Germany was Satan's country: of that, Michael Gallatin was certain.
as he and Mouse rode in their hay wagon, their clothes filthy and their skin even more so, their faces obscured by over two weeks' beard growth, Michael watched prisoners of war chopping down trees on either side of the roadway. Most of the men were emaciated, and they looked like old men, but war had a way of making teenagers look ancient. They wore baggy gray fatigues, and swung their axes like tired machines. Standing guard over them was a truckload of Nazi soldiers, armed to the teeth with submachine guns and rifles. The soldiers were smoking and talking as the prisoners labored, and off in the far distance something was on fire, a pall of black smoke hanging against the gray eastern horizon. Bomb strike, Michael figured. The allies were increasing their bombing raids as the invasion drew closer.
"Halt!" a soldier stepped into the road in front of them, and the wagon driver-a wiry German member of the Resistance named Gunther-pulled in the horse's reins. "Get these loafers out!" the soldier shouted; he was a young lieutenant, overeager, with red cheeks as fat as dumplings. "We've got work for them here!"
"They're volunteers," Gunther explained, with an air of dignity, though he wore the faded clothes of a farmer. "I'm taking them to Berlin for assignment."
"I'm assigning them to road work," the lieutenant countered. "Come on, get them out! Now!"
"Oh, shit," Mouse whispered under his scraggly, dirty brown beard. Michael reclined in the hay beside him, and next to Michael were Dietz and Friedrich, two other German Resistance fighters who'd been escorting them since they'd reached the village of Sulingen four days before. Beneath the hay were hidden three submachine guns, two Lugers, a half-dozen potato-masher hand grenades and a panzerfaust-tank killing weapon with an explosive projectile.
Gunther started to protest, but the lieutenant stalked around to the back of the wagon and shouted, "Out! all of you, out! Come on, move your lazy asses!" Friedrich and Dietz, realizing it was better to comply than argue with a young Hitler, got out of the wagon. Michael followed them, and last out was Mouse. The lieutenant said to Gunther, "Now, you, too! Get that shit wagon off the road and follow me!" Gunther swatted the horse's flanks with the reins and steered the wagon under a stand of pine trees. The lieutenant herded Michael, Mouse, Gunther, and the other two men over to the truck, where they were given axes. Michael glanced around, counting thirteen German soldiers in addition to the young lieutenant. There were more than thirty prisoners of war, hacking the pines down. "all right!" the lieutenant barked, a clean-shaven schnauzer. "You two over there!" He motioned Michael and Mouse to the right. "The rest of you that way!" To the left for Gunther, Dietz, and Friedrich.
"Uh... excuse me, siri" Mouse said timidly "Uh... just what are we supposed to be doingi"
"Clearing trees, of course!" The lieutenant narrowed his eyes and looked at the five-foot-two-inch, brown-bearded, and dirty Mouse. "are you blind as well as stupidi"
"No, sir. I only wondered why-"
"You just obey orders! Go on and get to work!"
"Yes, sir." Mouse, clasping his ax, trudged past the officer, and Michael followed him. The others went to the opposite side of the road. "Hey!" the lieutenant shouted. "Runt!" Mouse paused, inwardly quailing. "The only way the German army can use you is to put you into an artillery cannon and shoot you out!" Some of the other soldiers laughed, as if they considered this a fine joke. "Yes, sir," Mouse answered, and went on into the thinned woods.
Michael chose a place between two prisoners, then started swinging the ax. The prisoners didn't pause in their work or otherwise acknowledge him. Wood chips flew in the chilly morning air, and the smell of pine sap mingled with the odors of sweat and effort. Michael noted that many of the prisoners wore yellow Stars of David pinned to their fatigues. all the prisoners were male, all of them dirty, and all wore the same gaunt, glassy-eyed expression. They had disappeared, at least for the moment, into their memories, and the axes swung with a mechanical rhythm. Michael felled a thin tree and stepped back to wipe his face with his forearm. "No slacking, there!" another soldier said, standing behind him.
"I'm not a prisoner," Michael told him. "I'm a citizen of the Reich. I expect to be treated with respect... boy," he added, since the soldier was at the most nineteen years old.
