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Dudgeons and Daggers

Dudgeons and Daggers

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Dudgeons and Daggers

5/5 (1 rating)
563 pages
8 hours
Apr 15, 2016


A pact of honor and responsibility is taken on
D-Day by William Dunavant and Alex Powe, both
expectant fathers who know they may not
survive the invasion. When Powe is captured,
torured and killed, Dunavant vows to keep his
Fourteen years later, Dunavant visits Powe's
son, Nick, for the first time, telling the young
man how his father died and of their lifetime
agreement. Nick is a natural sniper and
considers his ability a gift; one he is fated and
honed to use.
Grace Dunavant is an intelligent, driven
young woman cut of the same cloth as her
father. Suspicious of her father's role in past and
current events, she confronts him after finding a
letter from Simon Wiesenthal regarding the
search for a Nazi war criminal, the very one who
killed Powe - Werner Krueger.
Grace and Nick make a much more personal
pact; one of dudgeons and daggers.

Apr 15, 2016

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Dudgeons and Daggers - Troy M Carnes



Gestapo Headquarters

Saint Lô, France

June 6, 1944

Alex Powe slowly crept back into consciousness and became aware that he was being dragged. His hands were bound behind him, and he was face-down. Two guards pulled him forward by the arms, and he could feel the toes of his boots bouncing over cobblestones. He felt cool air against his face and realized they must have brought him outside. His eyes were swollen completely shut from hours of brutal, methodical beating. He could not see anything, could not even sense light. He was unable to tell whether it was night or day. He desperately hoped the day had come, but had long since given up the belief that he would ever see another dawn. He knew before accepting the mission that, if he were captured, the Germans would execute him. The only question had been whether death would come swiftly or at the end of the long agony of a Gestapo torture chamber. Stories about the fate of captured agents had been trickling out of the occupied territory through the Resistance. The stories varied greatly, and some were utterly unbelievable, but they all had one thing in common. They were horrifying.

Powe felt his head bounce off the ground as the dragging ended, and he was abruptly dropped by the guards. He could feel his face pressed against the grit of the street, but he felt no pain. Pain had mercifully left him some time during the night. His senses could no longer protest. He had been beaten beyond their capacity. During the first hours of interrogation, searing bolts of electric pain had coursed through his body with each excruciating blow, but as the beating continued, Powe lapsed into a dull throbbing daze from which he knew he would never emerge. He couldn’t remember when he had passed out, but he knew that he had not told them anything while he was conscious. He did remember thinking about his son. The child must have been born by now. He was due a week ago, but no word had come before they left for the mission. Somehow he knew it was a boy. Something inside him told him with certainty. During the most desperate moments of the beating, Powe had conjured an imaginary image of his son in his head. He used it to try to stay strong. The image was not of an infant, but of a boy, almost a teenager. It was a boy old enough to understand and to be proud. That was what got him through the night, the idea that one day his son would know what he had done and would be proud of his father.

Powe had been captured within an hour after landing. During descent, his parachute had caught in a tree, and it had taken him half an hour to disentangle himself. He missed the initial rendezvous, and as required by the mission plan, the team left without him. It was too dangerous to wait for one man. A German patrol spotted Powe as he approached the second rendezvous point. Helpless to intervene, the other members of the team watched from their hiding place as the Germans captured him. Theirs was an extremely vital mission; failure to complete it could jeopardize the success of the entire D-Day landings. They could not risk discovery before destroying the objective, a key rail bridge leading to the proposed landing zones. They knew that Powe would be killed; there was no point worrying about that. Their greatest fear was that he would reveal their plan to the Germans before they could carry it out. The team leader decided to leave one man behind in hiding to observe what he could of Powe’s interrogation. He had a flare, and if he suspected that Powe had talked, he would shoot it into the night sky to warn the others. They would then blow the bridge early, another risky act, but one that would have to be taken under the circumstances.

The man who had beaten Powe all through the night was the very image of Aryan supremacy. He was tall and thin with bright blue eyes and blond hair, and he wore a spotless black Gestapo uniform with gleaming decorations. When issuing orders to his men, he spoke German in measured tones with an edge of harshness, but when addressing Powe, he spoke in clear, perfect English with only a trace of an accent.

