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Across The Threshold by Jack Bode
Chapter 7

During the next few days we found it rather quiet in our sector. We went over the terrain we had conquered with the intention of gathering up any injured Germans. Alas, we found none. We buried our dead. We had the Red Cross verify the identity of the German casualties, the dead and the wounded. There were a lot of unpleasant chores to be done and we did them. Some of the soldiers complained loudly, some said nothing at all. My company received reinforcements. We got cleaned up and we rested.

The medical field station had been moved again. I lost track of the days of the week. Then one morning Bill Johnson pulled up in the Landrover. Roy Litvak was again in the back, tending the machine gun.

“Isn’t it time to get your finger looked after, Captain?” Johnson inquired, standing at attention if front of me.

I looked at the dirty bandage on my left hand. It was indeed time. I had not paid much attention to the date. There were rumors afoot about an impending attack against the Germans, to clear them out of Narvik. But then in a theater of war there are always plenty of rumors afoot. Though no matter what the future held, it would be far better to face it with a clean bandage on my left hand than with the dirty rags covering it now.

“At ease, Sergeant.” I nodded to Johnson, walked around the vehicle and climbed in. A hundred meters down the road Second Lieutenant Earl Mackenzie approached. Johnson had jumped into the driver’s seat and was about to get under way when I raised my hand.

“Wait a second, Sergeant.”

We waited until Mackenzie reached us. He saluted faultlessly. I returned the salute.

“Divisional headquarters sent this over a few minutes ago,” he said. He handed me an envelope.

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” I responded, taking the message and putting it into my pocket. “I am going to the medical station to get this looked after.” I raised my left hand. “I should be back in less than an hour. Yo u take over until then.”

He saluted again and turned around. Johnson started the Landrover and put it in gear. Letting out the clutch he revved up the engine. We shot forward. At his usual breakneck speed we raced along the track. The engine howled as if it was being tortured and I suppose in a way it was.

Johnson never got out of second gear, but considering the potholes and the condition of the track it seemed as if he was bent on destroying the car, thus sparing the enemy the effort.

“Hold on there, Sir,” Johnson shouted at me and savagely twisted the steering wheel, at the same time tramping the gas pedal to the floor.

We slid around a giant boulder into a makeshift driveway. The wheels of the vehicle went into a deep hole and the water and mud flew in all directions. Some tree branches hit the windshield with a loud bang. Then the Landrover shot out of the hole. For an instant it was airborne. It came down hard. The bump almost threw me out of the vehicle. Johnson jammed on the brakes. The wheels locked. We slid towards another big boulder and a stand of perhaps half a dozen birch trees with trunks the size of a man’s thigh. We came to a halt when the front bumper almost touched the boulder.

“There we are, Sir,” Johnson said and grinned. At first I was going to reprimand him but then I thought better. We had come to no harm. And he had never once gotten us stranded with the vehicle. Other more careful drivers often got themselves into positions where they slid off the road, I mean track, and plunged down a ravine or an embankment, or simply got stuck in a mud hole.

I looked around. Up ahead among the trees stood a small cabin, a two room affair. From its window facing us through the trees a soiled Red Cross flag hung down.

“I shall be back shortly,” I said, stepping to the ground and taking my submachine gun along. We still came across the occasional enemy soldier who had been cut off from his unit and eluded us so far. There was no point in taking chances.

I walked over to the door of the cabin and pulled it open. What a primitive place for a medical station! They did not even have a sink in there. They had a couple of buckets of water standing on the floor and a few white enamelled bowls on the table. Another bucket contained some smelly garbage. It was indeed most primitive.

As I walked in the nurse was in the process of putting the few medical supplies left into a box.

“Hello, there,” I shouted. “Moving out again?”

The nurse flinched and looked up.

“Oh, it’s you. Yo u scared me half to death. I didn’t hear you open the door.”

I laughed. “I should have sneaked up on you, maybe grabbed you from behind.”

“I would have screamed. This is a war zone, you know. There’s no tell­ing what they might have done to you. Maybe you would have gotten shot! And to answer your question, yes, we have been ordered to move again.”

