End of Summer
 

Men of War, Wheel of Peace

by Michael Hutchison

In The Valley Of The Shadow of Death

At 0500, the men of Easy Co. had a hot breakfast and then, as Gravedigger and Rock went over the plans in detail, they struck the tents, "bugging out" so fast that Gravedigger could only watch in awe at their efficiency. Soon trucks were loaded and moving out, and it was hard to believe that a fully equipped army camp had stood there a half-hour earlier.

Next, Gravedigger and Sgt. Rock scouted out the nearby pass. Rock did some figuring and ordered two teams to dig into the hillside about seventy feet off the ground and make sure the nests were obscured by snow. When they were ready, he ordered four of his best bazooka teams to hide in the nests, two on each side. Bulldozer, Squinty, One-Note and Gap were Squad A, on the North side of the pass. Squad B was comprised of Four Eyes, Longhorn, Little Sure Shot, and Butterfingers Brown (so named because he was incredibly clumsy at everything.except loading a bazooka, a task at which he was one of the best and the fastest).

Shoeshine Collins was on the radio, collecting news of the War Wheel. The Wheel had stopped for the night forty miles from their position. It was on its way and would be at their position within the hour.

Long Round, Short Round and Jackie Johnson drove off to the East to scout for the Wheel. Their job was to draw its attention and then retreat as fast as possible.

Meanwhile, Sarge and Gravedigger checked on their preparations. It was nearly impossible to see the two snowfort-like nests from the front of the pass. The trucks and the Jeeps were standing by the entrance, engines running. Wildman, Sgt. Rock and Gravedigger then went to hide by the lone Jeep they had hidden behind some bushes to the left of the entrance. All they could do was wait. Gravedigger passed the time twirling and throwing the makeshift lariat he was carrying. Sarge went through three cigarettes while he waited.

After a while, the faint presence of the War Wheel made itself known. Though it had to be miles away, they could hear the mighty rumble already.

"There she is!" Rock finally shouted as he peered through his field binoculars. "Barely visible, but you can see her coming over the trees." Gravedigger grabbed the binoculars and looked for himself. True enough, the Wheel was a little over five miles away and speeding in their direction.

Sgt. Rock blew a whistle, sparking Easy Company to action. "All right, you Joes, start through the pass. Half-tracks first, then the Jeeps. Get moving! If they don't see us yet, they will in a moment. Move it! Move it! Move it! Get to the other end and wait for instructions. The rest of you: run for the brush and stay out of sight until the Wheel's inside the pass. Everyone! Go!"

Explosions echoed in the distance. As the vehicles began heading for the pass, Sarge ran back to Gravedigger and asked, "What do you see?"

"Nothin', Sarge, but that's surely our men playing cat-and-mouse with the Wheel. I told them to aim for the turrets if at all possible, but at the very least they're drawing its fire. They'll be heading this way like a bat out of hell. The War Wheel's navigational periscopes are near the top of the vehicle, so they must see our vehicles retreating by now."

Both men gritted their teeth and said silent prayers for Johnson, Short Round and Long Round as they heard heavy exchanges of gunfire and cannonfire. The grinding and crashing of the War Wheel as it plowed over towering fir trees echoed off of the hills behind them, making for a tremendous din. Finally, the shouts of the men in the Jeep could be heard as it hastily rounded a corner of the road and headed straight for the pass.

The War Wheel was several hundred yards behind the Jeep. As it came around a small hill and the trees gave way to a clearing, Sgt. Rock and Gravedigger could see it in all its glory. It was easy to see why Private Johnson had the accelerator of the Jeep pressed to the floor!

From the ground, the War Wheel looked taller than the average building in Rock's hometown of Pittsburgh! The Wheel thundered and groaned, smashing trees in its path like they were blades of grass and kicking up tons of snow, mud and sod in its wake. Dozens of giant spikes ringed the Wheel, giving it traction as they dug in to the frozen ground. Guns jutted out from the turrets at the side, aiming to the front, side and rear of the vehicle. The forward guns fired heavy explosive shells at the escaping Jeep. Fortunately, the guns were built for destructive capacity, not accuracy, and the shells struck off to the sides of the speeding vehicle.

The Jeep raced along the slick road and finally entered the pass. The War Wheel stopped firing and began to slow down. It was obvious to Gravedigger that the commander of the War Wheel was getting suspicious. If they suspected a trap, the Wheel might easily divert around the hills and then all would be for naught. The War Wheel's speed was dropping rapidly, and Gravedigger made a mental note that the ease with which it was grinding to a halt was another sign of its high fuel consumption. Apparently, there was little momentum generated by the heavy vehicle.and without a constant supply of fuel, it would come to a dead stop in moments. He hoped that this didn't hurt his plan when the time came to stop the Wheel.

