Authors: Kathleen Benner Duble
am and Roger were at the hospital when Wiley, Noah, and his uncle arrived. Roger had taken a bullet to his shoulder, and Cam was beside him, his face white.
“Glad to see you boys made it back safely,” James Shelley said.
“Wouldn’t have if Cam hadn’t picked me up and carried me here,” Roger said, his eyes squeezing tight in pain as the doctor probed the wound.
Cam was hopping nervously from foot to foot. “It was wild out there, wasn’t it, Shelley? Wasn’t it? It was, wasn’t it?”
Noah looked over at his uncle, unsure how to react to Cam’s strange behavior.
Wiley went and put his arm around Cam. “Hey, buddy, what do you say you and me go do a little celebrating? You’re a hero, you know.”
“Celebrate? Yeah, that’s the ticket,” Cam said. “We should go celebrate. Right, Shelley? We should all celebrate!”
Wiley nodded to Noah’s uncle, who nodded back. He led Cam away, down the corridor and out of the hospital.
“What’s the matter with him?” Noah asked.
“Shock,” Roger replied, as the doctor wiped his hands on a towel. “Wiley and I both saw it when we were at Kiska. I sure hope Cam bounces out of it.”
“You and me both,” James Shelley agreed.
“You mean he might not?” Noah asked, thinking of the picture of Cam and his little brother with the missing front teeth and how his little brother had seen Cam as a hero.
His uncle shrugged. “War does funny things to people, Noah. And not just physically, either.”
He turned to the doctor who was looking at Roger’s shoulder. “And how about him? Is he gonna be all right?”
The doctor nodded. “Seems like the bullet went right through. I’ll sew him up, and he’ll be ready to go.”
“Can’t keep me down, Shelley,” Roger said, grinning. “I owe them Germans one.”
“And Skeeter?” Noah asked, his voice cracking a bit.
The doctor shook his head. “They’re operating on him now. But it doesn’t look good.”
“Jeesh, we’re losing boys fast. And we haven’t even officially
yet!” The general had walked up behind them. He went over to Roger. “How you doing there, soldier?”
“I’ll be fine, General,” Roger said.
“Good to hear,” the general said. “Well then, it looks like we’ve got some waiting to do.” He sat down and leaned back in his chair. “It’s going to be a long night, fellas.”
a doctor operating on Skeeter came out, wiping sweat from his brow with the back of his arm. Noah had been dozing, but he leaped to his feet when he heard the operating room doors open and close. James Shelley was standing, leaning against one wall. The general rose from his chair. Daniel Stultz had slipped in at one point during the night and was standing next to the outside door.
“How is he?” the general asked.
“Can’t say for sure yet,” the doctor said. “It’s still touch and go. Either way, he won’t be ready for the assault.”
Daniel Stultz swore softly under his breath.
“Seems to me we should just be worried he’ll make it at all,” Noah said pointedly to Daniel.
Daniel ignored him. “We’ll have to reconfigure the attack, sir. Without Skeeter to lead, we’ll need to move someone else up.”
The general nodded wearily. “In the morning, Daniel, in the morning. Right now, let’s all go get some sleep. Skeeter’s alive. Let’s be thankful for that.”
Just then, the doors to the operating room opened again, and they wheeled Skeeter out. He was bandaged tightly. His lips were bloodless and his face pale. Noah watched him go, looking at the price of war.
Sun poured in through the cracks of the old barn door, waking Noah. He shivered in the cold morning air and pulled the blankets tighter around him. Then he remembered Skeeter, and his heart sank. He wished he could close his eyes again and forget
this nightmare. He wished he could wave his hand and have them all safely back at Camp Hale.
Beside him, Wiley turned over and slowly sat up. He said nothing, just stared out unseeingly at the light in the barn.
Noah broke the silence. “How’s Cam?”
Wiley shrugged. “Having his head examined today. Hope he hasn’t totally lost it. Skeeter?”
Noah sat up and shrugged, too. “Too early to tell.”
Wiley pushed back his covers and went to the barn door, pushing it open. Snow had fallen the night before, covering the mountains and countryside in a thick layer of white. Noah caught his breath. It was beautiful, and the incongruity of the horror last night and the magnificence of this morning shocked him.
Wiley turned. “How about a little fun?”
Noah nodded. Whatever Wiley’s idea was, it had to be better than sitting here thinking about Skeeter and Cam.
The air was crisp and clear as Wiley and Noah headed out, away from Riva and Belvedere and the small town of Vidiciatico. Their skis slid easily over the newly fallen snow. It felt good to push out hard and fast, and Noah felt the sweat building and his muscles responding to the quick pace. They climbed one hill and skied down the other side, moving farther and farther away from their base camp and the reminders of last night. Still, they could not escape the signs of war.
Houses stood with roofs missing. Barns were collapsed on themselves, bombed so badly they were no longer of any use. The people they passed looked weary and hungry, their clothes so
threadbare they barely covered them. Still, they managed a wave and a tired smile after their initial fear at the two soldiers skiing past them. When the villagers realized they were Americans, they trudged on, seeing to their chores around the quiet farmland of their country.
