Chapter #3 “AM I (BLACK AND) BLUE”


10 September 1942, mid afternoon

It wasn't quite a run, but I was moving towards that mortar. An order not to shoot penetrated my brain, and I was glad to hear it. The “nicht schiessen!” sounded like Kirchner's voice, but my focus was on the mortar. I ignored the fact that someone was bound to stop me. Maybe stop me permanently.

The first few steps had me puffing hard. My throat and lungs objected to the burning air. By the time I reached the stack of mortar shells, my chest was heaving. Barely breaking stride, I picked up the top bomb firmly with both hands.

Heavier than I remembered.

Another step.

A turn.

I released it smoothly down the tube.

Not expecting to have made it that far, I hadn’t prepared for my continuing momentum which would take me another few inches. That would put me in front of the mortar or over the cliff.

I was dead.

I dug in my heel and leaned back. It wouldn’t be enough. My body continued forward.

Nowhere to go.

Trapped.

In the eternity, or split second, before the mortar fired, a hand caught my arm and pulled me backwards.

A deafening explosion blasted heat. The shell barely missed my cheek.

Whoever grabbed me dragged me down into a slide parallel to the cliff, fighting the law of gravity, using his whole body, along with my extra weight, digging in his heels against the inertia that propelled both of us closer to the deadly drop. Searching for a foothold, he hit the mortar knocking it over the cliff.

We came to a stop—our feet hanging over empty space but our bodies on firm ground.

It was that captain. He pulled his legs under him and swung himself up.

He kept ahold of my arm to drag me as he moved back from the cliff.

I tried to help by digging my feet in trying to find purchase to push away from the ledge.

Using his free hand he stuck me which made me bite the inside of my cheek. Blood filled my mouth. I stopped moving as I choked.

He switched hands to grab my collar, towing me further away from the precipice.

Kirchner released his hold to seize my hands, moving further back, and then twisted his hold which turned me over onto my knees on the hot sand.

I whined in pain but was able to spit out the blood pooling in my mouth. As I retched, he let go of my hands allowing me to move off my knees into a crouch.

The lieutenant from the other patrol ran up.

I missed his first few indignant German syllables but understood Kirchner’s interruption.

“This was my fault,” he said. “My guard was assigned to her which made her my prisoner. I’m the highest-ranking officer here, and it was my choice not to just shoot her while she ran. I was afraid a shot might possibly be heard. I assumed she was only going to wave and that would hardly have been seen. Didn’t see her as a possible threat. Thought of her as too weak, too exhausted, too...”

He shook his head. “My fault entirely. None of this will be blamed on you or your men. Write up a note to that effect, and I’ll sign it before we split up.”

I had stopped spitting out blood, and I looked at him. I’d rarely heard an officer explain himself to a subordinate. But these two both commanded their own patrols. Perhaps he also felt embarrassed and was honest enough to admit it. Or maybe he was manipulating things to make sure he stayed in overall command of the situation. I didn’t understand this captain. But I still tried to think of why he might be doing what he did.

My grandmother had been able to predict what people were going to do. Usually. But I was often surprised by my own actions, well enough anyone else’s.

His explanation stopped the lieutenant from continuing his complaint. The lieutenant was easier to understand: he’d obviously been worried about blame since his men had left a primed mortar unattended.

Kirchner glanced over the cliff and told the other officer, “The British column has stopped out of range. I think we’re going to have to call it a standoff. My orders are not to lose men and equipment for no advantage, and you and I have missions to accomplish. Since we don’t want them following either of us, we can hold them here. The British would have to wait if we offered to send British nurses down to them.”

“Not her!” The lieutenant’s protective feelings towards me had evaporated. His tone was insistent, demanding, breaking military hierarchy.

“No, she’ll remain a prisoner of war, no longer to be regarded as a non-combatant. I’ll take her with my prisoners back to base. Let headquarters deal with her.”

He grabbed my upper arm, pulling me upward. “Well, Fraulein Bowman, do you want to free your nurses and save the British from two German columns who have the high ground?”

I focused on his last question and not what had been said in German. Still out of breath, I settled on a few words. “That’s ... why ... did ...”

“Hmm. Thought you were just juggling ammo for practice.”