The soldier glowered at him; there was a moment of silence, broken only by the thud of the axes, and then the soldier grunted and moved on along the line of workmen, his arms cradling a Schmeisser submachine gun.
Michael returned to work, the axblade a blur of silver. Beneath his beard, his teeth were gritted. It was the twenty-second of april, eighteen days since he and Mouse had left Paris and started along the route Camille and the French Resistance had set up for them. During those eighteen days, they had traveled by wagon, ox cart, freight train, on foot, and by rowboat across Hitler's domain. They had slept in cellars, attics, caves, the forest, and hiding places in walls, and they had lived on a diet of whatever their helpers could spare. In some cases they would have starved had Michael not found a way to slip off, remove his clothes, and hunt for small game. Still, both Michael and Mouse had each lost almost ten pounds, and they were hollow-eyed and hungry looking. But then again, so were most of the civilians Michael had seen: the rations were going to the soldiers stationed in Norway, Holland, France, Poland, Greece, Italy, and of course fighting for their lives in Russia, and the people of Germany were dying a little more every day. Hitler might be proud of his iron will, but it was his iron heart that was destroying his country.
and what about the Iron Fisti Michael wondered, as his axblade hurled chips into the air. He'd mentioned that phrase to several of the agents between Paris and Sulingen, but none of them had the faintest idea what it might mean. They agreed, though, that as a code name it fit Hitler's style; as well as his will and heart, his brain must have some iron in it.
Whatever Iron Fist was, Michael had to find out. With June approaching and the invasion imminent, it would be suicide for the allies to storm the beaches without fully knowing what they'd face. He hacked another tree down. Berlin lay a little less than thirty miles to the east. They'd come this far, across a land cratered and ablaze at night with bomb blasts, evading SS patrols, armored cars, and suspicious villagers, to be nabbed by a green lieutenant interested in chopping down pines. Echo was supposed to contact Michael in Berlin-again, arranged by Camille-and at this point any delay was critical. Less than thirty miles, and the axes kept swinging.
Mouse cut through his first tree and watched as it toppled. On either side of him, prisoners worked steadily. The air was full of stinging bits of wood. Mouse rested on his ax, his shoulders already tightening. Off in the deep forest, a woodpecker stuttered, mocking the axes. "Go on, get to work!" a soldier with a rifle came up beside Mouse.
"I'm resting for a minute. I-"
The soldier kicked him in the calf of his right leg-not hard enough to knock him off his feet, but with enough force to break a bruise. Mouse winced, and saw his friend-the man he knew only as Green Eyes-stop working and watch them.
"I said get to work!" the soldier commanded, not seeming to care that Mouse was a German or not.
"all right, all right." Mouse picked up his ax again and limped a little deeper into the woods. The soldier was right behind him, looking for another excuse to kick the little man. Pine needles scraped Mouse's face, and he pushed the branches aside to get in at the trunk.
and that was when he saw two dark gray, mummified feet hanging in front of his face.
He looked up, stunned. His heart gave a lurch.
Hanging from a branch was a dead man, gray as Jonah's beard, the rope noosed around his broken neck and his mouth gaping. His wrists were tied behind him, and he wore clothes that had faded to the color of april mud. What age the man had been when he died was hard to tell, though he had curly reddish hair: the hair of a young man. His eyes were gone, taken by the crows, and pieces of his cheeks had been torn away, too. He was a skinny, dried-up husk, and around his neck was a wire that held a placard with the faded words: I DESERTED MY UNIT. Below that, someone had scrawled with a black pen: and went home to the Devil.
Mouse heard someone making a choking sound. It was his own throat, he realized. He felt the squeeze of the noose around it.
"Welli Don't stand there gawking. Get him down."
Mouse glanced back at the soldier. "Mei No... please... I can't..."
"Go on, runt. Make yourself useful."
"Please... I'll be sick..."
The soldier tensed, eager for another kick. "I said to get him down. I won't tell you again, you little-"
He was shoved aside, and he staggered over a pine stump and went down on his butt. Michael reached up, grasped the corpse's ankles, and gave a strong yank. Most of the rotten rope parted, fortunately before the corpse's head came off. Michael yanked again, and the rope broke. The corpse fell, and lay like a piece of shiny leather at Mouse's feet.