Noah pushed the memory of Skeeter on the gurney to the back of his mind. He followed Wiley up one slope and down another, enjoying the thrill of speed and the beauty of turns well made. Wiley hooted and hollered with each fast-paced descent.
As they crested one hill, Noah stopped with Wiley and looked out over the valley below. The area was circled by mountains and surrounded by thick stands of trees. The sun shone brightly, lighting patches of snow caught between branches. A small group of stone buildings clustered close to one patch of trees. Noah took in the beauty of Italy. This far from Vidiciatico, the world seemed at peace.
“This was a great idea, Wiley,” Noah said. “I feel better already.”
Wiley nodded his agreement.
The door to one of the low stone buildings swung open, and from the hillside, Noah saw Sofia step out. He drew in his breath in surprise. “What’s she doing here? We’re miles from Vidiciatico.”
“Maybe she’s visiting someone,” Wiley said.
“But there’s nothing around,” Noah argued. “No cart or horse. It’s too long a walk.”
Below them, Sofia pulled a set of skis from against the building and threw them to the ground. Noah laughed. “I can’t believe I thought we were the only skiers around here!”
Wiley grinned at him. “Hey. Let’s go surprise her.”
Together, they took off down the hill, skiing fast and hard. As they drew near, Sofia looked up, fear crossing her face.
“Sofia!” Noah called out.
With the sound of his voice came a quick
“For God’s sake,” Sofia shouted, ducking her head and quickly attaching the skis to her boots. “Get out of here!”
She waved them back.
“It’s Germans!” Wiley shouted to Noah. “They’re shooting from the opposite hillside.”
Noah didn’t need to be told twice. He turned and headed back the way they’d come. As he was scrambling to turn his skis, he saw the door open again, and Olaf poked his head out.
“Vhat the heck?” he called to Sofia.
“Abbiamo un problema,”
Sofia called to Olaf. “We’ve been discovered.”
Noah didn’t wait to hear what had been found out. He took off, Wiley and Sofia right behind him.
POP! POP! POP!
Noah’s arms shook as he duck-walked his way back up the hill, digging his poles into the snow to get as much distance as he could. Sofia soon overtook him, moving at a pace Noah found amazing.
“You fools!” she hissed as she flew by them. “You led those Germans right to us!”
They crested the hill. Noah turned. Behind him came Olaf and two others, a man and a woman.
Sofia cried. “They must not catch us.”
Noah followed her lead and sped down the side of the mountain, watching as Sofia glided from side to side with an ease that eluded him. Soon Olaf, the man and woman, and Wiley were passing him by.
“Quickly, Noah,” Olaf commanded, slowing down to help Noah along.
POP! POP! POP!
Noah turned and saw white figures cresting the hill behind him.
“Do not stop!” Olaf called.
Noah didn’t need any further encouragement. He scurried up the next hill and sped down the other side. Up the next, down the next, over and over until at last everyone came to a stop and turned to look back. The hill behind them remained bare.
“Vhat vere you doing there?” Olaf yelled at him.
Noah felt himself redden.
“We just went out for a ski,” Wiley explained. “We just needed a little fun.”
“Did you clear this vith your uncle, Noah?” Olaf asked.
Noah shook his head in embarrassment.
“You almost got us and yourselves killed or captured,” Sofia cried.
“But what are you doing out there?” Noah asked. “And why were the Germans following us?”
“Ve vere meeting our partisan contacts at vhat ve thought vas a safe house,” Olaf said angrily.
“The Germans followed you from camp, probably hoping to capture you or kill you. Now our safe house is no longer safe,” Sofia spat out. “Nor are these people of any use to us as spies. They’ve been seen.”
The man and woman stood looking worriedly behind them, obviously not understanding much English.
“I’m sorry,” Noah said. “We just needed a little relaxation. It’s been hard this week with Skeeter getting hurt, Roger getting shot, and Cam losing his mind.”
Sofia said scornfully. “It has been hard for
? Perhaps, my friend, you should remember that for us Italians, it has been hard for years. Then you might think a little longer before you do something this foolish.”
Noah didn’t know what to say. Sofia was right.
“There is nothing for it now,” Olaf said. “Ve must head back.”
Noah followed them back to Vidiciatico, feeling stupid and ashamed.
ofia wouldn’t talk to Noah for days afterward. Even when he got up early and began their chores long before she opened the barn door, she remained mute and angry.
Noah knew she had a right to her anger. Her father had given his legs for freedom. And now Noah had placed others like him and their cause in jeopardy.
“Don’t know why you keep trying to get her to talk,” Wiley grumbled.
“I feel bad,” Noah said.
“We didn’t mean to do it,” Wiley argued. “We were just having a little fun. Considering how we spend our nights, going for a ski doesn’t seem all that horrible.”
Wiley had been arguing this point of view since they got back, when they were given a good dressing-down by Noah’s uncle. But Wiley had always been gung ho about the war. His feelings were less ambivalent and so, Noah reasoned, he felt less guilt.
