|After the easy victories
in Poland and France, the drive through Soviet Russia had been a rude
awakening. The land was immense and probably unconquerable, the winter
unbearably cold. Our supplies were dwindling even as the Soviets became
stronger by the day.
Some said Hitler could not fail, that our spring offensive would rout the scattered remnants of the Soviet army. Myself, I had doubts on both counts.
I sat here shivering in my foxhole, trying not to move so I wouldn't break the thin layer of ice that insulated my summer uniform, and I knew that the wind had switched direction. I did not want to return home with nothing but a copy of my discharge papers.
Since we first entered this country, Deitz and I had stolen anything of value that was small enough to easily carry. Of course we could be shot for looting but we each had our families to consider. What was the point of risking our lives for the Fatherland if we couldn't make a better life for our children?
We'd spend some of our treasure on bribes. A portion would be lost on the long road home to Germany. When selling what remained, we'd receive a fraction of their worth.
There had been risk in the theft; there was risk in the transportation; there would be risk in the conversion.
We would gaze at the meager pile of money with a sense of disappointment and shame. We had gambled our lives and had only this pittance to show for it.
But two piles of pittance would sweeten the bitterness.
I shifted so I wouldn't freeze in place, felt the cold break through my light uniform to bite skin that could barely register the shock. The Soviet winter was cruel beyond belief.
Deitz had been gone a long time. Maybe he'd been captured by an enemy patrol. Maybe he'd become disoriented and lost his way. Maybe he was face down in the snow.
I could only be so lucky.
With Deitz gone, those two piles of money would become one. I could make a fresh start back in Germany, open my own store, offer a line of credit to Deitz's widow. Everything would be possible.
I gripped my rifle tightly through thin mittens.
Yes, today was the perfect day for Deitz to take an enemy bullet. He had not carried any of our treasure out on his little jaunt to the nearby wood and we had never been this far from our company before.
The time was right.
I peered over the side of the foxhole, enough of a veteran to respect the Soviet sharpshooters. Whirling white snow turned the nearby strand of trees into murky shadows and Deitz was nowhere in sight.
I allowed myself to slide back down.
Perhaps he was constipated again from his rations. He would not appreciate me calling out his name. Calling Deitz might save him if he was lost. It might also bring the Soviets out from their hiding places to kill us both.
I kept my mouth shut. If Deitz was not back by the time we were relieved I would be able to tell the truth in all good conscience. When his body was eventually found and examined, my story would be verified.
Of course it was too early to gloat. If Deitz jumped into the foxhole how he would see the look on my face and wonder what it meant.
Perhaps he'd know because he had come to similar conclusions. He might be plotting against me even now.
His knowledge of the barbarian tongue was one reason I'd partnered with him. What if he had he been captured? Was he trading his freedom for the story that I was guilty of some atrocity against Soviet citizens?
Careful not to exhale and signal my position, I raised my head over the rim, half expecting to see Deitz running towards me followed by a band of white ghosts.
What I saw was almost worse.
The backward Soviet peasants had somehow managed to design and build a tank better than any our superior engineers were able to produce. The Soviet T-34 was mechanical death.
The tank's 76 millimeter gun could punch holes through our armor while effortlessly deflecting the shots from our 37 and 50 millimeter guns. The beast was wide and stable, amazingly fast in this open countryside.
I dropped back into my foxhole, my stomach in knots.
A lone tank could mean nothing or it could signal an all-out attack. The Soviets had not yet learned how to mass their armor to drive through the enemy lines. This prowling T-34 might be nothing more than a scouting vehicle or it could be recklessly leading an infantry advance right over my position.
Where was Deitz? I hadn't heard any shots but the snow could have muffled the sound the way it hid the noise of the oncoming tank.
For a second I imagined Deitz attacking the T-34 with only his rifle, the shots ricocheting harmlessly until the co-axial machine gun cut him in half. My problem would be solved.
The Soviets were the enemy, but sitting here waiting for Deitz to return I pictured them saviors. Let them take care of my partner and I would spare the next Soviet soldier that passed through my sights.
In fact I would never fire my gun again.
Was it so much to ask that Deitz could be killed in the line of duty, here in the middle of a war?
His family would receive a medal and extra pay. I would help them when I could since Deitz and I had been so close.
I shook my head to clear my thoughts. This was no time to dream. The summer campaign was long over.
Now I could hear the grumble of the tank engine. I gathered my treasure, preparing to bolt in case the driver decided to grind me within my hole. I listened and gave thanks when I realized the tank was heading away.
I had survived the approach of the T-34 and probably too had Deitz. If I wanted the treasure for myself I was the one who needed to act.
From my pack, I withdrew the Soviet revolver I had liberated after an encounter. Instead of something to sell, the gun would become my salvation. The price was small to pay if it meant I kept the rest of the items in the pack to myself.
I would claim Deitz had heard a sound and left the foxhole to investigate. That would explain the bullet wound in his chest.
He would die a hero and would receive a hero's reward.
Gritting my teeth, I opened my jacket and stuck the gun inside my clothes to warm the mechanism. I had been on the eastern front long enough to see the damage wreaked by the bitter cold.
If I failed to kill Deitz with the first shot he would certainly kill me with the second. He had the quick reactions of a natural thief.
Deitz was no pure-blood German. He was a mongrel whom I would be better off without. While I had planned to honor our agreement, I was sure he spent his spare time calculating how best to cheat me.
By weeding him out I would be providing a service to Germany, to the future. I would be the hero.
There was a sound of heavy breathing, the crunch of frozen snow under heavy boots.
After lifting my head above the top of the foxhole, I saw Deitz pounding towards me from the strand of trees. His face was flush from the exertion, clouds obscuring his face with every breath until he ran through them.
I pulled the Soviet revolver free and prayed that the gun would work. If it jammed I was dead.
Deitz's teeth flashed as he saw me. He had not become lost after all. He had survived the nearness of the Soviet tank. He was finally safe.
I raised the gun and steadied it on the ice that rimmed the foxhole, watched Deitz come into range.
My first peace-time beer would be downed in his memory.
I pulled the trigger and the force of the bullet stopped his forward momentum. He lifted his hands in surprise. Then another bullet from the Soviet lines tore through his chest and jerked him through the air towards me.
Deitz dropped to the ground, half disappearing into the frozen snow.
He was shot too far away for his blood to have reached me but my hands were stained with it nonetheless.
Turning from the scene, a sob escaped me as I slid down into the foxhole.
The military investigators would ask me how the Soviets managed to shoot Deitz both from the front and the back at the same time. They would ask, but they would already know the answer.