"Damn you!" The soldier leaped up, red-faced, thumbed the safety off on his Karabiner, and thrust the barrel into Michael's chest. His finger lodged on the trigger.
Michael didn't move. He stared into the other man's eyes, saw the indignant child in them, and he said, "Save your bullet for the Russians," in his best Bavarian accent, since his new papers identified him as a Bavarian pig farmer.
The soldier blinked, but his finger remained on the trigger.
"Mannerheim!" the lieutenant bawled, striding forward. "Put down that gun, you damned fool! They're Germans, not Slavs!"
The soldier obeyed at once. He thumbed the safety off again, but he still stared sullenly at Michael. The lieutenant stepped between them. "Go on, watch them over there," he told Mannerheim, motioning toward another group of prisoners. Mannerheim trudged away, and the dumpling-cheeked officer turned his attention to Michael. "You don't touch my men. Understandi I could've let him shoot you, and I'd be within my rights."
"We're both on the same side," Michael reminded him, his gaze steady. "aren't wei"
The lieutenant paused. Too long. Had he heard something false in the accenti Michael wondered. His blood felt icy. "Let me see your travel permit," the lieutenant said.
Michael reached into his mud-streaked brown coat and gave the man his papers. The lieutenant unfolded them, and studied the typewritten words. There was an official seal on the lower right-hand corner, just beneath the permit administrator's signature. "Pig farmer," the German muttered quietly, and shook his head. "My God, has it come to thisi"
"I can fight," Michael said.
"I'm sure. You may have to, if the Russian Front breaks open. Dirty bastards won't stop until they get to Berlin. What service are you volunteering fori"
"Butchering," Michael replied.
"I imagine you've had some experience at that, haven't youi" The lieutenant looked distastefully at Michael's dirty clothes. "Ever fire a riflei"
"and why haven't you volunteered before nowi"
"I was raising my pigs." a movement caught Michael's eye; over the lieutenant's shoulder he saw a soldier walking toward Gunther's hay wagon, where the weapons were hidden. He heard Mouse cough, and knew Mouse had seen, too.
"Hell," the lieutenant said, "you're almost as old as my father."
Michael watched the soldier approach the hay wagon. The skin crawled at the nape of his neck. and then the soldier hoisted himself up into the back of the wagon and lay down in the hay to sleep. Several others catcalled and hooted at him, but he laughed and took his helmet off, cradling his head with his hands. Michael saw three soldiers sitting in the rear of the truck, and the others were spread out amid the prisoners. He glanced at Gunther, across the road. Gunther had stopped chopping a tree, and was staring at the soldier who lay unwittingly atop an arsenal.
"You look fit enough. I don't think the butchering service would mind if you cleared trees with my detail for a few days." The lieutenant folded Michael's papers and gave them back to him. "We're going to widen this road for the tanks. So you seei You'll be doing your service for the Reich and you don't even have to get your hands bloody."
a few days, Michael thought grimly. No, that wouldn't do at all.
"Both of you get back to work," the lieutenant ordered. "When the job's finished, we'll send you on your way."
Michael saw the soldier in the hay wagon shift his position, trying to get comfortable. The man smoothed the hay down, and if he felt any of the weapons underneath it...
There was no time to wait and see if the soldier discovered the guns or not. The lieutenant was striding back to the truck, confident in his powers of persuasion. Michael grasped Mouse's elbow and pulled him along, toward the road. "Keep your mouth shut," Michael warned him.
"Hey, you!" one of the other soldiers called. "Who told you to quiti"
"We're thirsty," Michael explained as the lieutenant listened. "We've got a canteen in our wagon. Surely we can have a drink of water before we continuei"
The lieutenant waved them on and swung himself up into the truck bed to rest his legs. Michael and Mouse walked on across the road as the prisoners kept on chopping and pine trees cracked as they fell. Gunther glanced at Michael, his eyes large and frightened, and Michael saw the soldier in the wagon winnow his hand into the hay for whatever was disturbing his recumbent posture.
Mouse whispered urgently, "He's found the-"
"ah-ha!" the soldier cried out as his fingers found the object and he pulled it free. "Look what these dogs are hiding from us, Lieutenant Zeller!" He held it up, showing the half-full bottle of schnapps he'd discovered.