Then, with an audible revving of its mighty engine, the War Wheel resumed its course toward the snowy pass. Rock and Gravedigger breathed a sight of relief and quickly crept over to their hidden Jeep.

By now, though the Wheel was still most of a mile away, the tremors from the War Wheel's movements were devastating. The soldiers in hiding found it difficult to stand. Snow was shaken from every tree branch in sight, and forest animals were running and flying away from it as fast as they could.

Inside their snow-camouflaged nests, the bazooka men looked up anxiously as the snow at the top of the cliff began to shake small clouds of flakes down upon their helmets. "Uh.Bulldozer, I think we may have missed something here," One-Note said in his nervous but monotone voice.

"I noticed it too, One-Note," Bulldozer said grimly as he hunkered down even lower. "That thing's already vibrating the ground like a jackhammer. If it causes a slide, we're in for it."

"What do we do, sir?" Gap asked as a small rock bounced off his helmet. "If we move now, they'll see us."

"Nobody's moving anywhere!" Bulldozer said, loud enough for the men on the other side to hear. He activated the walkie-talkie to the other team. "You hear that, Four-Eyes? Maintain position. We don't have a choice, except to pray. We have to take out the turrets, no matter what. Without that, Gravedigger's dead and so is any chance of stopping this thing!"

"This is a SNAFU, Four-Eyes!" shouted Butterfingers Brown, as the War Wheel's grinding sounds now echoed about the chasm. "Someone screwed up! We'll never be able to aim straight with the whole place bouncing like this! What are we gonna do!"

"Just what he said: pray! Say a prayer to that St. Jude of yours. He's the patron saint of lost causes, right?"

Brown glanced down at his neck, but couldn't see the St. Jude pendant he usually wore. "Ummm.I think I dropped it."

"Wonderful!" Four-Eyes said, shaking his head. "Giddown! Here it comes!"

With that, the War Wheel entered the pass in pursuit of the Jeeps it had seen. The Wheel again cut its speed, warily moving forward at a relative crawl.

They knew that the Nazis inside would be focused on the ground ahead and would be caught by surprise, but they waited as the War Wheel drew nearer and nearer. Once it was almost parallel to their position, Bulldozer and Squinty took aim with the bazookas while Gap and One-Note readied the rockets. As the War Wheel began to pass, it cut off their view of the other team. Snow and rocks began coming down non-stop, but the men fixated only on the narrow slots above the turret guns. They were so close that Bulldozer could see the faces of the Germans inside it. The soldiers were leaning on the windows, looking ahead with as much excitement as tourists halfway through a week-long bus holiday. Bulldozer steadied himself enough to sight the bazooka square in the center of one soldier's bored melon.and fired.

The explosion was immediate, and the fireball obscured the turret for a moment. Scarcely a second later, all four bazookas were firing at the Wheel from both sides. Without visual confirmation that any rockets had gotten inside the turret, Bulldozer took some comfort from the explosive conflagration. Least the scorching air and oxygen deprivation will get 'em if the blast didn't, he thought.

It was the last thought to go through his head before the hillside collapsed.

As their footing gave way, the four men found themselves plummeting through a deluge of rock and snow. Bulldozer landed on his back and saw a torrent of rocks falling towards him.and then blackness.

Sgt. Rock and Gravedigger spun in their Jeep at the sound of the small avalanche, which they could hear even over the terrible noise of the War Wheel. Wildman, who was driving the Jeep, kept his attention on the War Wheel's furious blur of spikes which were only a dozen feet in front of them. Wildman was cursing nonstop from the effort of pacing the War Wheel so that they were in the Wheel's blind spot, while avoiding the massive holes created by the spikes.and doing it all while a shower of mud rained down on them.

"This is madness!" Rock shouted as he looked at the spikes spinning by. "You'll never make it!" Rock glanced back one more time at the remains of the avalanche and held out hope that his men were all right.

"Wait'll it slows down!" Hazard shouted back. "In a moment, the Wheel will have to slow down. That's when I make my move! And Rock.if I don't make it, it's up to you to try."

"Understood," Rock growled as a particularly large chunk of wet sod smacked his helmet.

What they were banking on was the jag in the chasm several hundred feet ahead. It would be too sharp a turn for the Wheel to make, and it would have to stop and reverse course. At least, that was the plan.

