As soon as the Captain was far enough away, Sergeant Weston leaned over to Lt Clayton and said softly, “Why do you act the nutter when the Captain is about?”
Philip Clayton grinned, “He thinks I’m mad, so he doesn’t give me any administrative jobs. And it’s a grand sport! Now hand me my clothes, I am freezing my nipples off.”
Sergeant Weston grabbed the small bundle of pants, shirt, and a jacket, and tossed them to the Lieutenant who started dressing as quickly as he could as he was just starting to shiver. A few minutes later Trucks One and Two fired up their engines. Weston fired up Anvil and Lt Clayton jumped in, pulling a woolen cap down over his ears.
* * *
Obergefreiter Vitus Fassbinder was almost too tired to care. He stood staring out across the desert in a daze. He was covered in a fine coat of dust and sand that was glued to his uniform and skin by oil, sweat, salt, and hydraulic fluid. He had been in the Army for five years. Two of those years, in the Afrika Korps. He had reached the rank of Corporal with relative ease. He was good at being a soldier. It was said that he had a good head on him. And in all his time so far in the Service of the Fatherland, he had never had a harder day than today. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. One of the Staff Cars got stuck, then a Half Track sunk to its axles in fine silty sand, then it broke down. Then another one broke down, breaking a track and seizing a wheel bearing. Then there was the carburetors. To make matters worse, they were broken down in the open. Instead of abandoning almost half the unit’s vehicles, they made the decision to make repairs and hope they didn’t get spotted. So far, that was the only bit of luck they had. Vitus wasn’t trained as a mechanic, but growing up as the son of a mechanic he had learned enough to be helpful.
Vitus was going to take a piss but the necessity seemed to have been too tired to make the effort as well. Looking at the stars and where they ended at the wavy black line of the horizon. He was cold. He was hungry. But he was too tired to care. So he just stood there.
Then something caught his attention. Sound travels unusual well on cold nights, and it can play tricks on the ear. Especially across the desert. But he could have sworn he had heard the sounds of engines starting. Off in the distance somewhere. He tilted his head and listened intently. Suddenly, he wasn’t so tired anymore.
Ten feet away, Obergrenadier Arnold Brauer was looking off into the distance. Steam slowly venting from his nostrils. His ears were perked as well. Vitus called over to him, “Hast du das gehört?” “Did you hear that?”
Arnold was just a Private First Class, young, and unseasoned as a fighter and new to the unit, but he had grown up in the same mountains as Vitus, where he had the reputation as an accomplished game hunter. He was good with his rifle, but terrible with mechanics. His uniform was only slightly cleaner. His dust and sand was only glued to him with sweat. He nodded slowly. “Ich glaube, ich habe etwas gehört.” “I think I heard something.” He pointed. “From that direction. Sounded like engines, I think. I’m not certain.”
“Keep a lookout.” Vitus said and turned back to the half tracks. He quickly found Feldwebel Eckbert Lohse, who was scraping the last of his rations from his field kit, into his mouth. “Feldwebel Lohse,” Vitus said, with some urgency. “Obergrenadier Brauer and I both heard something in the distance to the south. It sounded like engines.”
Eckbert Lohse looked up at the young man. Obergefreiter Vitus Fassbinder stood there, complete shambles, but resolute. Eckbert knew Vitus wasn’t a man to cry wolf. Eckbert stood slowly, painfully, and looked the young man in the eyes. Vitus didn’t waiver. “Where.” It wasn’t a question. It was a command. Vitus jerked his head for his First Sergeant to follow him.
The two men walked quickly back to where Brauer was standing. “The sound came from over there, Obergefreiter.” Brauer pointed again.
Eckbert turned to the two men. “You both heard it?” The men nodded. “You are sure?”
The Private lowered his eyes and made a half shrug. The Corporal said, “We think we’re sure.”
Eckbert didn’t say anything for a long while as he listened and watched the horizon. There were no friendly units in the area. So whatever it was, wasn’t going to be German or Italian. If it was something coming this way, he’d hear it too by now. He really didn’t want to alert the whole company. They needed a break. The day had been brutally hot and they had been working nonstop. Going out of their way to pick a fight right now, would do no one a bit of good. They were still a few hours from having their vehicles running again. If an enemy patrol had passed them in the night, so be it. If the enemy had located them, they would already be attacking. They always attacked. Just to interrupt their sleep, or taking a shit. The British were incessant.
Eckbert decided to take it easy. “Stay alert and tell me if you see or hear anything else. Cold nights carry sound for miles. Who knows where it came from.” He looked at Vitus and said “Report this to the next watch so they can be alert for anything. Come first light, I want you and Brauer to go take a look as see if you find anything.”
With that, Feldwebel Eckbert Lohse turned and went back to find a place to lay down. He said a silent prayer to God in Heaven that they could have a few hours of rest.