It wasn’t a good joke, and I wouldn't have been tempted to laugh even if I had the energy. Though, because I was a fairly good juggler, it was more appropriate than he knew. But it was the hint of humor surprised me.

“Practice... needs... daily...” Every word further scratched the membrane of my throat.

He didn’t wait for me to finish. “You’ll remain a prisoner.”

“’Course... angry.”

“‘Angry’ doesn’t cover it, but the rules of war do. You need to convince your team to give us no trouble about you not going with them.”

“Right.” I meant it to be a strong affirmation, but it came out as a weak squeak.

He called over his Leutnant, a second lieutenant, switching back to German to ask for handcuffs. His younger officer supplied them asking, “Do you think those are necessary to control a woman, Herr Hauptmann?”

Kirchner was facing me as he put on my handcuffs. His jaw clenched, and he almost closed his eyes in what might have been a fight for self-control. He took a slightly deeper breath—not quite a sigh—then without turning said, “Leutnant Fuhrmann, she is to be treated as if she’s an enemy commando. She must never be given a chance to do anything like that again.”

His voice was cold enough to lower the temperature around us for almost a second. “Take her back to her nurses. Watch her. Neither her honor nor her word should be relied upon. Who knows how to treat a woman who acts like a soldier?”

He turned to me and switched back to English. “Your nurses must be ready to walk down to the British column. My men will find a path. It isn’t all that steep.”

“Water?”

“I’d be tempted to send you off without water, but I will not send them that way.”

“How ... talk to British?”

“Hm. Smoke signals? No, the British couldn’t read them.” He lit a cigarette.

A fan of American Westerns. Movies? Books? Karl May, perhaps? Or maybe his desire for a cigarette suggested the smoke signals.

He inhaled deeply. “Maybe we’ll flash Morse code at them. That’s my job. Your job is to prepare your nurses. If it goes well, we’ll all live to kill each other another day.”

I nodded to spare my voice. He had spoken of my lack of honor in German so I couldn’t defend myself. I didn’t even knew what he’d consider honorable in war. Was it a secret male concept?

The problem before me was walking over to Gail and Mary.

My legs wobbled as if the bone marrow was melting. I had to ask for something, “Need ... water.”

Fuhrmann offered me his canteen and Kirchner and the other patrol commander left.

It was awkward holding the canteen to my lips with the handcuffs, and it took several rinses before I no longer spit out much blood. Then I drank deeply several times before handing back the canteen.

Leutnant Fuhrmann motioned me to walk ahead of him making it clear he would obey orders and treat me as if I were dangerous. It would have been laughable ... if I had strength or breath enough to laugh.

He’d understood my request for water, and the captain would have assigned someone who could report back on what I said.

Both nurses stood as we approached. Mary stepped toward me.

I held up my hands. “Back! Sit!” My voice wasn't strong, but its tone stopped her. “Need to talk.”

The water had helped, but I was still dehydrated and overheated.

They were in a slight depression and some covers had been brought so they they had enough insulation to sit. I lowered myself onto a jacket. “A British patrol is over that ridge, out of range.”

“So, that’s what you were doing,” Gail said.

“Fired warning shot. You need to walk down to them.” My voice would just cramp up every so often if I didn’t insert pauses. “No sand, not even a grain, in shoes. Make thickened head covering under your cap. Germans can find something from belongings.”

“Do you have to walk in handcuffs?” Gail asked.

“Not going. Gave up my nursing non-combatant status when I fired a weapon.”

“We will not go without you!” Mary said it, but Gail’s face showed the same determination.

They didn’t realize that I should be dead. At the very least, I should have a broken jaw. The captain’s restraint amazed me.

“You will do as I order!” It was barely more than a whisper, but I instilled into the words all the sense of command I could muster. I let it sink in. “I’m commanding officer until you reach British column. You two, maybe twelve to twenty our soldiers down there. Twice as many Germans up here.”

I stared at Mary until she slumped her shoulders. “I remain a prisoner whether you stay or go free. Why not repatriated? Make what I did worthwhile. Do rational thing, and ...” I gathered strength for emphasis, “...follow my orders!”

