Authors: David King
Far ahead of the straggling, confused and leaderless Allied tank column that clawed its tortuous way through the slipping sands of the Libyan desert, two jeeps raced side by side over the rolling dunes toward an appointment with destiny or death. The December day was sunless and sullen and the desert, that musty, ancient lion, crouched, patiently waiting for more victims. Behind lay a minor victory at Bir-el-Alam, where the small Allied Force had blunted and turned aside a lightning thrust of the Afrika Korps, but ahead, somewhere in the limitless sea of treacherous sand, lay Sidi Abd where Hauptmann Hans Dietrich had fortified an Arabian oasis town as headquarters for his crack Panzer unit.
The two jeeps were battered, pocked with the scars of many no-quarter encounters with Captain Dietrich's armored cars and tanks. The windshields were down flat against the hoods even on this gray day, a constant precaution against any telltale glinting reflection which might pinpoint them to the wily enemy. A swivel-mounted fifty caliber machine gun lifted its ugly snout from the rear of one of the jeeps while the other carried a similar thirty caliber weapon. Two determined men, faces rigid below their goggles with masks of dust, manned each vehicle. Private Mark Hitchcock, wearing a red French Foreign Legion hat and steel-rimmed GI glasses beneath his goggles, was at the wheel of one of the jeeps, his jaw working at a cud of gum. At his side was Sergeant Jack Moffitt, dark beret cocked to lift a rakish eyebrow, eyes serene although his jaw was set. Moffitt had been detached from the British Army's Scots Grays for this special desert duty. In the second jeep, Private Tully Pettigrew, in a dull and dusty helmet, was relaxed, rolling a matchstick from one side of his mouth to the other as he drove with deceptive ease. Beside him, Sergeant Sam Troy's quick and angry eyes under the brim of his Australian bush hat roved the lonely and hostile landscape.
The Rat Patrol was on the prowl again and this time the mission was intensely personal. Captain Dietrich, vanquished at Bir-el-Alam, had audaciously snatched the victor from his triumph. The Afrika Korps had captured Colonel Dan Wilson, commanding officer of the armored regiment to which the Rat Patrol was attached, and borne
white varnished helmet, twin pearl-handled pistols and bravado, with them to their desert fortress.
"The fathead," Troy said bitterly, pulling his eyes from the empty monotony of sand that simmered muckily in the hot, flannelly day. "Wilson had no right to be in a lead pursuit car."
"Maybe the CO was bucking for Patton's job, Sarge," Tully said laconically.
"At this time of year Patton would have had better sense," Troy said. "This is the beginning of the rainy season. Look at the sky. What happens if the rains come and we bog down in gumbo? We're his only chance."
"I guess that's it, Sarge," Tully said.
"What do you mean, you guess that's it?" Troy demanded impatiently.
"Long as the CO's got the Rat Patrol, he ain't going to let a little thing like being captured by Dietrich bother him none," Tully said with his slow Kentucky drawl.
"We're good but we're not supermen," Troy said disgustedly.
Tully laughed and lifted one hand, palm up, from the wheel.
"Sarge," he said, "you know what the Jerries say. They say, 'They're here, they're there, they're everywhere, the Gottverdamtig Rat Patrol.'"
The two jeeps swept on toward Sidi Abd over the unmarked, unidentifiable and limitless land on the compass reading Moffitt had provided. Moffitt had visited Sidi Abd on countless field trips, digging into the past with his father, who was an anthropologist, uncovering shards of ancient warheads. Now it was as if the four men and two jeeps were the only things that lived or moved in a world of dun-colored sand and dark sky, but Troy knew that in any wadi might lurk Dietrich's armored cars or spying Arabs, eager to betray any man to anyone for anything of value.
The Rat Patrol crested a dune and plunged toward a depression on the floor of the desert. Troy stiffened. The sand in the wadi still wore the marks of a halftrack.
"Brake," Troy shouted, half rising from his seat and flinging a hand signal to Hitch in the other jeep. Standing, he examined the clear marking of the tread through his binoculars. The Germans were not careless. He was certain the trace he saw had been left deliberately to point the direction the Rat Patrol should take. He lifted his glasses and scanned the desert beyond the wadi. It seemed empty and undisturbed but Troy sensed a trap.
"What put you up, old boy?" Moffitt strolled over and asked. He lifted his goggles, letting the bemused smile which cracked his dust-stiffened face linger in his eyes.
Silently Troy handed him the glasses, pointing to the wadi. Moffitt studied the area and when he returned the binoculars his lips were grim.
"Well, Doctor," Troy said, climbing down. "They teach you anything at Cambridge about preserving bones as well as digging them up?"
"Rather," Moffitt said and smiled. "Especially if they're mine. You think that track is an invitation to step into a Devil's Garden?"
"That's it, Jack," Troy said tersely. "You're the expert on field mines. Aren't they laid in some kind of pattern?"
Moffitt turned to survey the wadi and the innocent appearing sand on either side and beyond.
"Usually they're U-boxes," he said. "Open at our end, as a sort of invitation, you know. Fenced across the base, at their end. Three or four miles wide, probably four miles long. If this is a Devil's Garden, about ten yards back from the entry here, they'll have French and Egyptian tank mines laid in horseshoe patterns. That's the subterranean stuff. The actual garden is behind the tank mines. Simple T-mines laid in tiers of two or three. Nasty things. If you do find and remove the first mine, you will detonate the second or third mine in the process. You'll find Italian grenades attached to the T-bombs. And there probably will be S-mines. They're anti-personnel machines that leap into the air hurling metal in all directions. Frightful playthings."
"What do we do, Doctor?" Troy asked dryly. "We're dead on our bearing. We don't have time to go around."