At their first meeting after Powe’s capture, the man had been warm and courteous. He politely introduced himself as Hauptsturmführer Werner Krueger, head of the Gestapo in Saint Lô, and seemed genuinely eager to know Powe’s background. Although belied by an elegant manner and immaculate dress, Krueger was a sadistic brute. When the questions began to lead toward treason, Powe quit answering, and faked Krueger’s cordial demeanor evaporated. The Hauptsturmführer sighed deeply, stood, and calmly unbuttoned his tunic. He walked toward the back of the room, the clop of his boots echoing through the chamber. He brushed lint from his tunic with the back of his hand and hung the garment on a hook on the wall. From another hook, he took a heavily stained apron. He held it away from his body with both arms outstretched and snapped it gently as if straightening fresh bed linens. Then he slipped it over his head and tied it in the back. He began rolling up his shirtsleeves as if he were about to toss a salad.

Two guards were binding Powe to the chair with rope. As Krueger approached, Powe saw that his eyes had changed. The bright blue had turned dark and there was a frightening glint to them, like something sinister was seeping out of his soul. Powe felt a chill run up his spine. It was the last thing he felt before the beating began.

Despite considerable experience and an apparent lust for the work, Krueger was not particularly good at torture. The idea was to coerce important information from an uncooperative prisoner in a timely manner by the methodical application of ever-increasing levels of pain. The gradual build-up of intensity in pain was the key to effective interrogation. A skilled interrogator worked on the mind of the victim, using proper technique to produce such horrific dread of the coming agony that no one, no matter how strong, could bear it. Krueger went about it as if the desired information could only be extracted from the victim’s brain by brute force. He beat prisoners with his bare hands, slapping them with open hands at first, then backhanding them with increasing force. Eventually, he used his fists, each vicious blow followed by one more savage and powerful. He beat prisoners like a man who knew what it was to be beaten, as though he was exacting revenge for a childhood of abuse.

The man whose sad duty it was to observe Powe’s beating was his fellow agent William Dunavant. The two men had entered training together to become agents of the Office of Strategic Services. While enduring the unit’s rigorous training course, they had become close friends. Since completing training, they had worked on several missions together in occupied France. It was hazardous work, and many of their fellow OSS agents had been killed or captured. They had grown to trust their lives to each other.

Dunavant had volunteered immediately to stay behind when the team leader explained the plan to keep watch over Powe’s interrogation. Now, he sat in the dark shadows of the shrubbery along the edge of the building listening through a low basement window. He could hear with sickening clarity the meaty smacks as his friend was slowly beaten to death.

Just before dawn, the sky lit up with a brilliant red glare and the ground shook from a violent explosion. Dunavant knew it was the railway bridge a few kilometers away. Amid the ensuing chaos, as German soldiers poured out of the building and gawked at the glow to the northeast, Dunavant eased out of his hiding spot and headed for the next rendezvous point. He paused at the western corner of the grounds, hiding again in the thick foliage there. He looked back at the stone building. He was thinking about how foolish it would be to try to save Powe, but the more he sat there, the more he thought that he could not leave him. After all, the mission had been accomplished. There were no more secrets to compromise. The only thing left to betray was his friend, and he wasn’t going to do that.

He was working out a plan in his head when he saw two uniformed guards bringing Powe out. They had him by the arms, dragging him into the street. Then they dropped him face-first onto the cobblestones. Another man followed them wearing a dirty smock, almost like a cooking apron. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbows; he looked like a butcher. Even from sixty yards away, Dunavant could see the splotches of dark, wet blood on the apron. Then he saw the pistol in his hand as the man brought it up to waist level and pointed it at the back of Powe’s neck. He saw the muzzle flash before he heard the report. Powe’s body lurched with the shot and then went still.


U. S. Army Counter-Intelligence Corps Headquarters

Bad Tölz, Germany

March 27, 1951

William Dunavant, formerly of the OSS and now serving in the Army’s Counter-Intelligence Corps, was sick to his stomach. He had a strong urge to order his driver to pull to the side of the road so that he could relieve his nausea, but he was not going to do that. He had trained himself to fight off the most powerful urges, to reveal nothing of his feelings even to the most casual observer. In his line of work, such self-discipline was often the difference between life and death.