"Trust farmers to bury their secrets," Zeller said. He stood up. The other soldiers looked on anxiously. "are more bottles in therei"
"Wait, I'll see." The soldier began burrowing through the hay.
Michael had reached the wagon, leaving Mouse about six paces behind. He dropped the ax, reached deeply into the hay, and his hands closed on an object that he knew was there. He said, "Here's something for your thirst," as he drew out the submachine gun and clicked off the safety.
The soldier gaped at him, the young man's eyes blue as a Nordic fjord.
Michael shot him without hesitation, the bullets stitching across the soldier's chest and making the body dance like a marionette. as soon as the initial burst was released, Michael whirled around, took aim at the soldiers in the back of the truck, and opened fire. The axes ceased chopping; for an instant both the prisoners and German soldiers stood as motionless as painted statues.
and then pandemonium broke loose.
The three soldiers in the truck went down, their bodies punctured. Lieutenant Zeller threw himself to the floorboards, bullets whining all around him, and reached for his holstered pistol. a soldier standing near Gunther leveled his rifle to fire at Michael, and Gunther sank his ax between the man's shoulder blades. The other two Resistance fighters lifted their axes to strike two more soldiers; Dietz's ax all but took a man's head off, but Friedrich was shot at point-blank range through the heart before he could deliver the blow.
"Get down!" Michael shouted at Mouse, who stood dazed in the line of fire. His bulging blue eyes stared at the dead German in the hay. Mouse didn't move. Michael stepped forward and punched him in the stomach with the submachine gun's butt, the only thing he could think to do, and Mouse doubled over and fell to his knees. a pistol bullet knocked a shard of wood out of the wagon beside Michael, its path grazing the horse's flank and making the animal shriek and rear up. Michael knelt down and fired a long burst at the truck, popping its tires and shattering both rear and front windshields, but Zeller hugged the truck bed's floorboards.
Gunther chopped down with his ax again, cleaving the arm of a soldier who'd been about to blast him with a Schmeisser. as the soldier fell, writhing in agony, Gunther picked up the weapon and sprayed bullets at two other soldiers who were running for cover in the trees. Both of them staggered and fell. a pistol bullet whined past Michael's head, but Zeller was firing without aiming. Michael reached over the edge of the wagon, his hand searching in the hay. another bullet knocked a storm of wood splinters into his face, one of them driving into the flesh less than an inch beside his left eye. But Michael had what he was after; he pulled it out, ducked down, and wrenched the pin loose on the potato-masher hand grenade. Zeller shouted to anyone who could still hear him: "Kill the man at the wagon! Kill the son of a-"
Michael threw the grenade. It hit the ground short of the truck, bounced, and rolled up underneath it. Then he flung himself over Mouse's body and covered his own head with his arms.
The grenade exploded with a hollow whump! and the blast lifted the truck up off its flattened tires. Orange and purple flames roared, their violence hurling the truck to one side on a pillar of fire. It crashed over, the rending of metal followed by a second blast as the gasoline and oil ignited. a column of black smoke with a red center rose into the sky. Zeller didn't fire again. a rain of burning cloth and scorched metal fell, and the wagon horse jerked its reins free from the branch Gunther had tied them to, then fled madly down the road.
Gunther and Dietz, who'd scooped up a dead man's rifle, were kneeling amid the pine stumps, shooting at the four soldiers who'd escaped the first blaze of bullets. One of the men panicked, got up from the ground, and ran, and Dietz shot him in the head before he'd taken three strides. and then two prisoners rushed forward, into the midst of the remaining soldiers, and their axes began a merry work. Both men were shot before they could finish, but three more prisoners took their places. The axes rose and fell, the blades smeared with scarlet. a final shot rang out, fired into the air from a falling hand. There was a last shriek, and the axes stopped.
Michael stood up, retrieving the submachine gun he'd thrown aside. It was still warm, like a comforting oven. Gunther and Dietz got up from their shelter and quickly began to inspect the bodies. Gunshots flared as they dispatched the wounded. Michael reached down and pulled at Mouse's shoulder. "are you all righti"
Mouse sat up, his eyes watering and still stunned. "You hit me," he gasped. "Why'd you hit mei"
"Better a tap than a bullet. Can you standi"
"I don't know."