I felt a drop of blood in the corner of my lips and wiped it pausing before continuing, “In addition, I’m not sure a battle can be avoided if saving two British nurses isn’t part of deal. A battle might kill us and other prisoners. Once you reach the British patrol, remember if they follow and attack, they’re likely get us prisoners killed. So, discourage it. They may not listen but try. Please.”

I felt dizzy and closed my eyes until the spell passed. “These British prisoners might need a nurse. Maybe I can be traded after these officers turn me over to those not directly affected by my sabotage.”

I wished I could give them Admiral Hickman’s name to let him know where I was, but that was out of the question. He’d learn about it through his regular sources.

The captain’s words echoed in my mind. “Let's continue this another day. I risked my life for this. Don’t foul things up to help me.”

They were quiet.

“Eleanor ... eh, Lieutenant Bowman, I don’t like it.” Mary seemed resigned but couldn’t resist showing she disagreed.

“You’ll like it less walking in hot sun. But it’ll save British lives.“ I tapped her hand gently. “You’ll envy me sitting up here while you find your way down that cliff. Don’t dawdle, don’t exhaust yourself, or take risks. Good luck.”

“Good luck to you.”

Gail cleared her throat. “Actually, Lieutenant, although you’re in worse physical shape, my impression is that you’re mentally better. Even when we first met, you seemed ... subdued.”

I offered a piece of the truth while getting up. “Firing that warning shot made me feel better about myself. Early on I was exhausted and could barely concentrate on anything except my fear of flying.”

“I can believe that,” Mary said. “That sandstorm and then the crash were more adventure than I wanted.”

“I don’t tend to seek adventures—I’m usually too afraid of new things. I never believed anything as big and heavy as an airplane could fly. Expected crash. Expected to die in it. But not for someone else to die.” I turned both my palms up within the handcuffs and shrugged.

Mary rushed to hug me. Gail followed.

Fuhrmann called over one of the Germans who had searched our belongings to have him find scarfs or anything that could be used as such. Then he took me back and summarized everything for his commander.

When he finished, I asked the captain, “Did you contact the British?”

“Didn't you see the smoke signals?”

Still on his cowboys and Indians motif.

I rephrased. “They agreed?”

“I don’t think they believe yet that I have two of their nurses, but when they see them start down the ridge, they’ll have to wait until they make it to the bottom. A canteen is being filled for them. I‘ll treat them like non-combatant nurses. Like ladies.”

“Unlike me.”

“You broke the rules.”

Rules, rules, rules. How very German of him.

I nodded. “Quite.”

“My men found a decent path, not too steep, a little shade which will increase later in the afternoon.” Kirchner looked over the edge. “The British are sending a vehicle now to set a soldier with binoculars and water at the bottom. While your nurses start down, let me introduce you to the ranking officer of our British prisoners. One of my men had to knock Major Cleere down to keep him from rushing to protect you from my un-chivalrous behavior.”

I moved my handcuffed hands up to my jaw.

“Does it hurt?” he asked.

“May I have a bit more water to rinse with?”

He handed me the canteen from his belt. “Now, I’m properly shown to be what you British call a boor. I should have made sure you had enough water after hitting you.”

“Of course, a gentleman wouldn't have hit me even if I had ruined his ambush.”

“Hmm. You think I should have shot you instead? No, too noisy. But you wouldn’t have been difficult to bring down with a thrown knife. You ran like you were old and crippled.”

“I take your point.” I realized what I said only when I heard it and saw his fleeting smile.

The water I rinsed through my mouth and spit out still showed a light pink, but I was desperate to drink even though it tasted of blood.

Gail and Mary waved at me before disappearing over the edge on a path they seemed to feel comfortable enough to start on. Since both of my hands were on the canteen, I merely nodded back. Then after another long drink, I handed the canteen back to my captor.

The lieutenant’s men were taking down their mortars and packing up.

I wasn’t all that comfortable being alone with an enemy who’d casually mentioned considering a couple of ways of killing me while I ran. So, I looked forward to joining his other prisoners even though they were basically powerless. Telling myself I was safe among these Germans though did not mean I felt safe. But where did safety reside these days?

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Apprx 2600 words (Last updated May 31, 2020)