Dunavant had just finished reading the CIC file on Klaus Barbie, a German officer who had been head of the Gestapo in Lyon, France, during the war. Dunavant had read the file while riding in the back seat of a staff car as it wound through mountain roads, but it wasn’t motion sickness that ailed him. It was the contents of the file that set his stomach to churning; that, and the task he’d been given.

Dunavant’s superior at the 430th CIC, Allen Dulles, had ordered him to Bad Tölz, a picturesque little town nestled in the Bavarian Alps, a few miles north of the Austrian border, not far from Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaden. During the glory years of the Third Reich, Bad Tölz was well-known for two things, natural spas and SS officers. The town straddled the Isar River, and the mountain springs surrounding the valley produced clean, pure water rich with iodine. Many fabulous spas had been built along the west bank, and the owners boasted of soothing baths of magical water that possessed special healing powers. The mystique of the place had appealed to Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, a man obsessed with the supernatural. Captivated by its mystical allure, he chose Bad Tölz as the site for an elite school for producing perfect SS officers. SS-Junkerschule Bad Tölz became Nazi Germany’s equivalent of Britain’s Sandhurst and the USA’s West Point. The best of the best came from Bad Tölz.

Now, almost six years after hostilities ended, Germany’s economy had begun to show modest signs of recovery, and people were finally able to think about pursuing leisure activities again. Consequently, the spas were thriving again, but the Nazis were gone. Or so it appeared.

When the American Army captured the officer candidate school at Bad Tölz, they discovered a vast collection of files on SS officers that had passed through training there. It was a treasure trove of information that proved enormously useful to the Allies in the years immediately following the war. Rather than move the extensive files, the CIC decided to set up a headquarters there. They set up shop right in the old SS school. The buildings and barracks became the center of American counter-intelligence efforts.

The very moment that Hitler bit down on a poison capsule and simultaneously put a bullet through his own head, American counter-intelligence shifted its focus to a new enemy, the Soviet Union. There was a global grab for power going on as the fighting died down, and the great Russian bear was on the prowl. The Western allies had finally become convinced of what the Germans had been saying all along, that the Communists were the real enemy of the civilized world. CIC leaders immediately recognized the potential help that could be provided by German intelligence officers who had spent years studying the Soviet Union and its leaders. Efforts were made quietly to round up any former Nazis who might have information or expertise in dealing with the Soviet threat. Many of these men were wanted for war crimes, and it soon became clear that in order to utilize their unique abilities, American intelligence would have to sneak them out of Germany.

Help came from the most unexpected of places: the Roman Catholic Church. It was rumored that Pope Pius XII had essentially made a pact with Hitler during the war. The church would not condemn or interfere with Nazi business, and the Nazis would not occupy Vatican City. Although it is ludicrous to believe that any formal agreement ever existed, Pope Pius was noticeably reluctant to speak out against Nazi aggression and atrocities, and the German army never set foot on Vatican ground, at least not during the war.

After the war, Nazi sympathizers within the church established secret networks for the sole purpose of assisting high-ranking Nazi officials in evading capture and prosecution. The networks provided safe passage from Germany and Austria to somewhere in South America, most often Juan Perón’s Argentina. One such network, organized by a Croatian priest, ran directly through the Vatican, providing safe houses within the monastery of Saint Jerome of the Croats in Vatican City. Father Krunoslav Draganović had found the Nazis to be useful allies in fighting the Communists in his country, and when the Soviets came in 1945, the Germans helped Draganović escape to the Vatican.

When the war ended and the hunt began for Nazi war criminals, it was time for Draganović to return the favor. He began building a network to establish a human pipeline for smuggling Nazis out of Europe. His early attempts were so successful that word spread throughout the Nazi underground and the American intelligence communities. Agents began referring to the network as the Vatican ratline. Draganović was flooded with requests for assistance. One such request came from the CIC on behalf of Klaus Barbie, and Allen Dulles deemed him vital due to his expertise in tracking and destroying resistance movements.