"You can," Michael said, and hauled him to his feet. Mouse still held his ax, his knuckles bleached white around the handle. "We'd better get out of here before any more Germans come along," Michael told him; he looked around, expecting to see the prisoners disappearing into the woods, but most of them simply sat on the ground, as if awaiting the next truckload of Nazis. Michael crossed the road, with Mouse a few paces behind, and he approached a thin, dark-bearded man who'd been among the chopping party. "What's wrongi" Michael asked. "You're free now. You can go, if you like."
The man, his face stretched like brown leather over the jutting bones, smiled faintly. "Free," he whispered in a thick Ukrainian accent. "Free. No." He shook his head. "I don't think so."
"There are the woods. Why don't you goi"
"Goi" another man, even thinner than the first, stood up. He had a long-jawed face, and was shaven almost bald. His accent was of northern Russia. "Go wherei"
"I don't know. Just... away from here."
"Whyi" the dark-bearded man inquired. He lifted his thick brows. "The Nazis are everywhere. This is their country. Where are we to go that the Nazis wouldn't hunt us down againi"
Michael couldn't fathom this; it was utterly against his nature that anyone whose chains had been broken wouldn't try to keep them from being forged again. These men had been prisoners for a very long time, he realized. They had forgotten the meaning of freedom. "Don't you think there's any chance you might be able to-"
"No," the bald prisoner interrupted, his eyes black and remote. "No chance at all."
as Michael talked to the men, Mouse leaned against a pine tree nearby. He felt sick, and he thought he might faint from the smell of blood. He wasn't a fighter. God help me get home, he prayed. Just help me get ho-
One of the dead Germans suddenly sat up, about eight feet from where Mouse stood. The man had been shot through the side, his face ashen. Mouse saw who it was: Mannerheim. and he also saw Mannerheim reach for a pistol lying beside him, pick it up, and point it at Green Eyes' back.
Mouse started to scream, but his voice croaked, unable to summon enough power. Mannerheim's finger was on the trigger. His gun hand wavered; he steadied it with his other hand, which was covered with crimson.
Mannerheim was a German. Green Eyes was... whoever he was. Germany was Mouse's country. I DESERTED MY UNIT. Runt. and went home to the Devil.
all these things whirled through Mouse's mind in an instant. Mannerheim's finger began to squeeze the trigger. Green Eyes was still talking. Why wouldn't he turni Why wouldn't he...
Time had run out.
Mouse heard himself shout-the cry of an animal-and he strode forward and smashed the ax blade down into Mannerheim's brown-haired skull.
The gun hand jerked, and the pistol went off.
Michael heard the whine of a wasp past his head. Up in the trees, a branch cracked and fell to earth. He turned, and saw Mouse holding the handle of his ax, the blade buried in Mannerheim's head. The man's body slumped forward, and Mouse released the ax as if he'd been scalded. Then Mouse fell to his knees in the dirt; he stayed there, his mouth half open and a little thread of saliva hanging over his chin, until Michael helped him to his feet.
"My God," Mouse whispered. He blinked, his eyes bloodshot. "I killed a man." Tears welled up and ran down his cheeks.
"You can still get away," Michael told the dark-bearded prisoner as Mouse's weight leaned against him.
"I don't feel like running today," was the answer. The man gazed up at the pewter sky. "Maybe tomorrow. You go on. We'll tell them..." He paused; it came to him. "We'll tell them the allies have landed," he said, and smiled dreamily.
Michael, Mouse, Gunther, and Dietz left the prisoners behind. They continued along the road, keeping to the woods, and found the hay wagon about a half mile ahead. The horse was calmly chomping grass in a dewy field.
They got away as quickly as they could, black smoke like banners of destruction now hazing the western horizon as well as the eastern. Mouse sat staring into space, his mouth working but making no sounds, and Michael looked ahead, trying to shake the image of the young soldier's face just before he had slaughtered him. The bottle of schnapps, unbroken in the gunfire, had been sipped from by all and deposited under the hay. In these times liquor was a priceless commodity.
They went on, and every turn of the wheels took them closer to Berlin.