July 20, 1918
I wouldn’t have survived this stinking corner of hell if it wasn’t for the six men huddled in the dirt with me. Or maybe they wouldn’t have survived without me. But long before our intelligence unit was captured and thrown into the most heinous prisoner-of-war camp in Germany, we’d trusted each other with our loyalty and our lives.
Captain Drew Hammond reached a scrawny arm toward me, cradling a fresh peach in his palm. He’d lost the bulk that once gave him the strength of two men. His green woolen uniform was in tatters; his feet lacked stockings and leather boots. In the five agonizing months we’d been here, we learned what a man would do when he was desperate for something to eat. And a fresh peach was worth killing for.
“Take it, Major,” he insisted, keeping his voice low so the other prisoners wouldn’t hear. “You’ll need it more than we do.”
I finished sharpening a strip of tin pilfered from a pile of trash near the guards’ camp and knew he spoke of our need to escape. That if we didn’t, we’d soon die. A venture I’d spearhead as soon as I could find a way and one that required a stamina none of us possessed.
“We’ll share and share alike, one peach or a dozen.” I infused a quiet firmness into my voice for his benefit as well as the others’. The seven of us, more like brothers than fellow soldiers. “Just like always. Isn’t that right, Captain?”
A moment passed. “Yes, sir.”
His somber tone convinced me the peach would be good for morale. I took the fruit and carefully set it on another piece of tin, large enough to use as a plate. Aware my actions held the keen attention of the other six, that their mouths were watering as pathetically as my own, I pushed the blade into the juicy flesh and removed one slim wedge.
We stared at the glistening shape.
And for a moment, no one said anything.
“Not rotten,” Kane Purcell muttered finally, rubbing his bearded chin.
I continued my careful cutting, one wedge after another. “Can’t help but think that’s a good sign for us.”
Jarrett LaCroix skimmed a cautious glance over the prison grounds, clearly concerned our bounty would bring trouble from the thousands of starving men penned up on ten and a half acres inside the barbed wires. But the rampant misery kept our activity unnoticed, and soon, seven matching wedges rested on the tin.
I held the plate toward Rico Mendoza and Lee Pennington, the youngest of our group. “Take one.”
Rico’s hair was overgrown and tangled, his lips blistered from the sun. He feigned a grimace. “My belly’s burning, Major. I can’t eat or else I’ll lose what little I’ve got in me.”
Lee followed him into our crude wooden hut. “Never could abide peaches. Always preferred apples myself.”
“I’m too tired to eat anything. Think I’ll take a nap.” Kane joined them.
And so did Jarrett. “Afraid I’m more partial to an onion, Major.”
I glowered at the whole selfless bunch, denying themselves decent food for my sake. “You’ll help me eat these, or I’ll shove a slice down each of your damn throats.”
Suddenly, beside me, Grant Halverson stiffened. “Guard coming. North gate. Forty paces.”
Our glances shot to the lone Kraut striding purposely toward us. A kid barely into his twenties and likely illiterate, but with an arrogance and hate for the American doughboys that left us all suffering. I swore under my breath and flipped the peaches into the dirt, covering them quickly with the tin plate.
By the time I looked again, the guard stood over us.
“You Major Michael Malone?” he demanded in a thick German accent.
No reason I could think of why he’d need to know. Or why he’d taken the time to find out. Tense, I nodded once. “First Infantry Division, American Expeditionary Forces.”
I made sure there was pride in my voice, but the guard’s face contorted, and before I could see it coming, he slammed the toe of his boot into my ribs. I hurtled into the dirt, gritted my teeth against the pain, and roiled with the hate and frustration from my inability to hit back.
“Just curious,” he said.
He was gone by the time I could right myself again.
“Major!” Kane and Jarrett, Rico and Lee, scrambled out of the hut, all talking at once. “Jesus, you okay?”
“Never been better,” I said and tried to breathe.
“What the hell was that all about?” Drew ground out.
I didn’t answer, but I cursed the circumstances that made us prisoners of the enemy. Unarmed, starving, hurting. Soon dead if I, as their leader, didn’t do something about it.
Grant stared down at the dirt and uttered a soft exclamation. “Looks like he brought you a present.”
A stubby twig lay on the ground, next to the piece of tin hiding our peach. A twig that hadn’t been there before. Rolled tight around it, a strip of paper. I breathed a stunned oath.
A message. Who would’ve dared to contact me like this, using a German guard to smuggle it in?
I forgot the fire in my ribs. Forgot my hate, my determination to escape. I reached for the stick and unrolled the message. Recognition of the handwriting rocked through me.
My kid brother’s.
Sweet Jesus Christ.
Benjamin was here? In Wittenberg?
“What’s it say?” Drew asked, hushed.
