over and over. Time it exactly. If you rush, you die. If you wait too long, someone else dies.
Instinct screamed inside Red's head, Go, go, go! Get out of there! He asked himself how much of that instinct was fueled by panic. Panic could kill you or make you a hero, depending on how the chips fell. But thinking clearly, well, Cassidy said that was what saved your sweet ass.
The soldier in him checked his watch again.
Thirty seconds more.
He began to mentally count it off.
The order was distant, as if it came from the truck depot. But sound carried in the desert like it did over water.
Compound spotlights came on as white and blinding as the Texas sun in July. Enemy soldiers ran out from the shadows. One of them was heading right toward him.
Next to the compound, a German bomber, a Junkers 88P, taxied down the narrow desert airstrip past a line of burning Messerschmitts, ME 109s. A smoking Panzer tank blocked the end of the runway. Two more planes blew up, Stukas, now nothing but flames flaring into the air.
The JU turned sharply; it was the only aircraft on the field left in one piece, and it was moving toward the compound.
An armored car marked with the Deutsches Afrika Korps palm tree and mounted with a machine gun came speeding in from the road and raced by the plane, the soldiers inside the vehicle motioning to the pilot to follow them.
The car careened in front of the bomber, leading the way, so the pilot slowed the plane a notch and moved in directly behind the machine gunner; they both headed for an Allied half-track stalled a few hundred feet away.
The Junkers's nose guns swiveled, sighting a target.
The pilot shoved forward on the yoke, hit the brakes, and powered the tail; then he pressed down on the trigger and fired so many deadly rounds there was a gaping hole in the Korps vehicle where the palm tree and swastika had once been.
British Royal Air Force Pilot Commander George "Skip" Inskip released the trigger button and reduced power. The tail of the plane dropped back to the ground with a jar that would have rattled his teeth if they hadn't been clenched so damned tight. He looked ahead of him and taxied the plane closer toward the fence, on solid ground between the airfield and the supply dump.
There was chaos in the compound. Smoke and fire.
Am I the only one left?
That was a balmy thought, and not bloody likely. Along for the ride today were the Long Range Desert Group, those Desert Rats who gave Rommel hell; the SIG, experts who made successes of suicide missions; and the Yanks, two of them, commando-trained and specially picked by the OSS. Cassidy was a miracle-working scrounger who had a reputation for doing the impossible, and Walker, an ex-Air Corps pilot, sharpshooter, and demolitions expert, a tall, quiet Texan who hated Skip with everything he had in him.
Perhaps Walker had already corked it.
On some level, Skip understood Walker's hatred of him. He just didn't care. Charley would say he had to feel something deep down inside, but then Charley still believed he was square and aboveboard.
Skip looked ahead. The compound was burning, the fuel depot destroyed. And they had a dog's chance of getting out.
A moment later a man burst through an orange wall of fire and smoke. The soldier disappeared under the plane's wing before Skip could get a look at him.
The belly door of the JU suddenly opened. Hot air and smoke blew into the cockpit.
Skip pulled his revolver, an Enfield No.2MK, and turned, one hand still on the controls.
"Don't shoot, you limey son of a bitch, or you'll have to explain to Charley that you were the one who killed me." Red Walker pulled himself up and inside, then rolled into the cockpit and strapped into the copilot's seat.
Skip shoved the gun back into his holster. "Where's Cassidy?"
"Last time I spotted him he was crawling down into the bunker. But that was before the whole thing SNAFU'd." Walker paused, looking around them. "Where are you taking this thing? The airfield is back that way."
"Tanks are blocking the runway. The place is lit up like a parade ground. I'm heading for the macadam," Skip said. "The airfield's useless." He gave the plane too much power and hit the road too fast. Beast of a machine was heavier than the fighters he was used to.
"Stop!" Walker was half turned in his seat looking out the glass. "I see Cassidy! He lost his helmet. I can see his blond head!"
"Most of the bloody Afrika Korps have blond heads."
"It was him."
"Did you plant the charges to blow both bunkers?" Skip kept going.
"Did the command bunker blow?"
"Did you see Cassidy get out?"
"No, but I was a little busy with about half a platoon of mad-as-hell Jerries. Cassidy got out. He always gets out."