"I'd think not," Moffitt said agreeably. "And it really wouldn't do much good to try, you know. There will be areas mined indiscriminately at the perimeters. We'd have to creep through on hands and knees. We look for the safe path through the garden. They always leave one someplace in the pattern for their own patrols. We'll probe until we find it."
"Oh, fine," Troy said, swinging to Tully and Hitch. "So Moffitt and I will go ahead on foot. If we're blown up, don't go around. Come straight on through. It'll be safe by then."
"Sure, Sarge," Tully said, "but you won't be there."
"You're stealing Hitch's lines," Troy said, teeth gleaming in his dark and dusty face as he grinned. He turned back to Moffitt, cocking his bush hat jauntily. "Shall we have at it, Doctor?"
In his jeep, Hitch blew a bubble and popped it. "Mine sweepers would have been handy," he observed.
Cradling tommy guns, Troy walked with Moffitt down toward the wadi. They halted about fifty yards from it.
"We'll just dig a bit until we find the gap in the pattern," Moffitt said.
Troy grinned crookedly and said, "Are you ready, Doctor?"
"Ready on the firing line, Sam," Moffitt said, lifting his tommy gun to his shoulder.
Troy considered the garden of land mines he believed lay before them. The desert is the loneliest battlefield in the world, especially when you know that in the vast and manless expanse of nothingness before you, the enemy has planted his deadly seed.
"Fire at will," Troy said, raising his weapon.
"No comment," Hitch called.
"But you always liked Will," Tully said and chortled.
Moffitt fired a burst into the sand twenty-five yards ahead and Troy worked his burst into a converging arc. They lifted their sights, marching their bursts in a jeep-wide path all the way to the edge of the wadi. They detonated nothing.
"Looks safe that far," Troy said, striding ahead through the clinging sand.
"Wait," Moffitt said. He handed his tommy gun to Troy, unhooked a grenade from his web belt and ran toward the wadi. Near the edge of it, he unpinned the grenade, hurled it into the depression beyond the mark of the halftrack and fell to his face.
Troy flung himself into the old-smelling sand. There was a moment of hollow silence, intensified by the throaty breathing of the jeep motors and then a single blast as the grenade exploded pelting him with a shower of sand. As he was pushing
himself to his knees, Moffitt motioned him to wait, ran into the wadi and pitched a grenade straight ahead into the desert beyond. Again the only explosion came from the grenade.
"We go that-a-way," Troy sang out, pointing straight ahead.
Troy walked across the wadi to Moffitt who was studying the desert.
"So I was wrong," Troy said.
"Not necessarily," Moffitt said. "Let's walk our bursts into the desert."
They stepped their bursts in a path for a hundred yards and detonated nothing.
"Now off to he sides," Moffitt said.
Almost immediately Moffitt exploded a mine just off the far end of the trail which their machine gun bullets had blazed. It leapt six feet in the air flinging showers of junk metal and sand in all directions. His bursts found a second mine and Troy detonated three in quick succession on the other side of the path.
"S-mines," Moffitt said. "They're triggered to blow up at the slightest disturbance."
"What do you think, Jack?" Troy asked. An uneasy, troubled feeling nagged him.
"Why, we're in luck, old boy," Moffitt said and chuckled. "First crack, we found the pathway in the pattern. The garden gate is open."
Troy looked into the deadly Devil's Garden and to the sides of the path at the dumps of sand that marked the places where the S-mines had erupted. One miscalculation and the four of them would be indistinguishable bits and pieces mingled with the twisted remnants of the jeeps.
"Wilson's over there some place," Troy said slowly. Sweat streaked down his caked face and his smile was stiff. "He'll be expecting us."
"Right-o," Moffitt said with a tiny smile. "We'll clear the way. Shall we be off?"
He started walking slowly ahead into the mine field. "Not on foot," Troy said. "We'll ride."
Moffitt looked at him and shrugged.
Colonel Dan Wilson inspected his surroundings and considered his circumstances. At the moment his quarters, although Spartan, were reasonably comfortable. He was housed in a second-floor room of a substantial building he took to be German operational headquarters in a native town somewhere in the desert. It was dark in the room because the one window was shuttered and very little of the gray light of day filtered through. The room was furnished barely with a desk and two straight wooden chairs but it was not used as an office. He was quite certain of this because the moment the guard had locked him in, he had quickly and carefully inspected the desk, even pulling out the drawers, and had failed to find a single scrap of paper. With its shuttered window and two straight, hard chairs, the room plainly was used for interrogations.
That he would be interrogated Wilson had no doubt. Well, he thought determinedly, brushing the top of his close-cropped head with his hand, he'd give his name, rank and serial number, and no more.
The thought brought a wry smile to his hard, lean face but the smile did not warm his steely eyes. He remembered a young private who had asked him what he should say if he were captured and to whom he had answered:
"Conventions of War, son. Your name, rank and serial number. That's all."
And the private had complained, "But suppose they don't want my serial number?"
They would want more than a serial number from him, Wilson knew, and he wondered how far they were prepared to go to get it. West Point knew about all there was to know concerning warfare except what a man's breaking point would be. They put a lot of starch in your spine at the Point but who could say how long you would stand up when there was nothing left of your mind or body except starch? He just hoped he would mercifully pass out from whatever it was they did to him each time before an uncontrollable sound escaped from his throat. He wished to hell he didn't know what he did, that he had not been in on the combined Allied Forces briefing with Eisenhower and Montgomery the week before. He wished to hell he had not felt he must set an example for his men this day, manning the gun
himself in the lead armored car, standing dauntless in white varnished helmet with twin pearl-handled pistols at his hips out in front for all to see. It was good for morale but his Army career was over for doing a damned fool thing like that even if be did manage to get out of this.