I read the note. Then I read it again.
“Benjamin wants to rendezvous. Tonight.” My gaze lifted toward the prison hospital, situated on the southeast side of the camp, and to the pine woods beyond. There, a point of escape, or so he claimed. “Near the South Gate at midnight.”
“Midnight.” Grant’s skepticism dripped. “Just like that.”
“Does he think it’d be that easy?” Jarrett demanded.
“Pardon me for saying so, Major.” Kane frowned. “But you said yourself that he–”
“I know what I said.”
I hadn’t seen Benjamin in more than three years, not since he graduated college and left America to work as secretary to the ambassador in Germany. His letters home revealed how he’d been swayed by a growing influx of propaganda favoring the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. I’d been horrified by the reversal of his loyalties–and infuriated, too.
Then… the night our father was killed in a violent explosion along Jersey City’s waterfront, along the Atlantic coast. A succession of barges and freight cars loaded with munitions and supplies for the Allies, all of it blown up in a sabotage scheme that rocked the harbors and soon after compelled the United States to join the war against the Central Powers.
My father had been on duty that night, a policeman in charge of guarding the pier. I’d rushed to his side as soon as I heard what happened. In his agonized last words to me, he revealed how he’d seen my brother’s face in the glow of the fires. His certainty of Benjamin’s betrayal.
A traitor to his country.
“Could be a set-up, Michael.”
I resisted Drew’s warning. Even now, I didn’t want to believe what my brother might’ve done. Never once did I stop praying my father had been wrong.
“Maybe,” I said.
But I had to risk escaping from the camp to meet with him. I had to look in his eyes, see the expression on his face. I had to find the truth.
I lifted the tin plate and rescued the seven peach slices from the dirt.
“Whatever you’re thinking, I’m going with you,” Drew said in a low growl. He reached for a wedge and roughly wiped it clean. “Just so you don’t get killed all by yourself.”
I ignored his grim prediction. I reached for a wedge, too, took a small bite and savored the juicy taste, knowing its nourishment would help give me strength for what laid ahead.
* * *
We waited until the hours crawled into darkness and the prison camp fell into its evening routine. Until the master of the bloodhounds had roused his dogs from their kennels and taken them on his rounds. Until the groaning prisoners fell into a miserable, listless sleep.
Only then did my captain and I steal noiselessly toward the South Gate. Once inside the wire fence which surrounded the hospital, we headed toward the narrow stream running through the grounds, the lower part of which was used as a primitive lavatory, as disgusting as it was daunting.
We paused to reconnoiter. The summer’s heat had turned the polluted water vile. Everyone knew a Kraut guard always watched this part of the creek, shadowed heavily by the pine woods towering over it, and my gaze clawed the dense, moonless night. I saw nothing, heard nothing, felt nothing.
But a mute gesture from Drew indicated a dark lump leaning against a pine tree farther up, with the unmistakable shape of a rifle beside it. Most likely, the water’s stench had driven the guard a dozen yards upstream. His shape wasn’t moving.
I waited to make sure it wouldn’t. Finally, convinced the Kraut wasn’t aware of our presence, I exchanged a terse nod with Drew, took a breath and stepped into the slimy ooze.
I steeled myself against the revolting sensation against my bare feet. I eased lower, onto my side, tensing against the soft splashing sound my body made. I kept my face out of the water, always careful to keep the guard in sight. Grasping roots and limbs along the side of the stream, I pulled myself forward, my mind focused on the gap Benjamin said would be there–between the barbed wires and the bottom of the creek. An opening just large enough for a man to slip through. Then, amazingly, I found it. I passed under the fence… and was outside the prison camp.
I kept moving. I strained to hear some sign Drew was behind me, but it was nearly impossible with my pulse pounding against my temple; I could hardly breathe from the fear he’d get caught because of me. Both of us would be shot, like animals.
Finally, movement near the outside of the fence, and Drew’s head came up. I couldn’t get distracted by relief. Any moment, the guard could hear us, see us. Seconds ticked into minutes. Yard by yard, I tugged myself through the putrid water, farther away from the prison. Closer to Benjamin.
In the silence, soft rippling sounds indicated Drew still followed. I fought exhaustion. I’d lost much of my strength during our imprisonment, and yet the need to bolt out of the water, clamor over the bank and run like hell nearly overpowered me.
I clung to control. The control that kept me alive these past five months and helped me fight the need to hurry now. The dogs wouldn’t pick up our scent if we stayed in the water. We had to keep on just as we were. Sacrifice time for the safety of our lives, and to fail, when we were so close….
The rendezvous point appeared. A break in the woods, an opening between the pines, just like Benjamin described, and God save us both, we’d made it.
Breathing hard, I heaved myself up over the tree roots and onto the high bank. Drew collapsed next to me.