Dulles arranged to have Barbie taken to a CIC safe house in Bad Tölz to await placement in the Draganović ratline, and William Dunavant was chosen to handle the case. Dunavant was dispatched immediately with a car and driver and a thick dossier on Barbie’s experience. Dulles told him little. He had said that everything he needed to know was in the file, and that all he wanted him to do was to gauge Barbie’s potential by asking him a few questions and to be sure that he entered the ratline safely.

It all seemed routine to Dunavant, until he began reading the files. Klaus Barbie had become relatively famous for one accomplishment. He had captured Jean Moulin, France’s most successful and heroic Resistance leader. Barbie’s feat placed him in high regard among the SS, the Gestapo, and the German Occupation forces. He was decorated and celebrated across the Reich, and Heinrich Himmler himself urged him to share his methods with all counter-insurgency forces. Upon hearing of Moulin’s capture, American intelligence took note of Barbie’s name and began studying ways to counter his tactics. Too many operatives in Moulin’s unit had known too much information. Once the first key prisoner had been broken, Barbie had all he needed to take down the entire operation. It had been a disaster for the Resistance and the OSS, and never again would one of its clandestine organizations be allowed to operate in anything other than tight, independent cells with little knowledge of one another.

To the French, Barbie’s fame was not the result of admiration for his ingenious intelligence coup. In fact it was not fame at all. To them, Barbie was notorious. He had earned the kind of infamy that made one a marked man. In France, Barbie was known as the Butcher of Lyon. He had acquired his nickname through the ruthless execution of his duties, often torturing prisoners personally. Estimates made by French authorities claim that Barbie was ultimately responsible for the deaths of some 14,000 French men, women, and children. He once had 44 Jewish children taken from an orphanage at Izieu and sent to the extermination camp at Auschwitz. But, Barbie was best known among Frenchmen as the Nazi who personally beat a helpless Jean Moulin to death, an act for which they would forever seek vengeance.

Ever since the war, French authorities had been after Barbie, and after almost six years, they had finally located him in Germany. They immediately appealed to the Allies for assistance in bringing him to justice, but Allen Dulles was making sure the French did not get him. He wanted him for his own purposes. Justice could wait until he had served his purpose.

The files on Barbie contained enough horror to make any sane man ill, but it was not just the needless, merciless brutality; Dunavant had seen plenty of that. There was something more there. The deeper he got into the file, the sicker he felt. It took most of the drive for him to realize what it was that bothered him so. Finally he realized that Barbie reminded him of the man who murdered his friend Alex Powe. The similarities between the interrogations of Moulin and Powe were inescapable. It gave Dunavant a very clear image of the agony his friend had endured, a clearer image than he ever hoped to have, an image that left him outraged. But the image that made him want to stop the car and wretch at the side of the road was the image of his helping an animal like Barbie escape prosecution. Those were his orders, and Dunavant knew he would follow them, just as he had when he’d been ordered not to intervene in Powe’s interrogation, only to listen and watch while he was tortured and shot.

That night had haunted him ever since. He would never forgive himself for failing his friend. He knew he could not have saved Powe, but in his heart, he believed he should have found a way to end his suffering. At the very least, he should have killed Hauptsturmführer Werner Krueger, the beast who had beaten and shot him. He’d had the chance. One well-aimed burst with the Thompson would have done it. He would give anything to have that moment back. It didn’t matter that he would most likely have been killed. It was the right thing to do, but he didn’t do it. It bothered Dunavant so much that he had been hunting Krueger since the day the war ended. He had tracked him to Munich, his birthplace, but he disappeared before an arrest could be made. Just two weeks ago, Dunavant had been infuriated to learn that Krueger had escaped into the very Vatican-run ratline that would protect Barbie. Dulles claimed that the church slipped him through the network before CIC discovered who he was. When Dunavant had asked to be allowed to go after him, Dulles became angry; he had essentially forbidden him to pursue the matter further. Something in Dulles’ reaction had been nagging at Dunavant ever since, but whatever had occurred, Powe’s murderer was gone to Argentina for good. Now he was about to be face to face with another Gestapo murderer, and he was having trouble imagining how helping him escape could possibly be the right thing to do.