“Well, in that case I am just in time. I have to get this bandage replaced. It’s getting a bit dirty.”

“I’ll say.” She looked at one of the sheets on her clipboard. “You are late. Yo u should have been here three days ago. Let me see what we can do with you.”

She took my arm and pulled me over to the table. “Sit down.”

Deftly she cut away the old bandage.

“Hm, it’s healing up very nicely. Now this is going to hurt a bit. Are you ready?”

She took my finger and held it tightly. Then I felt a tug. I was behind her and could not see what went on. There were a couple of twitches and then a jerk. This was repeated a number of times. While there was no actual pain it nevertheless was quite unpleasant.

“So, there you are. It did not hurt much, did it? Yo u should have come when you were ordered to. Major Pershing doesn’t like to let things go for too long. Your finger is healing up quite nicely. Now that we have the stitches removed you will be as good as new in a couple of more weeks.” She began to bandage the finger up again.

“You are always on the move, aren’t you, Petra?” I said as she fin­ished up.

“Yes, sort of. We are a field station. We move with the front. I think that we are going to the city of Narvik next.”

“But Narvik is still held by the Germans!”

“Sure, at the moment. But not for much longer. I hear these rumors that we are going to kick the enemy right out of Norway.”

“Well, maybe, but I would not count on it. It is quite possible that we will pull out and the Germans will occupy all of Norway.” I was, of course, in a very general way familiar with the outcome of the war since I did not really belong to this time frame. But I thought it best to keep my knowledge to myself.

“I doubt that very much. Our side is making good progress in our campaign. No, no, we’ll be in Narvik before long.”

“Then I won’t be seeing you any more?”

“I did not say that. We are waiting for our escort. Major Pershing has gone to look at a few prospective locations. Maybe you can sneak into Narvik once we are set up there.”

“Major Pershing has gone to Narvik? Wouldn’t he be taken prisoner by the Germans?”

“No, he has not gone quite to Narvik. I believe that he is looking at some interim location on the way to Narvik. I am not quite sure where he is right now.”

Suddenly I remembered the envelope Mackenzie had given me.

“Ah, I almost forgot. My second lieutenant handed me a message just before I came here.” I pulled the envelope out of my pocket and ripped it open, quickly scanning the few lines. I had to read them a second time in order to comprehend their meaning. We were ordered to assist the Medical Field Station No. 2, Narvik in moving to a new location. We were also to insure the physical safety of the station. Speaking of luck!

Petra Baird was looking at me, her gaze a shade apprehensive.

“You’ll be seeing quite a bit of me, at least for a little while longer, Lieutenant. My unit had been ordered to assist in moving Medical Field Station No. 2, Narvik, and to insure the physical safety of the station.”

She looked at me, her eyes big and shiny. I grabbed my weapon, walked to the door and went outside.

“Johnson,” I hollered. The sergeant came running.

“Sir,” he said, standing at attention.

“ We will assist the medical staff in transferring their equipment and supplies to a new location. Yo u go and get your squad to help in the physical moving of the stuff. Requisition and truck from the motor pool. And alert Lieutenant Mackenzie. We will also have to insure their safety.”

“I’ll get a lorry, Sir. I’ll drive it myself.”

“No, I need you in the Landrover. Somebody will have to take the lead. I think that you and Corporal Litvak will do just fine. The three of us are going to be in the first vehicle. Lieutenant Mackenzie will bring up the rear.”

“Yes, Sir.” He saluted and sprinted back to his vehicle. With a roar the engine started. Under a shower of loose gravel and with spinning wheels Johnson took off. In the back Litvak held on to this machine gun for dear life.

As I turned around to go back inside the hut I bumped rather hard into the nurse who had come outside. She would have fallen had I not grabbed her.

“I’m sorry,” she said when she had regained her voice.

“Are you sure you are not hurt?” I asked as I slowly released her.

“Yes, quite sure.” And her eyes twinkled mischievously.