Skip checked the time and kept going. "We were supposed to be out of here five minutes ago. Cassidy isn't here. The bunker's gone. This mission has had it." It looked like hell was coming up to meet them. Everything was burning. "Look!"
Walker glanced back out the window.
"We've done what damage we can to this place. I'm taking this plane up now." Skip reached for the throttle switch.
A pistol cocked next to his temple, the cold ring of the barrel pressed into his skin.
"No," Walker said quietly. "You're going to wait."
"I could kill you for this."
"By golly, you sure could."
"If I report your actions, your army would have you court-martialed."
Walker shrugged. "I could pull this trigger and there wouldn't be a report or a court-martial."
Skip laughed bitterly. "Just a mess in the cockpit, right?"
"Right...as you Brits always say...a bloody mess." Walker checked his watch. Tension hung between them, second after second after second. He looked out the window, but apparently saw no one, because he checked his watch again. He faced Skip but didn't move the gun. "Three minutes more. If Cassidy isn't here, you can hit the throttle for all she's worth."
Skip braked, then sat there, arms resting on the yoke, waiting.
Walker didn't drop the gun.
"I'll give Cassidy three minutes, but pull the gun away from my head."
"I was pretty darn young when my granddaddy taught me not to walk around the backside of a pissed-off mule, least not 'less I want to get my marbles kicked to hell and back. I'll just keep this gun right where it is for now."
From the compound, the sound of gunfire echoed back at them, ticking off time in sputtering rounds of ammo shells. It was quite amusing, really, him sitting there next to Red Walker, allies in spirit and duty, but enemies at heart, the barrel of a .32 caliber pistol against his head and the trigger held by the one man who truly wanted him dead.
He glanced at Walker, who wasn't smiling, but then the Yanks and the British didn't share the same sense of humor. Walker kept watching out the window for Cassidy. So Skip sat there, the smell of fuel and the taste of fire seeping slowly inside the cockpit until it was in every breath he took and his lungs felt tight and full.
He checked his watch. "Time's up."
Red swore one of those off-colored Texas colloquialisms, but he kept his word and holstered the pistol.
"These bloody gauges are unreadable." Skip moved the JU forward. He looked at the short strip of road ahead, the only level spot before the road humped up and down the dunes too deeply for a takeoff. He didn't have time to think. He just powered up and went for it.
"Goddammit, Inskip!" Red was leaning out the window. "Shitfire and hell! There's Cassidy! He's running just behind us!" He pulled his head back inside and glared at Skip. "Look for yourself!"
The engine noise was so loud Skip could barely hear him.
"Look, Inskip! It's Cassidy!" Red turned back. "Run, Colonel! Run!"
"If I stop now, we won't make it!" Skip saw Red turn and look at the gauges, then up at the road ahead. Red was a pilot. He could see the short length of level road.
Swearing, Red unbuckled, crawled out of his seat, and slid down into the belly of the plane.
A second later Skip heard the belly door drop open and a blast of air hit the back of his head.
J.R. jumped the fence, picked up an MP40, and fired. He had seen Walker hanging out the cockpit of the bomber, shouting, but J.R. kept firing until there was nothing to fire at. Inskip had to be behind the controls of that plane.
Damn....He was late. Those two should have left already.
J.R. spun around. Smoke and fire were everywhere. He turned eastward, weapon poised and ready. But there were no enemy troops, just the British Desert Rats in an armored car, hanging on to their seats, guns firing as they sped away and disappeared over the dunes as if they had been a mirage.
He turned again.
No one was coming at him. Hell, he might just make it. He looked back. The bomber was moving down the blacktop road, its Jumo engines roaring to life. J.R. took off after it.
He was close, then closer.
He pumped his arms and legs.
"Run, Colonel! Run!" Walker was hanging out the plane door. He gripped the side of the plane and extended his hand.
He was still a few feet away.
Faster! Faster! Faster! I can make it! I can!
Bullets suddenly ate the ground behind him.
Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!
The bullets sounded like popcorn. Firecrackers. Cap guns. They never sounded real. They never sounded like they could kill you.
Copyright © 2002 by Jill Barnett Stadler