Dunavant composed himself and waited until his rage had quieted and his resolve returned. He was a career intelligence man, above all a professional. He would do his job as ordered. There was no room in his business for emotion. He told himself that the reasons for his objections to using former Nazis against current enemies were naïve and idealistic. It would be foolish to reject such enormous intelligence assets over morality. After all, we’d had no problem allying ourselves with Joseph Stalin in order to fight Adolf Hitler. With Hitler gone, it was only logical to use Stalin’s greatest enemies against him. He climbed back into the car and ordered the driver to proceed.

As they drove down through the pass that led to Bad Tölz, the sun dropped behind the looming mountains and dusk came on quickly. They turned onto the campus in near darkness, passing beneath the arched entrance. The driver stopped in front of the administrative building. Inside, the duty officer checked Dunavant’s identification documents and carefully read the orders Dulles had issued. When he was satisfied, he told Dunavant that he would find his client at the underground pool. A stern-faced sergeant in a white helmet liner got up from his coffee to show the way. The walk to the aquatics center took several minutes and they passed through most of the campus. The Nazis had spared no expense in the construction of the elite SS officer training school. Every facility would rival some of the finest resorts in the world. The underground lap pool was built adjacent to a magnificent natural spa. The sergeant pointed toward the entrance with two fingers like a traffic cop, then left without a word.

As he approached the pool, he could see that the water was heated, steam rising gently from the surface. A lone figure in the center lane glided gracefully through the water, the surface barely disturbed by its passing. The swimmer was moving away, and Dunavant watched him execute a precise flip turn at the far end with only a slight ripple of the water. He waited for him at the edge of the pool. He unbuttoned his coat to show the loaded .45 he carried in a shoulder holster. He was hoping to look menacing.

Barbie never broke rhythm, executing another graceful turn at his feet. Dunavant noticed that Barbie had taken a good look at him as he entered his turn, but he made him wait another four laps before he would stop and acknowledge him. When he did stop and climbed out of the pool, Dunavant could see that the man had no fear of him. He wrapped a towel around his shoulders and sat on the edge of a poolside chair. Dunavant was trying to decide what to say to him when Barbie relieved him of the burden.

You must be Dunavant, he said calmly. Dulles said you would come for me.

That’s right, Dunavant replied.

He said we’d be moving tomorrow, Barbie con-tinued. Are you settled for the night?

I’ve just arrived.

Come this way, Barbie said rising.

Dunavant followed him into another chamber of the basement where there were several sunken baths, each large enough to hold as many as a dozen people. The room was lit by torch light, and he could see that the baths were all empty. Barbie stripped off his trunks and slipped into the steaming water. He sat against the near wall, leaned back until the water lapped at his chin, and emitted a long, pleasurable sigh.

Join me, he beckoned. The water is amazing. You’ll emerge a new man.

Dunavant looked down at his clothes, doubtfully.

Just take off your clothes and get in, Barbie said. They will bring towels when we are ready.

Dunavant shrugged his shoulders and began stripping. He slid his holster off and laid the .45 on a stone bench beside his clothes. He dropped down into the water and sat against the edge of the bath opposite Barbie. He was searching his mind for an explanation as to how he had come to be sharing a bath with a man whom he had been fighting the urge to shoot on sight. He wasn’t sure of the answer, but he was following his instincts, and he decided to trust them for a while longer.

Will they bring us something to drink? Dunavant asked.

Of course, Barbie said arrogantly. They give me whatever I want. What would you like?

Bourbon would be nice, Dunavant said, but anything strong will do.

Barbie clapped twice loudly and whistled, a loud shrill call like one would use to summon a dog. A young Military Police officer in uniform came in from an adjoining room. He wore a .45 on his hip.

Bourbon, Barbie barked. A bottle and two glasses, and bring more of the bread.

The man walked briskly away without saying a word.