I spent a very pleasant couple of hours with her until Bill Johnson was back. He had a convoy of six vehicles, two Landrovers, one Bedford truck - sorry, Bedford lorry - and three large troop carriers. The supplies and equipment, what little there was, were loaded into the Bedford truck. Petra Baird climbed into the cab as a passenger and we were off. I was in the lead vehicle with Bill Johnson driving and Roy Litvak tending his machine gun in the back.

We were relatively secure on our side of the Herjangsfjord. Following the winding track we slowly made our way along the shore, sometimes turning inland to get around the steep cliffs falling almost vertically to the water. Shortly after noon we arrived at the loading dock and crossed Ofotfjord without difficulty. On the south side we assembled our convoy again. It was now the middle of the afternoon. Our destina­tion was Ankenes. The ridge of Ankenes was held by French troops. This ridge dominated the Beisfjord and the port of Narvik.

I could clearly see what we were about to attempt. The final assault on Narvik was imminent. We would set up the medical field station as close to the front as possible. Here on the south shore of the Ofotfjord enemy patrols were still active. Our relative complacency while of the north shore had given way to alertness.

After disembarking I briefly met with Major Pershing, the doctor. While my troops were being fed from the field kitchen he indicated to me on his map where he intended to set up the medical station. The nurse, Lieutenant Baird, would be in charge until he and the rest of his staff could catch up. At last we began rolling again.

It was evening by the clock when we finally approached Ankenes. I was sitting next to Johnson in the Landrover which was the lead vehicle in our convoy. My submachine gun was in my hands, ready to fire. We slowly wound our way along the track, through the mud and the water filled depressions in the road. Up ahead there was a thicket of birch trees and aspens with dense grass and long vines of brambles. According to the map the road made a sharp turn to the right just past it. On impulse I laid my right hand on Johnson’s arm.

“Stop, Sergeant. Something doesn’t feel right.”

Johnson jammed on the brakes. Twenty meters away from the thicket we slid to a sudden halt on the damp ground. He grabbed his gun, slipping off the safety catch and cradled it loosely in his arms. In the back Litvak crouched behind the machine gun.

“What’s wrong, Sir?” Johnson whispered.

I waved my weapon at the thicket. “I don’t know yet,” I whispered back. “Something’s the matter there.”

Thirty meters behind us the troop carrier with Johnson’s squad braked to a halt. Farther back I could just make out the Bedford truck. We waited.

Suddenly an object like a shadow came sailing out of the thicket. I dived out of the Landrover and rolled to the rear of it. Johnson jumped out of his side, also making for the rear of the vehicle. Litvak fired a short burst from his machine gun and then simply dropped over the back of the car to land between Johnson and me. Something struck the hood of the vehicle, bounced off it and landed beyond the track. The explosion was muffled and threw a lot of dirt up on the Landrover. Both Johnson and I crawled through the ditch on our right to seek cover past the few scrubby trees.

I peered ahead. Although there was no breeze I fancied seeing the trees of the thicket sway. I crawled farther to my right until I had a good view of the area ahead. I still could not see the enemy. The Germans were well concealed by the tall grass and the vines of the brambles. The swaying of the trees had stopped as well.

With one glance I took in the entire area. The thicket was no more than ten meters wide. The road, I mean the track, wound around it. It was the perfect choice for an ambush. I fired a short burst into the bush. Then slightly changing the angle of my gun I fired another burst. With four more bursts I covered the rest of the thicket. I was about to change my position when an enemy soldier at the edge of the thicket jumped up and then fell down again. There was no scream.

Another shadow came sailing out of the thicket. The hand grenade was not aimed and fell to the ground halfway between me and the road. Meanwhile Litvak had jumped back on the Landrover. Aiming the machine gun at the thicket he raked it several times from left to right and back. Farther to my right Johnson was lying behind an outcropping, also shooting at the thicket. And now there was a good deal of motion among the trees and the high, dead grass and the brambles.

I thought I saw a silhouette moving against the grey blue sky. I squeezed off another brief burst. The silhouette disappeared. Litvak was still behind the machine gun, alertly watching the thicket. He had ceased firing.

