We would march seventeen kilometers to Dorsten, be loaded onto a train and taken to Numberg. From there, another march of six kilometers to our final destination, Stalag Luft 13D. March to commence at fourteen hundred hours. Of course, the speech was laced with promises of better conditions, medicine, plentiful food, etcetera, all of which we figured was bullshit.
As we rushed inside for a few more minutes of shelter, I asked Harold, "Numberg's clear across the country, isn't it?"
"Far south and east. Past Frankfurt for sure."
We huddled near the stove, other men with the same idea made for a crowded gathering. "Hell, we'll almost be in Czechoslovakia," one of them noted. "Might as well just hand us over to the Rooskies."
Harold and I backed away from the stove. Our eyes met and we both cracked a knowing smile. The Nazis planned to take us far away from the western front, from our liberators. Somehow, somewhere during our eleven-mile march, Harold and I had to make our break or die trying.
With pairs of Army and prison-issued socks on our feet, Army-issued trousers, shirts and undergarments, leather flight gloves and jackets, and prison-issued woolen blankets folded double, draped over our heads as hoods, wrapped around our necks as scarfs, and the remainder tucked inside our zipped-tightly jackets, we lined up in the yard for our final count.
At two pm Friday, February 2, 1945, we said goodbye to Stalag Luft 6J. The Commandant and his officers led the way in a luxurious-looking black sedan, which promptly sped off and left us all behind. A single-lane road plowed clear of snow exited the camp and headed south, soon connecting with a wider, east-west road where we turned left.
Heading east, we marched in loose formation three abreast, Harold in the center, me to his right, the prisoner on his left unknown to us. One truck carrying German soldiers led the column. Supply trucks took up the rear. Sets composed of one dog and its handler accompanied by one guard paced on either side of us, two sets at the head of the column behind the truck, two sets in the rear directly behind prisoners, and four sets spaced evenly between the front and rear.
Harold and I carried nothing, as we marched in a row about thirty back from the head of the column. Talking was forbidden, so we silently trudged forward with our hands stuffed into our pockets, occasionally reaching up to tighten the blankets wrapping our heads. Relatively flat terrain dotted by an occasional tree gave way to a rolling hill. Upgrading slightly, the road curved a bit to the right, and on our right, patches of old-growth trees became thicker as we progressed.
With the road meandering a bit to the southeast a shadow fell upon our column, the forest on our right blocking the late-afternoon sunshine. Harold and I weren't the only ones eyeing this forest. Several heads in front of us turned as well. Gauging possibilities. Distance from roadbed to tree cover ten, maybe twelve yards. Too far through snow too deep for one man to make it. Guards on the march would easily shoot him down. The only hope would be if dozens made a break. Safety in numbers and some might get to the cover of forest. Dogs would chase. Soldiers in the truck would pile out and pursue, but at least there'd be a chance.
None of us knew what started the commotion behind us near the middle of the column. At least two of the dogs barked and growled. Harold and I took one look back. He slapped my shoulder to prompt me at the same time I reached for his arm to pull him, and we streaked to our right with me in the lead. Dozens more did the same. I could see them all when I suddenly dropped into snow up to my waist. A damned ditch beside the roadbed. I struggled to gain my footing with Harold just to my right, as rifle fire popped from behind us and prisoners fell. We made it up from the ditch, snow about calf-deep, and sprinted for the nearest line of trees. Once in the forest, we moved quickly with snow at ankle depth.
"Go to the left," Harold spoke calmly, as we darted between trees spaced a few feet apart with trunks anywhere from one to four feet in diameter. Sounds of bullets smashing into wood echoed to our right. A good sound, I thought. Most of the men were running toward the west, while we tried to stay east. Machine gun fire came from the road, sounding more and more distant as we made our way through the forest. A quarter mile. A half, and the rifle shots to our right seemed far, far away. With me a few steps ahead, we covered a mile or better before Harold said, "Hold up, Frank."
I stopped by the trunk of an older tree four feet round. We leaned against it. Caught our breaths, the frigid air jabbing inside my chest like somebody had crammed icicles down my throat.
"You all right?" Harold huffed and puffed.
He nodded, his mouth agape as he sucked in air despite the pain. We adjusted our blankets so they again tightly wrapped our heads. Listened for shots. Heard none. Barking dogs. None. A slight breeze whistling through the barren tree tops was the only sound. "Damn, Frank. I could barely keep up with you."
"Baloney," I grinned, my heart rate slowing, my breathing almost normal. "Thanks for covering my backside."
"Sorry, pal. I was covering nothing. Just running for my life, that's all."
"Same here, Harold. Run and pray." I gathered a handful of snow and stuffed it into my mouth, swallowed as it melted. "I'm ready to move whenever you are. Still going east?"
"Let's try more to the south. Deeper into the woods gives us a better chance. You think?"
"Sure. Come out the opposite side we came in, and head west if it looks safe."
"I'm with you. We can walk easy now. Keep our ears and eyes open."
"It's a plan. Let's go."
We traversed from one tree to the next. Paces taken in between trunks were anxious moments, out in the open where bullets could take us down with no warning. I silently cursed the snow for freezing my feet. Thanked it for muting our steps when we crunched dead leaves or fallen sticks. Every fifth tree or so, we'd look skyward. Try to gauge our direction by angle of the sun and the shadows it made hitting the high branches. Harold and I estimated it to be at least four, maybe five o'clock. On the ground it looked like dusk.
Deteriorating visibility created phantoms. Everywhere I looked, I saw a Nazi in uniform hiding behind a trunk with rifle waiting. A split second, a skip of my heartbeat until my eyes and brain recognized the shadow or undergrowth was not human. The mind plays tricks when adrenalin constantly flows, but a dark form next to a tree trunk ten steps ahead was no joke. I stopped in my tracks, and so did Harold. A German Shepherd, big and male, sat quietly on its hind quarters.
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The Good Shepherd is historical manlove published by MLR PRESS. It is also made for the KINDLE at AMAZON. Links to more excerpts in text and audio can be accessed at Jardonn's Erotic Tales.