Dunavant studied the man before him, lounging lazily in a public bath; he seemed not to have a worry in the world. Nothing about his appearance gave the slightest hint that he was the murderer of thousands or that officials of the country where he had committed his crimes were hot on his trail. As Dunavant sat there wishing the bourbon would come, he realized why his instincts had led him to so readily agree to share a bath with this man. He needed Barbie’s help. The ratline led to Argentina. From there, the refugee Nazis might be allowed to travel to another country in South America, but all of them had to pass through the same channels. If there was anyone in the world who would be able to lead him to Krueger, it was Barbie. He wasn’t sure how to ask for Barbie’s help, so he decided to brief him on the details of the escape plan before broaching the subject.

We will be moving you into the network tomorrow, he began. You will be passed from one group of handlers to the next, and in most cases, you will spend just one night at each location before being passed on. The men who will see to your needs are almost all men of the Catholic Church; in fact, you will spend several nights in the Vatican in Rome. There, you will be given a new identity and all the necessary documentation to enter your new country, probably Argentina.

Yes, Barbie said patiently and politely. I’ve already been fully briefed. Mr. Dulles is a very thorough man.

I see, said Dunavant, his brow wrinkled.

There was an awkward silence. Then the whiskey came. As the MP returned to his hiding place, Barbie poured the two glasses half full and handed one to Dunavant. Barbie sipped noisily from his glass; Dunavant emptied his in two long gulps. Barbie smiled and nodded his head. He passed the bottle to Dunavant who refilled the empty glass.

I suppose you’re wondering why a government like yours would help a man like me, Barbie said, sounding neither smug nor remorseful.

No, Dunavant answered. "I have no illusions about the moral character of my government. We would harbor the devil himself if it suited our purposes. I am wondering how the Holy Roman Catholic Church could justify its commitment to such a cause."

Yes, yes, Barbie chuckled, I’ve wondered that myself.

Another uncomfortable silence followed.

Well, Barbie said, "the struggle between our countries is over, and now we have a common enemy in the damn Bolsheviks. I am certain that the information I have provided will be useful, and I stand ready to assist in any way possible. I am grateful to Mr. Dulles for helping me avoid difficulties with the French. I also have no illusions about my fate should I end up in their hands."

He paused and searched Dunavant’s eyes. Dunavant met his probing eyes and the two men stared each other down.

"You want something from me, Barbie said smiling. I can read it in your eyes like the longing of a hungry street urchin. Well, go on. What can I do for you? If I can do it, I will. I assure you. For all our faults, one can never say that we Germans are not loyal."

Dunavant was surprised to be so easily read, but he was pleased that this could be so simple. He had immediately sensed Barbie’s perceptive powers and felt as though he had been under silent interrogation since their eyes first met.

I do have a favor to ask, he said. Do you know a Hauptsturmführer Werner Krueger? He was Gestapo, the head of the Saint Lô headquarters on D-Day.

Barbie broke into a vile grin, his lips pursed and bursting with arrogance.

Do I know him? Barbie said bemused. I should think so; I trained him!



Chapter One

Yazoo River Railroad Trestle

Near Fort Loring, Mississippi

August 31, 1958

Nick Powe sat cross-legged on a small wooden platform at the edge of the tracks on the main pedestal of the old railroad trestle. The rusty iron girders of the bridge rose overhead, and the brown water of the Yazoo River swirled beneath him. The trestle was his favorite place in the world, at least of the few places he had seen of it. In his fourteen years, he had never been farther than Jackson or Memphis, but nothing in those places had compelled him to look further. Nick found the bustle of cities unnerving and preferred the steady rhythms of the delta bottomland where he lived. He liked to walk the lush woods and the plowed fields of the delta. He liked to paddle his canoe along the rivers and sloughs. More than anything he liked to hunt and shoot. Ever since he found his dead father’s .22 caliber rifle in the attic, Nick had been enthralled with guns. On his tenth birthday, his mother finally allowed him to take the .22 out into the fields alone to shoot. From that day on, he had spent some part of almost every day outdoors with a gun of some kind. During hunting seasons, he was usually out early in the morning before school with a shotgun, and he would go out again late in the afternoon with a rifle. Nick’s favorite days were those when he was able to watch the sunrise from a duck blind and the sunset from a deer stand. He spent the summer months shooting his rifles. He had grown to feel more natural with a rifle in his hands than without.