"It should be slowing by now!" Rock shouted. "I hope you have a back-up plan in case it manages to push through!" Rock idly wondered if the spiked Wheel was powerful enough to climb a rock face.

"I'm not certain about any of this. I'm just hoping!" Gravedigger said, as he stood up in the seat and began twirling the lasso he was carrying. On one side of his belt hung another rope and a foot-long device with one large button on it. On his back he carried a bundled rope ladder.

Suddenly, they heard the sound of the War Wheel's cannons. Surprised, Gravedigger looked back at Sgt. Rock. "One of those guns is still active!" he shouted, angrily. "Your men didn't take the turrets out!"

"Don't blame my men, captain!" Rock shouted back, "It could be some soldiers inside the Wheel have replaced them. And they're firing at my Jeeps!"

"Great! Now I have to take them out myself. And why aren't they stopping!" Gravedigger snapped.

As if on cue, the War Wheel's motors changed pitch and the spray from the spikes dropped. Wildman swore and hit the brakes to keep from crashing into it.

"Damn!" Gravedigger yelled, swinging the lasso to get it up to speed, "She's losing acceleration too fast. Looks like I get only one shot at this! I've got to do this now!"

With that, he threw the lasso upwards at one of the spikes on the right side of the vehicle. The lasso landed loosely on the spike and Gravedigger let the rope play out for a moment. The Wheel rotated and the snagged spike got higher, until he was sure that the rope wasn't likely to slip off the slick surface of the spike. Once he was sure that the forward pull would keep it secured, he yanked hard and was pulled from the Jeep!

Gravedigger flew forward, towards the spikes on the right. He threw his legs ahead to lessen the impact, while leaning to avoid a spike piercing his chest. Fortunately, he landed above the upcoming spike. He'd hoped to find some footing and possibly stand once he reached the top of the Wheel, but the thick coating of mud and muck made it clear that would be impossible.

He was nearing the apex of the Wheel's rotation. Any further delay and he'd be flung forward, to then fall underneath the Wheel! Kicking as hard as he could, he pushed himself to the right and fell over the side of the wheel while still clinging to the rope. The rope caught on the inside of the spike above him, so that he was now hanging straight down. He saw the periscope jutting out from the side of the Wheel. It was small, but it was the only handhold available. Dangling from the side, he swung over to the periscope housing.and missed it by a few inches!

Horrified, Gravedigger could only watch as the rope dragged him to the front of the War Wheel, where gravity would again pull him to the center of the wheel's surface and smash him thinner than paper. His only option was to wait for his certain death. However, the Wheel's pace had slowed down so much that the inevitable took second after second. And then it happened.

The War Wheel drew to a complete halt.

Gravedigger clung to the rope and said a quick prayer of thanks as he waited for the Wheel to reverse course. He also hoped that the Nazis wouldn't look at this part of the Wheel while it was stopped. He glanced around. Now that he had a moment to catch his breath and think straight, he saw a better way for his plan to succeed. Instead of trying to grab the small, mud-caked periscope housing, he could attach the device. Holding on with his left hand, he reached down and unhooked it from his belt.

Meanwhile, on the ground, Sgt. Rock and Wildman had swung the Jeep around hard and were racing for the entrance to the chasm again. It was a hazardous drive, as Wildman tried to avoid both the massive holes created by the spikes and the rocks which had been shaken loose by the gigantic vehicle's vibrations. As they reached the entrance, they saw two large hills of snow and rock created by the avalanche.and Bulldozer digging out Gap.

"Hurry up, Bulldozer, the Wheel's coming back any second!" Rock shouted as they drove past.

"I've got wounded men here, Sarge!" Bulldozer screamed in frustration. "I need help!"

With that, Sgt. Rock leapt from the moving Jeep and ran back to help Bulldozer free the injured men. As they pulled Gap and One-Note from the rocks, they heard the gunning engine of the War Wheel reversing its course echo down the chasm.

Back on the War Wheel, Gravedigger ignored his straining muscles and held on as the Wheel rumbled and shook. The Wheel finally began to turn again, and he readied the device in his right hand. Once he reached the center of the wheel, he brought up the device and activated it.

The electromagnet was small but powerful. It was a circular plate, about a foot in diameter, with a handgrip handle and a large button he could hit with his thumb. With a small crackle, the electromagnet snapped to the surface of the War Wheel's side. With no time to test it's hold, he placed his faith in the Allied engineers and let go of the lasso, letting the magnet carry his weight. It held. He began rappelling down the new line until he reached the turrets, then he placed his feet on the flat surface of the turret.

