Soldier Dogs #5, page 1
This book is dedicated to all the brave soldiers—whether they walked on two legs or four—who drove the Nazis out of Belgium. We remember.
Battle of the Bulge Stats
What’s the Setup of a Sled Dog Line?
Excerpt from Soldier Dogs #6: Heroes on the Home Front
About the Author
Books by Marcus Sutter
About the Publisher
THE OURTHE RIVER
DECEMBER 30, 1944
8:35 A.M. LOCAL TIME
The air in the Ardennes forest was thick with silence.
Guns fired. Tanks rumbled. Men called to each other through the trees. The sounds of war echoed around them, and yet somehow the vast, dense sprawl of the Ardennes swallowed them all up. The only sounds Juliette could hear were the ice cracking beneath her and her own heartbeat.
She stood on the surface of the frozen river, halfway across, staring down at a German soldier.
His scarf and goggles obscured his face. Between that and his long black coat, he looked like a drawing from a storybook she’d once read, about the Grim Reaper playing chess with an ordinary man.
The dogs they’d traveled with, Boss and Delta, were crouched and ready to strike at the soldier, but they couldn’t help her.
Juliette shifted her right foot an inch.
Beneath her came the muffled crack of splitting ice.
Throughout the Ardennes, buried in the freezing hills and thick pines, two sides were waging a dire war. Hungry, tired, and far from home, the Allied and German troops both sought a victory that would decide the fate of the world. If the Germans pushed into the enemy front, they would finally overwhelm the American military and stop their advance farther into Belgium. It would deal a blow that might force the US troops to slowly lose the ground they’d gained since invading France earlier in the year. If the Americans won, they could drive the occupying Germans farther and farther north, take back the port of Antwerp, liberate Belgium, and deal Hitler a humiliating blow. German morale would be destroyed. It might even lead to the end of the war.
Juliette wanted the Americans to win. She wanted her country back and the war to be over.
But right now, all that mattered was that the ice beneath them held.
“What do we do?” whispered Antoine behind her. Juliette had never liked her neighbor, but right now he sounded as different as possible from the bully she knew. The fear in his voice echoed the tension hanging around them.
“I don’t know,” she admitted.
Beneath her, there was another soft rumble, and a new crack appeared in the ice at her feet.
“We need to run,” said Antoine, giving in to total panic. “We’ve got to—”
Before she could get the words out, Antoine was spinning to head back the way they’d just come. She could see the accident moments before it happened: his unsure footing, the fear in his stride, and the slippery snow on the ice beneath his feet.
Her heart seized. Antoine’s foot went out from under him, and he fell to the frozen surface with a sickening thud.
Juliette heard the ice cracking beneath her. She felt a quick shock under her feet. Boss and Delta turned to her and whined, their ears able to pick up the barely audible sounds.
Antoine looked up with half a smile and said, “I think we’re okay.”
“Whew,” sighed Juliette.
There was another cracking nose, and the ice underneath her feet fell through.
DECEMBER 29, 1944
4:35 P.M. LOCAL TIME
Juliette saw her chance. She’d have to move quickly.
She tossed her doll to Alix and sprinted across the courtyard. The cobblestones beneath her feet were uneven and cracked, but she’d walked them her whole life, and she could nimbly leap over any obstacle in her path.
The boys barely even saw her coming. They thought they could continue their soccer game uninterrupted. But they’d made a vital mistake—they’d passed to Luca Diget, a disorganized boy, who dribbled like he was trying to dance around the ball. The minute Juliette had seen it come his way, she knew she had an in.
She flew past Luca so quickly, he barely had time to yell, “Hey!” In an instant she had the ball, and she expertly dodged the boys who sprinted toward her. They all rushed her at once, yelling and carrying on.
She easily dribbled to the end of the courtyard and faced the goal—a section of brick wall between two trash cans. Antoine Marzen crouched there, hands out and brow set, a mean scowl beneath his stupid bowl cut. Juliette grinned and drank up Antoine’s anger at the sight of her. She was going to enjoy this.
She faked—left, right, left—and came down hard with her right foot. Antoine darted to the right, anticipating her kick . . . but she held back at the last minute, and he landed in a pile of rotten cloth and old newspaper. As Antoine sputtered from the garbage at her feet, Juliette neatly kicked the ball against the wall, where it smacked the brick and rolled back to her!
“WHOO!” she yelled, and threw her fists into the air. When she turned back to the other kids, she saw that no one else shared her excitement. The boys all crossed their arms and sneered at her. George Gurn, who had gotten the ball for Christmas a few days ago, picked it up and clutched it to his chest. Luca Diget’s round cheeks were bright red with anger. In the background, Alix and the other girls stared at Juliette like she’d decided to chew rocks.