Nick’s senses came alive whenever he was out on the trestle. He could hear the gurgle of the water as it surged around the great column planted squarely in the center of the river. He could smell old pitch on the wooden ties and the sickly sweet odor of the tall weeds that choked the river banks. He could see the slightest movement among the trees or along the water’s edge. His keen eyes never missed the slightest flap of a bird’s wing or a rodent scurrying through the undergrowth. He cradled the old .22 in his arms, the butt held firmly against his shoulder, his left elbow resting on his left knee, his cheek pressed against the walnut stock, his right eye peering through the scope, scanning for a target.

Over the years, he had become quite a remarkable shot. He was equally adept with shotguns, but preferred the precision of a rifle. He lived on his grandparents’ farm between Greenwood and Itta Bena where hunting was a way of life. Nick’s grandfather owned a little less than a thousand acres of fertile fields and thick woods almost completely surrounded by a big loop of the Yazoo where the river came within a few hundred yards of touching itself before curving back south on its wandering path toward the Mississippi at Vicksburg. Cotton and beans grew plush in the rich soil, and rabbits, squirrel, and deer were abundant. In winter, ducks and geese fed where a cypress slough spilled out into a bean field at the north end of the place. To a boy who loved to hunt, it was paradise.

Nick was very happy growing up there, but the rest of his family seemed lost in a sorrowful gloom that they could not escape. Nick knew it was because his father had died, and sometimes he felt guilty that he did not share their sorrow. But, how could he? He had never met him. Occasionally his grandmother would seem to put her sorrow aside and be happy, but his grandfather rarely smiled and busied himself with farm work all year round. He would always show Nick the best places to hunt. He would even drive him to the spots in his truck and pick him up after the hunt, but he never wanted to go out with him. His grandmother told him that it wasn’t that he didn’t want to be with his grandson; it was that the memories of taking his son hunting were too painful for him to endure.

Nick’s mother had never quite gotten over the loss of her husband. All he knew about his father was that he had died in France during the war before he’d had a chance to meet his only son. There was a picture of him above the fireplace. He was eternally smiling down from the mantle, very much like Nick’s grandmother described him smiling down from heaven. His mother would hardly look at the picture, and she rarely spoke of him. There was such a sadness about her when she did, that he was glad she did not do it much.

Nick came to the trestle often, usually on foot, preferring the two-mile hike from the farmhouse to fighting the current upriver in his canoe. Most times his best friend Johnny, from Greenwood, would meet him there. Johnny was every bit as good a shot as Nick, and the two boys would sit on the trestle half the day, picking far away targets, then taking turns trying to hit them. The best days for shooting were after a big rain when the banks of the river would be washed clean of garbage, and the debris would come floating down the river to pass beneath the trestle. Nick and Johnny would fire hundreds of rounds at beer cans, Coke bottles, light bulbs, and every kind of trash imaginable. Shooting was Nick’s passion, but more than that, it was a gift. His knack for placing a bullet precisely where he wanted in a live, moving target was miraculous and largely instinctive. It was a true talent and Nick could sense it. He believed it was a gift he shared with his father, and he always felt some kind of spiritual connection to him when he was shooting.

Today, Nick was alone on the trestle. He had stopped shooting for a while and was just watching the brown river boil around the great round concrete pillar on which he sat. Just below the platform, he noticed the workings of some type of giant gear. He imagined that the trestle must have originally been designed so that the center span could rotate sideways on its pedestal to allow the passage of river traffic. Nick was wondering how long it had been since the Yazoo had seen significant traffic when he heard someone calling at him from the west end of the trestle. It was a man he had never seen before. He was dressed in a black suit, and he waved his arm in greeting.

There was nothing alarming about the man except that he looked out-of-place in the black suit, and Nick thought he must be miserable in the sweltering heat. Nick waved back to him and the man approached, looking a little unsteady as he walked the railroad ties out to the center span. They were about eight inches wide, but they were set about a foot apart. Many had shifted over time, and the gap between them was even greater. Looking down through the gaps at the water below could be dizzying to someone not accustomed to it.

Try to focus on the ties and not the spaces between them, Nick called to the man.

The man picked up the tip at once and made quick time the rest of the way.