With the end of the rope clipped to his belt to keep him from falling to his death, he held on to the jostling metal as best he could and peered over the side. He could see the slotted window of the guns. He considered throwing a grenade in to kill the soldiers manning the guns, but he feared that the explosion would knock him off the turret. With no other choice, he grabbed his machine gun in his right hand and the rope in his left, and leapt.

As he hit the turret's side, he blazed away at the soldiers with his Browning Automatic Rifle. To his surprise, there were only two.and they weren't prepared for personal combat. As the dead Nazis fell to the ground, Gravedigger grabbed the slot and pulled himself inside. He unclipped the rope and braced himself for an attack, but no other soldiers arrived. There was a thick door leading to the interior, and it was closed. Gravedigger considered that the men inside were probably used to ignoring gunfire.or perhaps they couldn't hear it at all.

Glancing down, he counted five soldiers at his feet. Three corpses were blackened from the bazooka fire, while the other two weren't singed. Clearly, the two had come from inside the vehicle, and the fact that there weren't three meant there weren't any more soldiers to spare.

In one smooth move, he unfastened the rope ladder from his back and hooked it to the side window slot of the turret, then let it unfurl to the ground. Turning back, he ran to the door and prepared to take the control room.

"Squinty's dead, too, 'Dozer!" Sgt. Rock shouted, as he turned from the partially-buried corpses of One-Note and Squinty. Several other soldiers were assisting Gap, who had received some vicious knocks and was busted up pretty badly, and everyone was hustling to get out of the way of the War Wheel. A cry from Bulldozer caught Rock's attention, and he ran to the other hillside where Little Sure Shot's team was still digging out. The avalanche on that side had poured the four men to the center of the road, where the Wheel would be arriving any minute.

The sounds of the War Wheel were getting louder as Rock approached. There was quite a commotion. Four-Eyes' leg was being bandaged by a medical corpsmen. Longhorn's unconscious body was being pulled from the snow by Little Sure Shot. There were screams coming from behind a large rock, and Rock ran to them. Then he saw the reason for the cries.

The boulder had landed on the legs of Butterfingers Brown. The man was shrieking with pain as two medics applied morphine and looked at the damage. Bulldozer was pushing against the boulder, trying to roll it off him.

"Sarge, ya gotta help me!" Bulldozer shouted, struggling in the slippery snow. "I can't move this by myself! We gotta get it off him! The Wheel's coming back!"

"I told you, 'Dozer, that's not going to work!" shouted one of the medics as he began tying off Brown's right leg. Sgt. Rock recognized the medic as Leech, a name he'd been given because he always managed to treat the men of Easy Co. even when he didn't have the proper equipment. They kidded him that he was little more than a quack of the Dark Ages, prescribing leeches to cure bodily humours, but he was a very skilled and very brave doctor. "Sarge, we've got to amputate! Fast!"

"No!" Bulldozer screamed, pushing at the boulder with renewed vigor. "Don't take his legs. I can do it! I can get this off him! I swear I can!"

Sgt. Rock put a hand on Bulldozer's shoulder. "His legs are crushed, 'Dozer. Leech is right. Let him do his job."

"No! Oh god, no! Please, god!" Brown whimpered, as Leech tied off the second leg. The other corpsman gave him more morphine. "Sarge, they're gonna take my legs! Oh, god! Can't you do something? Please! Please!"

"Hold him, Sarge!" Leech urged, grabbing his bone saw from the bag. "I've gotta work quickly! Don't worry.I can have this done in a minute." With that, Leech began.

Ulysses Hazard readied his B.A.R. and reached for the handle to the interior door. It wasn't locked. He opened the door and it swung inwards to reveal.a wall.

Ducking his head around the corner, he could see that it was a hallway running back about 10 feet.probably to safeguard the interior from bombs and guns. You could utterly destroy the turrets and never hit the pilots inside, Gravedigger mused. He stepped inside the hallway and left the door open. Cautiously he tiptoed down the hall and listened.

There were no sounds except for the loud thrum of machinery. It was so loud that the Nazis inside probably needed earplugs.yet another drawback to the device. The air was stale and thick with the smell of oil and grease and men in close quarters. The lighting had the unhealthy dankness of a submarine.

Gravedigger resisted the urge to cover his ears and instead tried to cut through the noise to hear any German voices. He had no idea how many men remained. After another fifteen seconds passed, he decided he had to risk it. Gathering his nerve, he drew his machine gun, stepped around the corner and crouched.