“See? I told you!” yelled Antoine, brushing a shred of damp smelling paper from his arm and pointing at her. “I told you it would be like this! We can’t even have her around. She should be banned from this courtyard.”
“You’re just upset that you’re a bad goalie,” said Juliette.
A murmur of disbelief ran through the kids. If a boy had said such a thing, Juliette knew, it might mean a fight. Part of her hoped Antoine would try to fight her and give her an excuse to show him what for. He screwed up his face, looking like he was about to burst with rage—but at the last minute, he took a deep breath, brushed down his pants one last time, and then faced the boys with a calm regard.
“The war will never end if girls act like this,” he said calmly.
The boys all nodded and rumbled in agreement.
Now it was Juliette’s turn to feel angry. “Shut up,” she said.
“My father says that the only way for us to come out of the war alive is for everyone to do as they’re supposed to,” he announced. “Men should fight and work, and women should look after their families. That’s how things are supposed to be.”
Juliette felt a hot sting behind her che
She looked to Alix and the other girls for support, but they all had their heads bowed. None of them wanted to speak up and be one of the troublesome people Antoine was talking about.
“That’s not true!” she cried out. “Plenty of women have fought in the war! There’s that spy in France, Linda Martin!”
Antoine remained unfazed. “If you ask me, we should kick Juliette out of this courtyard. She’s not allowed to play with us anymore.”
“Yeah!” shouted Luca Diget. “Banish her!”
The other boys began agreeing, crying “Banish her!” and “Get her out of here!” Juliette’s heart beat fast as she listened to all of them yelling, telling her to leave. And all the while Antoine smiled at her like he’d won some immense victory. Even the boys she liked talking to, Theo and Milos, began to nod along, sucked into Antoine’s act. She felt as if she were boiling inside as she stared at his stupid little smirk . . . and suddenly her anger overflowed.
“Shut UP!” she yelled, and before even thinking about it, she shoved Antoine hard. He sprawled backward and fell to the cobblestones with a thud. Everyone went silent, and two of the other boys ran to help Antoine up.
“See,” he grumbled as he stood. “This is exactly what I’m talking about.”
Juliette blinked hard. She felt tears, hot and heavy, swelling behind her eyes. But the last thing she wanted to do was let Antoine see her cry, so she turned and ran, letting the tears be swept back across her face as she went, flying back home as quickly as she could.
As she ran down onto Rue l’glise and into the center of Plainevaux, she caught a glimpse of the red Nazi flag hanging on the side of one building. Today, the sight of it reminded her of a secret she held. Something that Antoine would never know about or understand.
The thought put a spring in her step as she headed down the street toward her parents’ bakery. It used to be that you could smell Privot family bread all over town. These days, with supplies so thin, a few loaves and scones were often the best they could do.
But we still have enough to share, she thought, and smiled again at her own little secret.
She was so distracted that she didn’t notice the scene going on inside the bakery until she’d barreled through the door and skidded to a halt.
At the front counter stood Papa, his big, brave eyes lined with fear as he glared down at her. Across from him stood a man in a long, black-leather coat and a military uniform beneath it.
The customer stared at her with dead eyes, and then his lips curled back into a smile that terrified Juliette.
“Good afternoon, fräulein,” said the man in black in accented French. “Heil Hitler.”
TWO RIVERS, ALASKA
DECEMBER 29, 1944
12:20 A.M. LOCAL TIME
Gregor whistled, and Boss felt her energy instantly spike. She was already pretty tired—they all were—but they were also trained to follow Gregor’s orders. And when he whistled, no matter how tired they were, they came running.
She bounded through the snow alongside her pack, relishing the feeling of the cold white flakes billowing around her. She moved in long, loping strides, and she felt how her body was made to move through the deep snow. It felt good to be out here, doing what she was trained to do.
That said, she was definitely getting tired.
Boss glanced at Buzz, her closest packmate, and saw that she was lagging too, her tongue lolling out and her bright eyes glancing around, asking the same question she was asking inside: Why the long hike? Why was Gregor taking them so far out for so long? Usually at this time of day they were just getting up, eating a bowl of morning chow, and going for their first patrol around the base. But they’d been awake for hours, and they had wandered miles from the fence. Something was up.
Tank, their alpha, acted as though he couldn’t care less. That picked up Boss’s spirits as much as Gregor’s whistle—seeing Tank being strong for them, leading them with honor and energy. She also noticed Delta doing her best to cover up her heavy breathing and tired eyes, and she told herself that she had to rally, to push forward, if only so that Delta didn’t show her up.
They all bounded up to Gregor, who smiled from beneath his icy lip-fur and held up his hand, which was his signal to stop and sit and wait. When the whole pack was seated at his feet, he walked down the line and one by one gave them an ear scratch or a face pat, and said their names in that deep, reassuring voice of his.