“How far you figure we’re downstream?” he rasped.
“Half mile, maybe.” My panting response came out in a whisper; my glance pierced the darkness for signs of anyone following. Finding none, I allowed myself precious moments of rest. I thought of my men left behind, that if this rendezvous succeeded, that it wasn’t a set-up after all, they’d escape with me to this very spot tomorrow night. Free. Just like we’d planned.
The muted blowing of a horse shut down my thoughts. I sat bolt upright, bracing myself to be shot, my ears expecting the dreaded baying of the bloodhounds as the killer beasts charged toward us….
Three horses emerged from the woods. In no hurry. The blackened shapes of men in dark hoods filled the saddles, their silence, their stealth ominous. My heart drummed inside my chest. Something inside me, something sick and terrible, told me my father hadn’t been mistaken.
The men pulled up. I cursed the night and my inability to see faces. Mostly, I hated being vulnerable and defenseless.
“You look like a damned scarecrow, Michael.”
My gaze swung to the man on the left. The hood muffled the voice, but my mind raced to identify it, to delve past the sarcasm and thinly-veiled surprise to detect anything familiar.
“Yeah, well, I left my best suit behind,” I drawled.
I could feel their stares. I knew how I looked with my ragged uniform dripping and clinging to my body, how my shoulders had turned bony, my beard tangled, my long hair caked to my head. How I smelled, too.
But sudden impatience snapped through me. There was no time to think of their opinions–or care about them. I dragged my gaze over each man.
Only to return once again to the one on the left.
The way he sat in the saddle, one slim hand over the other on the pommel, his shoulders slightly hunched. I could just about taste the tension shimmering from him.
“Take the hood off, Benjamin,” I said.
His horse shifted, flicking its tail. No one moved. No one spoke.
Please God, please God, please God. Don’t let it be Benjamin.
Then, slowly, the thin hand grabbed hold of the mask and pulled.
Pain cut right through me, and the months fell away. Two years’ worth of time, throwing me backward to my dying father’s side, our huddled bodies illuminated by the fires, the air around us reverberating with the explosions that wouldn’t end….
To the words my father had rasped in my ear.
Benjie. I saw him, Michael. I saw him….
Incrimination of his youngest son.
Searing hurt cut through me. Blazing fury.
I would never forgive my brother. Not then. Not now.
“You’re a damn fool, Benjamin,” one of them said in a rough whisper.
My gaze swung to the man in the middle. He spoke with an accent. European, but only slightly.
Benjamin’s head swiveled. “He would never have agreed otherwise.”
“Maybe he still won’t.”
“Let me handle him–”
“Don’t say my name!” The snarled command shattered the night’s silence.
Benjamin flinched. “I’ll handle him,” he said through gritted teeth. “Like we decided.”
My tension eased. So. They wanted something from me. What, I couldn’t imagine, but a feeling of control, of relative calm, settled over me.
“Go on, then,” the third man said finally, his muted voice more refined. “We’ve got you covered.” He lifted the blackened shape of a revolver and pointed it toward my chest. “Just in case he tries anything stupid.”
Benjamin’s head turned back toward me. “He won’t.”
“He’s an American patriot, isn’t he?”
A moment passed. “Maybe that’ll change.”
I narrowed an eye. What the hell was that supposed to mean?
“It will. If he wants to stay alive.”
The European’s rough whisper knocked the tension right back into me. I hadn’t forgotten how easily our voices would carry. Or the precious minutes ticking. Nor could I ignore the skill of the bloodhounds, even this far from the prison.
“Get off the horse, Benjamin,” I ordered softly. “I don’t like you talking down to me.”
Benjamin lifted his revolver; until now, I hadn’t known he was carrying. The fact that he was festered.
“We’ve got a proposition for you, big brother,” he said. “We went through a lot of trouble to track you down. I’d like to think you’ll listen to what we have to say.”
“That would depend, wouldn’t it?”
“The major wants you out of the saddle, Benjamin.” The low timber of Drew’s voice carried a vein of command worthy of his rank. “I suggest you listen to him.”
Benjamin leveled him with cool regard. “Captain Drew Hammond, aren’t you?”
“They say you two are real tight.”
I thought of the other five, still back at the prison camp. All of us, tight as bullets in a gun chamber.
“You got that right, too,” Drew said.
Benjamin finally dismounted, then, and stood with feet spread, his revolver steady-aimed at me. “I know all about you, Michael.”
It took all my willpower not to exchange an uneasy glance with Drew. “You should.” My mouth quirked. “We’re brothers, remember?”
“They call you ‘Polecat’,” he said, ignoring the reminder. “And the captain here, he’s ‘Gator’.”
The code names we swore to protect.