By chance I happened to look to the right where Johnson was lying. Three figures dropped to the ground among the birch trees. Without thinking I yanked a grenade off my belt, pulled out the pin and sent it sailing to where I had spotted the three shadows. Before it had landed I yanked another one off and threw it, too.

“Get back, Johnson,” I yelled. Jumping to my left I landed in a shallow depression full of meltwater. Johnson slithered head first down the steep incline in front of him. A shadow popped up from where the three enemy soldiers had sought cover. In a shallow curve it skimmed above the ground, impacting where Johnson had been hiding. Then came three explosions in quick succession.

I heard another burst from Litvak’s machine gun. There was a shadow up ahead, just beyond where Johnson had slid down the incline. I raised my weapon, lined it up and pulled the trigger. The shadow disappeared. Johnson fired a couple of rounds from his gun. And then there was silence. The entire engagement had lasted for perhaps a couple of minutes.

Right after the first explosion Johnson’s squad in the vehicle behind us had jumped to the ground and spread out. Now they were slowly advancing towards us.

I removed my helmet, placed it on top of my gun and raised the gun to imitate a person in a crouching position. It drew no response. Putting the helmet back on my head I got to my knees and slowly hoisted myself erect. My entire left side was soaking wet.

Deliberately Johnson got up as well. He grinned at me.

“Do you always have to pick mud holes in which to seek cover, Captain?” he asked.

Despite his joke he was alertly scanning the thicket and the moun­tainside in front of him. I climbed to where I had seen the three shadows above us. As I crested the ridge I stopped. There was not much left of the three soldiers.

With the help of Johnson’s squad we went through the thicket, searching every hiding place. We found a supply of grenades, a small mortar, a number of had weapons and thirteen bodies. There were no survivors.

We buried the corpses after searching their uniforms. Johnson collected the dog tags and personal papers so we could hand them over to the Red Cross. While Johnson’s squad looked after the burial I went to see the nurse, Lieutenant Baird. The bandage on my left hand needed changing. It was soaked through with water and mud.

“What happened up ahead?” she asked when I approached the Bedford truck. “We heard a lot of shooting.”

“Oh, nothing much. We ran into an enemy patrol.”

“Is anybody hurt? Are you hurt?” There was concern in her voice.

“No, none of our lads got hurt. A few of us got a bit muddy and wet. But that is all.”

She took a look at the sodden bandage on my left hand. “You must like dirt,” she said, smiling at me. “Come on, let’s get you fixed up.”

I helped her down from the cab, almost lifting her. For her part Petra simply let herself fall on me. It gave me considerable encourage­ment. It meant that she did not exactly dislike me. She took enough time to replace the bandage, too, but I did not mind. Just as she was tying the last knot Johnson came sauntering over.

“All done, Captain,” he said, standing at attention a couple of meters away.

“Then let’s get under way again, Sergeant.”

Petra Baird was putting her supplies back into her box.

“I should get wounded too,” Johnson said, grinning. “Would it insure as much personal attention as the captain is getting, Lieutenant?”

“You are far better off healthy,” she retorted. “You could lose both your legs, your eyesight or even your life.”

“I suppose so,” Johnson conceded, the grin gone. He looked back at me. “Tell me, Captain, just out of curiosity, what made you order me to stop there?”

“Why do you ask, Sergeant?”

“Well, I was right next to you. I could see nothing wrong. I would have simply gone on and we would be all dead now. How did you know about the ambush?”

I stole a glance at Petra. She had suddenly lost all the color in her face.

“I don’t really know, Johnson,” I replied. “I watched the side of the track ahead and suddenly something in my mind whispered stop. So I told you to stop. I can’t quite explain it. I can’t put my finger on it, but somehow the thicket exuded an aura of danger. It just looked wrong.”

“You must have a sixth sense, Captain.” He turned around and walked to the front of the convoy.

The nurse closed the box and handed it to the private in the back of the Bedford truck. Then she turned to me.

“Take good care, Captain,” she said, patting my arm lightly. “I don’t want to lose you.” She wiped her hands over her eyes and then briskly walked towards the front of the truck. She reached the cab and climbed it before I could assist her.

We reached our destination without further incident.

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