“Boss,” he said when he stroked the side of her face. She tilted her head and pressed it into his palm, and Gregor laughed the way he always did when she responded to him. She liked Gregor; he was better than the human master they’d had before, the tall, loud man who barked commands and ordered the pack into separate kennels every night.
Gregor whistled again and waved them up the snowy rise of a mountain ridge, and the pack followed him. Even before they got to the ridge, Boss knew what he was going to show them. It was the thing they couldn’t smell, the great big thing that seemed to always paralyze him.
They crested the hill and stared out over a snow-filled valley between the mountains. Overhead, in the sky, there shimmered two lines of light that swayed and faded in and out of each other in the sky. Boss watched them in awe, still not quite understanding them. They had no smell, made no sound, and yet they danced in the air above them, like two angry dogs made of light fighting each other.
“Look,” said Gregor, and pointed to them. He said the words humans always used for the dogs in the sky—“Northern Lights!” Boss heard Gregor’s heartbeat speed up as she stared at the sky.
She was happy the lights pleased Gregor. He was a good human, a fair master. She knew he was going to put them in danger eventually. She wasn’t a dumb dog—she understood what the training was for. But she appreciated that he was good to them while he did it, and that something in his world made him feel like his master had said, “Good boy, Gregor. Good boy.”
She felt it building, first in her heart and then moving up her throat. She could tell the rest of the pack was feeling it too—the love for Gregor, the wonder at the lights in the sky, the power of the woods all around them. It built and rose until . . .
Boss was the first: she leaned her head back and howled, high and loud, into the air. One by one, the other members of the pack followed, and Gregor, all smiles, joined them.
When they were done, Gregor whistled again, and they began running back down the hill to base. The slope gave Gregor and the pack a little speed, and soon Boss was leaping through huge mounds of snow, her tongue dangling from the side of her open mouth as she launched herself down the mountain alongside Tank and the pack.
As they got near the bottom of the mountain, new smells filled the air, and Boss shared a glance with Buzz. They weren’t unfamiliar smells necessarily, just uncommon—burning chemicals, greasy rubber, sweating humans. The sounds were also familiar, but louder and quicker than usual.
They made their way through a patch of woods and broke through the tree line.
Boss’s ears perked.
The plane was being prepared. The bay door was open, and men ran in and out, loading boxes, packs . . . and even the sled, which was being taken off the back of a truck.
Gregor whistled and lead the pack forward, through the fence, over to the plane. Suddenly, Boss was standing in formation, left of Buzz, behind Tank, part of two rows of dogs waiting at the ramp leading onto the plane.
Boss couldn’t help but whine. Just like that, they were on the mission. Just like that, it was war.
5:12 P.M. LOCAL TIME
Juliette felt frozen to the spot. The Nazi officer stared down at her, his bright, intense eyes sunk deep in bruise-colored sockets. His black coat and the black hat with a silver skull at its center made his face seem to float, white and ghastly, in a great sweep of shadow.
“Your daughter?” asked the officer, not looking back at Papa.
Papa’s mustache twitched for a moment, and then he sighed and said, “Yes.”
The Nazi waited and looked annoyed. “Does she have a name, Herr Privot?”
“Juliette,” Papa said softly.
“Very pretty,” said the officer. “Hello, Juliette. I am General Esser. A pleasure to meet you, young lady. This is my associate, Private Gerhardt.”
Juliette whirled at the sound of shuffling. Another Nazi stood in a corner, this one younger, in an infantry uniform and sloping metal helmet. Juliette immediately noticed that he looked unwell—his cheeks were waxy and pale, and he breathed slowly and steadily. His uniform looked too large for him and hung from his body.
The excitement Juliette had felt turned to icy dread. Pinpricks of cold crept along the back of her scalp, and her breath hitched.
Nazis. Two of them, in her family’s bakery. After weeks of not being bothered.
They know, thought Juliette.
“Juliette,” Papa said roughly, “manners.”
She curtsied and mumbled, “Good afternoon, General.”
“Juliette, perhaps you can help me,” said General Esser, sweeping a gloved hand around her and ushering her up to the counter. Juliette had an image of herself being led to the gallows, and shuddered. “You see, your father does not seem to understand how grave his situation is.”
“I’ve given you all the bread I can spare,” said Papa, trying to sound strong. “You have your rations, and I have your government’s promise that my bakery will not be—”
“I tell him that war is coming to your town,” said the Nazi. “That there are American soldiers out in the woods around him, and that soon his city will be swarming with angry, tired German soldiers who will want bread and not care much about the law. I offer to protect him from them for a few extra loaves of bread. And he says no. He says, I do not want your help. It is . . . frustrating. So I was thinking perhaps you could ask him for me. Will you try?”
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