Wiley knew he was giving 100 percent of himself to the cause. For Noah, it was less clear.
The snow that had fallen so quickly the night before their ski trip melted just as swiftly. Noah found himself walking through thick mud as he made his way to the hospital to visit Skeeter.
His uncle was sitting by Skeeter’s bedside.
“How is he?” Noah whispered.
“Sleeping,” James Shelley answered, “but not well. He’s moaning a bit. Do you mind going and fetching the doctor?”
Noah did as his uncle asked.
The doctor came quickly, examining Skeeter for a minute and then straightening up. “I think we’d better increase his dosage of morphine. The longer he rests, the quicker his body will heal and the less pain he’ll be in. I don’t want him coming fully into consciousness just yet.”
He glanced around the ward. “I need help here to turn him on his side.”
“I can help,” Noah volunteered.
The doctor looked for a minute at Noah. “All right. But you must be careful.”
Noah nodded. He did as the doctor directed him, being sure not to jostle Skeeter too much or make any quick movements that might cause him more pain.
“Hold him there, if you don’t mind,” the doctor said.
He filled a needle with morphine and gave Skeeter the shot to ease him back into sleep. Skeeter moaned slightly but did not come fully awake.
When they finally had Skeeter on his back and resting
comfortably, Noah turned to see his uncle staring at him. “You did that good, boy.”
The doctor patted Noah on the shoulder. “I could use about ten more like him in this ward.”
A nurse came calling for the doctor, and he left Noah alone with his uncle and Skeeter.
Bill came walking up. “Hey, Noah. Hey, Shelley.”
“You feeling better, boy?” Noah’s uncle asked.
Bill nodded. “Fever’s gone, so I guess I’m ready to report back to duty, sir.”
“That’s a good thing,” Noah’s uncle said. “Now that we’ve lost Skeeter and Cam, we need you. With this snow melting fast during the day and the temperature dropping at night, we’re facing ice.”
Noah knew slick conditions would make the reconnaissance work even more dangerous than before. His heart skipped a beat remembering that tonight was his night to patrol again.
“We’re counting down, boys. It’s only a matter of days now. The more knowledge of those mountains we get before we attack, the more chance we’ll have of succeeding,” his uncle said grimly. “And we can’t fail. For Skeeter and all the others like him, we just can’t fail.”
That night, Noah walked stealthily away from town, moving as silently and swiftly as he could. In the mud and muck, their skis were no longer of any use. Noah’s heart pounded with each step into the darkness. Having been shot at, he was now well
aware of the risk he took and just how close the Germans were willing to get to obtain their own information, too.
“Careful of mines and trip wires,” Daniel whispered back to Noah and Wiley. “Stay alert.”
As if either of them
reminding. They only had to stop by Skeeter’s bedside to remember what resulted from not concentrating fully.
Noah trained his eyes on the mud, straining to see if there were any signs of the ground having been tampered with. Wiley carried the map. Daniel and Noah did the scouting, silently pointing out the tough spots for Wiley to note as they made their way up the ridge.
They had just reached a mountain stream when Daniel, who had gone ahead a bit, came hurrying back to them. He motioned them toward the trees that bordered the water, mouthing “Germans” as he slipped away into the darkness.
Noah’s mouth went dry. Quickly, he followed Wiley to a stand of trees and pulled his rifle from his rucksack, propping the bag down at his feet against the tree. He turned to look at Wiley, whose face was white in the blackness of the night. Wiley gave him a thumbs-up sign, grinned, and stepped behind another tree until Noah could no longer see him.
It was then that he heard voices, German voices. Noah pushed his back up against the hard wooden trunk. The uneven bark poked him, but he didn’t move. He tried to still his breathing, afraid that even that sound might give him away. The voices came closer. Noah could feel the blood coursing through his veins in hot, fast throbs.
The voices moved even closer and then, slowly, faded away. Noah let out a sigh of relief.
Suddenly, a loud shot disrupted the quiet of the moment. Noah jumped. A few feet away, a German stepped out from the very tree Wiley had gone to hide behind.
Noah wanted to cry for help, but before he could open his mouth, a hand was pushed against it. Noah struggled against his captor, pushing and pulling to wrench himself free.
“For God’s sake, hold still!” Daniel’s voice hissed in Noah’s ear.
Noah went slack, and Daniel dropped his hand from Noah’s mouth. The two of them watched the German turn and walk swiftly away to join the others in his group. Noah heard laughter from a distance. His whole body shook as he held himself still and waited impatiently for the Germans to be gone. Then he could stand it no longer. Without consulting Daniel, he broke away and ran across the ground between him and Wiley.
Behind the tree, Wiley lay in a pool of blood. Noah bit hard down on his lip to stop from screaming out into the night and alerting the Germans that they were still there.
Daniel stepped up beside him. “I’m sorry, Noah.”
Noah kept shaking his head back and forth. “No, no, no, no, no,” he whispered over and over to himself. It didn’t matter how many times he said it, though. Noah knew the truth. Wiley, the very first of his friends, was dead.