“We know who you are,” Benjamin continued. “We know you work in secret for the Army. The Secret Seven, spying against the Germans.” He paused. “Party sympathizers like me.”
I was grateful for the night, that it hid my stunned surprise, the sickening realization it was all true, that he’d turned his back on America and embraced the lies of the enemy. That our covert unit assigned to collect intelligence for the War Department had been uncovered by these conspirators sickened me even more.
“You like living in that hell back there, Michael? Because if you don’t, you don’t have to go back. You can come with us now. Tonight. You’ll be a free man. You’ll be saved.”
“Go with you.” The outrageousness of the suggestion rocked through me.
“Fight for Germany with us,” Benjamin said. A pleading quality had slipped into his voice. “Help us win the war.”
“You’re asking me to be a damned traitor,” I hissed.
“I’m asking you to save yourself.”
My hands itched to grab my brother by the throat and shake some sense into him. What had gone wrong in his life that he turned against his homeland and took sides with murdering cowards?
And he wanted me to be just like him?
“Your precious government doesn’t care about either of you.” Again, the European-accented voice taunted us from beneath the hood. The revolver swung lazily back and forth, shifting its aim between Drew and me. “They forgot about you. They’re just going to let all you doughboys rot in the camp.” He sounded amused. “Did you ever think about that, Michael?”
It had crossed my mind plenty of times. Honest and upright American soldiers like me captured, humiliated, then left to suffer and languish under the Kraut soldiers’ cruelty.
An eternity of suffering.
The price of war we had to pay.
“You’re good at what you do, Michael. Word is you’re the best there is.” Benjamin spoke again. “Just say the word, and we’ll make sure your name is taken off the prison roll call list. The captain’s, too. Both of you will just… disappear.”
Once more, I thought of the other five, waiting anxiously in the hut. Grant, Kane and Jarrett. Rico and Lee. What would they think if Drew and I abandoned them? Just jumped to the enemy’s side to save ourselves?
We would die first. Both of us, prepared to give our last breath for the country we loved.
“And if we refuse?” I asked, not bothering to hide my mockery.
A pistol cocked. The European’s, clearly the gang’s leader. “We can’t let you tell anyone about our little proposition, can we?”
“Michael.” Benjamin sounded desperate. “You’ll be free. We’ll be together again, us two.”
I slid my gaze back to my kid brother. The moon shone through the thinning clouds and revealed the toll the war had taken on him. The skin stretched taut over his cheekbones. The harsh jut to his jaw. The mouth that formed an unyielding line.
Benjamin had grown hard. Harder than his young years should allow. I felt the callousness more than I could see it. How many lives had he taken in cold-blood? Innocent people like our father?
“If Dad was here, he’d be real disappointed in you, Benjie,” I said slowly.
His body flinched, as if I’d caught him by the collar and forced him up straight. His lips curled, and he lifted his revolver.
“Go on,” I taunted. “Kill me. Like you killed him.”
“I never killed him, damn you!”
“You were there, setting the fires. He saw you, Benjamin. He saw you working for the enemy!”
“Shut up!” the European hissed. “The dogs are coming!”
“How did they reward you?” Nerveless against the warning, the certainty of detection and flogging with the rubber whip that would no doubt kill me this time, I persisted, my contempt, my pain, driving me to learn the despicable truth. “Did they tell you Germany would win? Promise you power and wealth and happiness? Did you believe them, Benjamin?”
“You’d never understand.” He shook with the hate that blistered me, clear to my bones. Why hadn’t I known how much he despised me before now? This awful moment? “You’re too damned full of patriotism and all that God Bless America shit, aren’t you? Well, I’m good at what I do, too. Y’know that? I’m just as good as you are! Hell, I’m better!”
I shook my head, reeling from the hate. From the burning pain. “Benjie.” I swallowed. “Benjie, listen to me.”
“Major.” Unease threaded Drew’s voice. “The dogs.”
I heard the baying, then. The pounding of powerful legs racing toward us. A frenzied pack of men and horses and dogs, all blood-thirsty savages that would inevitably tear us apart.
The revolver faltered. Benjamin’s head swung; his glance raked the darkness beyond the pines. My muscles coiled; my body braced to leap forward and grab him, the need in me desperate to do something, anything, to save my brother from what was to come.
The European leveled his revolver toward Benjamin, who didn’t know, didn’t see, and my mouth opened to warn him, warn him….
“You were wrong to expose us to him,” the European spat. “He’ll never be one of us. You were a fool to think he would.”
A sharp pop! ripped through the night. Benjamin’s body jerked and hurtled to the ground, and the revolver swung again, this time in my direction.
But faster, Drew threw himself against me. The air whooshed from my lungs, and I felt myself falling, splashing, drowning….