Inside were three Nazi soldiers, two of whom were busy at the controls while another looked at a map on the table. The navigator glanced up and saw him. Gravedigger perforated the navigator, then the nearest pilot. The other pilot ducked and drew his Luger, firing back. Gravedigger leapt from his crouching position, narrowly avoiding the bullets and landing on the table, then vaulting onto the pilot.

"Verdammt Amerikaner!" the Nazi yelled, struggling against Gravedigger's arms in the close quarters. "Nein! Nein!"

Gravedigger gripped the man's hand and aimed the barrel of the Luger away from him, but the Nazi was doing the same to his machine gun hand. Gravedigger hoped his opponent was aware that stray shots would ricochet perilously in the cramped, bulletproof room. The two wrestled, locked in a struggle which would mean death for one of them.

Butterfingers had, mercifully, passed out from the pain and the drugs. Leech and the other medic, Hearts, had finished bandaging both of his stumps and were preparing to carry him to safety when they saw the Wheel was gaining speed. They passed Brown to Bulldozer, who carefully placed Brown over his shoulder and then took off as fast as he could for the clearing.

The two medics, Bulldozer and Sgt. Rock ran as fast as they could while the sounds of the Wheel came closer and closer. Suddenly, Rock heard a puzzled cry: "Sarge?"

Spinning in his place, he saw One-Note woozily wandering in the middle of the road. "One-Note!" Rock yelled, "He wasn't dead! HEY! One-Note! Run!"

"What?" One-Note asked, stumbling. He looked behind him.and saw the War Wheel bearing down on him. "Aaah!" he screamed, and began to run away from it.

"No, One-Note! To the side! Run to the side! Your left!" Rock shouted, but he could see the poor man was disoriented. One-Note took another few steps and stumbled again.and then he was gone.

Throwing his weight forward and tripping the Nazi pilot, Gravedigger pushed the man into the control panel. Levers jutted upwards into the Nazi's back, and he shouted in agony. Gravedigger headbutted him, and was rewarded when the stunned Nazi dropped his Luger. Still, the pilot struggled in his arms, and he could not get his B.A.R. pointed towards his opponent.

Suddenly, a cry of "Vas ist--?" came from his left. Gravedigger looked and saw two other soldiers had entered from the left turret! As the men drew their Mauser machine guns, Gravedigger spun in place and pushed the Nazi pilot in front of him. As the Mauser's blazed away, the pilot was struck in the back several times and he gasped for air. Gravedigger carefully cut loose with his B.A.R. and shot the other two Nazis.

The German pilot now gagged and wheezed as blood streamed from his mouth. He fell forward onto Gravedigger, gripping his enemy for support as he slipped to the ground. Gravedigger rarely got this close to the men he killed, and it shook him to see the man staring back into his eyes as he expired.

"I'm.sorry," Gravedigger muttered, trying to remind himself that this man had been flattening soldiers all the way from here to Germany. It didn't make the killing any easier.

Gravedigger felt blood running down his shirt, and realized that the pilot's body hadn't fully stopped the bullets. He didn't feel injured, but he guessed that that would be different when the adrenaline wore off.

Gravedigger turned back to the control console and pulled two large switch-levers. The War Wheel promptly came to a halt. He grabbed a knob and turned it, shutting off the Wheel's power. And with that, Gravedigger leaned against the console and collapsed.

Which is when the mechanic appeared.

The mechanic scrambled out from a hatch in the floor and grabbed the fallen Luger. He trained it on Gravedigger and began shouting a frantic mess of German,of which Gravedigger could only make out bits and pieces. Gravedigger realized he couldn't bring up his B.A.R. in time. He raised his hands in surrender.

Shouting, the man's voice crescendoed in anger, and his hand tightened on the trigger. The gunshot echoed in the small confines of the room.

Gravedigger watched as the blood-spattered mechanic fell to the floor. He glanced to the side and saw Rock, with smoke emanating from the barrel of his pistol, standing in the doorway.

"Yer late.Sarge," Gravedigger joked, still clutching his chest.

Men from Easy Company appeared behind Sgt. Rock, and he ushered them in. Barking instructions, they split up to search the rest of the War Wheel for any remaining Nazis. Noting Gravedigger's wounds, Sarge turned back and called for a medic. Then Gravedigger saw only blurs.and then, nothing.

Continued on Page Three

 
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This story is © 1999 by Michael Hutchison

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