The soldier walked directly to Gunther. He saluted Gunther very formally. Gunther returned his salute. He put his hands near the small his back with one hand just above his pistol. Slowly. he asked. "Why have you been following me. soldier'?"
"I'm sorry. Colonel. but I have to inform you that the Captain sent me after you."
Gunther flexed the fingers on the hand above the pistol. I saw one finger brush the snap that held his holster flap in place. Cautiously. he asked. "And what does that little man want?"
I saw Mom ease the machine gun from under the pillow. I looked back at Gunther. I wondered if he would pull his pistol and shoot the soldier or if he would take the soldier off into the woods and shoot him.
The soldier said. "He sent an SS Lieutenant with me to tell you that we had found evidence of spies in the barn you mentioned."
Slowly. Mom moved the machine gun onto her lap with the muzzle pointed toward the door.
Gunther was still being cautious. He said. "Very good. Private. And what else?"
The soldier took a deep breath and said. "He wanted the Lieutenant to tell you that the SS Commandant at Gustrow wants you to check out the report of the spies and report back to him personally. The Commandant had the Captain send the Lieutenant and me after you to escort you back properly, but I got separated from the Lieutenant on the road somehow, and I don't know where he is."
I saw Gunther stiffen and his finger toy with the snap on his holster. Mom put one foot outside of her door and brought the machine gun up close to her body. Siegie slid down from his window until just his eyes looked over the window frame. I moved slowly back to the other side of the car.
Quietly, Gunther said, "I see." He asked, "Is it necessary that we return tonight, right now?"
"Well, I... ah. The Captain wanted us to .... "
Gunther pressed, "Couldn't we have a bite to eat first?" Some of the tension went out of the soldier.
He smiled and said, "Come to think of it, Colonel, I am hungry."
"That's good because we all are." He pressed again, "It will be an hour, before we can be through eating, Private. Also, if we return after sundown, we must travel slowly. We wouldn't get back to your unit until the early hours of the morning.
"Your Captain would expect you to be fresh enough at sunrise to be ready to go with your unit to push the Russians back across the Oder River. Would it be possible, Private," Gunther spoke in a louder voice, as he softly unsnapped his holster flap, "for us to rest here tonight, and return early tomorrow?"
The soldier tilted his head as he looked around Gunther at the soldiers lining up to eat at the Army field kitchen. He rubbed the side of his face with his hand. He said, "You know, Colonel, sir, I am kind of tired from the ride. Perhaps we should wait until morning." He sat the butt of his rifle on the ground. He said, "The more I think of it, Colonel, the more certain I am that we should do as you suggest."
He hesitated and said, "Ah, Colonel, if you feel strongly about it... I mean, the Captain has ordered me to bring you back, and ... you're a Colonel, and he's a Captain, and .... "
Gunther nodded with understanding. He said, "Soldier, I'm ordering you to spend the night." He paused, "I insist."
The soldier grinned. Then he saluted Gunther and said, "Yes, sir. Whatever the Colonel says, sir."
Gunther cleared his throat. He said, "Thank you, soldier. Go ahead and get something to eat."
The private saluted and walked away.
I saw Gunther's shoulders sag a little as he resnapped his holster. Mom put her hand on the window frame of her door. She rested her head on her hand. I could see that she was shaking all over.
I asked, "What's wrong, Mom?"
Gunther walked to the window. His face sagged a little.
Mom said, "I don't know if I can take any more of this."
Gunther grinned lopsidedly and said, "I understand exactly how you feel. It wears on your nerves, doesn't it?"
She nodded her head weakly. She said, "And tomorrow morning we'll have to face that soldier again."
"Let's let tomorrow take care of itself. Right now, I'd like to eat something. Let's see if we can get into line and get some Army food."
Siegie's eyes were visible just above his window frame.
When Gunther said that we should get into line, Siegie's head came up from behind the window like a periscope. He asked, "Food? Did you say 'food'? I could use some of that."
From the dim comer of the car where I had hidden, I found my voice. I joined Siegie. I said, "Yeah, food. I'm for that."
Mom lifted her head and looked at me. She said, "I thought you just said you were going to be sick."
"It was a false alarm, Mom. I'm okay now ... I just need to eat something."
Gunther said, "Well, let's go see what they have."
We climbed out of the car. We started toward the end of the line. As we walked, we passed small groups of soldiers who sat on the ground eating. They were having quiet conversations, but as we approached each group, they stopped talking. I heard one soldier whisper, "Shhh. Here comes an SS officer." I looked around to see the officer he was talking about, then I realized he was talking about Gunther. I heard another whisper, "If he messes with my plans, I'll shoot him dead." I turned and looked up at Gunther. I wondered if he had overheard the same thing I had. He didn't act as if he had. As I looked behind us, I saw that the soldiers we had passed had all stopped eating. They watched us.
I tugged on Gunther's coat sleeve. In a whisper, I asked, "Gunther, why is everyone watching us?"
He put his hand on my shoulder and bent over to talk to me. He acted as if we were having a serious conversation. He whispered to me, "I've been looking around, Manny, and I've noticed that all these soldiers are not from the same unit. I've seen soldiers from seven different units."
"Why're they here?"
"I think they're on the run. Probably, they've gathered here to keep from going to fight the Russians. If that's not why they're here, then they've gathered here as the units did in Gustrow, to form a new fighting unit. They'll join the Gustrow unit. "
"But why are they watching us?"
He shrugged and answered, "Curiosity maybe. Maybe it's the uniform."
I looked at his uniform and remembered what it stood for. Somehow, I had forgotten that Gunther was an SS officer. It kind of shocked me to remember that he was an SS officer.
We entered the line. I was in a daze. The silence of the men around us became oppressive. As I looked around at the groups of soldiers sitting on the ground, I thought they seemed ugly and mean. I saw them place their weapons across their knees. My stomach turned over. My heart raced.
Gunther put his hand on my shoulder. He said softly, "I see it too, Manny. Just be calm. Let me see If I can defuse this situation."
We arrived at the head of the serving line. A burly cook turned to serve Gunther. Acting as if he were surprised to see Gunther. He said, "Oh, my God! An SS Colonel."
The cook pushed his hat to the back of his head. He spoke loudly, too loudly for me, but I guessed that he was talking loudly enough for everyone nearby to hear him. He said, "All right, men. Get the good food out. We've got an SS Colonel here. He needs all the strength he can muster so he can lead us back to the Russian front."
Gunther grinned. He took his hat off, He scratched his head and said, "The Russian front? Well, if it's in that direction," he pointed west, "that's where I'm, going."
The cook cocked his he...