Thank you, Nicky, the man said. That was really helpful. I should have known though. I’ve done that sort of thing before.

Nick thought it an odd thing to say, but let it go.

Your mother told me I would find you here, the man continued. He had pulled his jacket off and was rolling up his shirt sleeves, sweat beading in every pore of his skin.

Do you mind if I join you for a while? I … I, uh, I knew your father.

Nick looked at the man with new interest. He had not known anyone who had known his father besides his mom and grandparents. He wondered if the man might offer something more than sadness.

"It’s not my trestle, Nick answered, bringing the rifle back to his cheek and resuming his search. How’d you know my father?

The man sat down beside Nick, careful to avoid the few tiny welled-up pools of tar that had survived over the years. He let out a long sigh and stared off down the river.

You any good with that thing? he asked.

Without looking up from the scope, Nick said, See that bird over there?

The man searched the trees where he thought the rifle was pointed. He couldn’t see anything that looked like a bird, just branches thick with leaves.

What bird? he answered after ten seconds or so. I don’t see any…

The man was interrupted by the sharp crack of a .22 long rifle. A hundred yards away on the left river bank, a little puff of dark feathers appeared in one of the low branches of a tree that hung out over the water. They drifted out of the tree and down toward the water. Before they settled into the river, the black lump of a bird fell through them and splashed into the murky water.

Oh, the man said, that bird.

Nick swung the rifle up with his left hand, pointing the muzzle skyward. He rested the butt against his thigh, and turned to look at the man.

So, he said, a little edge creeping into his voice, how’d you know my father?

The man studied Nick. He could not help but smile at him. He could definitely see his friend in the boy’s features, and the attitude was pure Powe.

We served together in the war, the man replied.

You were in the army together? Nick asked.

Not exactly the army, the man answered honestly. He had come here to tell the boy the truth about his father, and he wasn’t going to tell him a single lie, if he could avoid it.

We were more like spies than soldiers, he said. We were in the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services. It’s a fancy name for a bunch of good people who carried out secret missions behind German lines to help fight the war.

Nick could not hide the surprise in his eyes, but he held his tongue and let the man continue.

Your father and I were very close, the man said. He died on the very same day you were born. I cried like a baby when I saw the telegram from your mother announcing your birth.

He paused, his lips pressed together tight, and let a breath escape through his nose. After a few seconds, he began again, speaking softly and staring at the river.

The telegram didn’t catch up to us until two weeks after your father was killed, he said. I had held together pretty well until I read that piece of paper. It gave the date and time of your arrival, and there couldn’t have been an hour’s difference between the moment you entered this world and the moment he left it. The irony of it tore my heart out.

Tears welled in the man’s eyes, but he fought them back, his hands clasped together in one big fist in front of his mouth. Nick could tell he was struggling to say what he’d come there to get off his chest.

You see, Nicky, he said, his voice wavering. Your father died protecting me. When we parachuted into Normandy, two nights before the invasion, his chute got caught in a tree and the Germans captured him. The Gestapo tortured him, did terrible things to him, things I could never tell you, but he didn’t tell them anything. They kept it up for five agonizing hours until the landings took place, but he never broke. He knew that our mission would save a lot of lives, and he also knew that if he talked they would have found me and the others within minutes. They would have killed us all, and a lot more men would have died on D-Day. When the Gestapo heard that the invasion had begun and that the railroad bridge over which German reinforcements would have to travel had been blown up by saboteurs right under their very noses, they dragged your father into the street and shot him.

The man seemed relieved to have gotten it all out without breaking down, but one lone tear escaped his right eye. He let it run down his cheek. When it dripped to the platform, he looked up at Nick. I thought you should know that your father died a hero.

Nick did not know how to respond. The man had clearly cared very much for his father, and something in his eyes touched him deeply. He sensed that the man had more to say. He kept quiet and gave him the chance. After a moment, the man spoke again.

I have a daughter, Grace, he began. She was born just a month before you were. Your father and I promised each other that if either of us did not make it home, the other would be sure to watch over the child we had never met. I’m sorry that I have not been here for you until now. It has been difficult for your mother to adjust, and my presence would not have helped that. I’ve tried to respect that, but I made a promise to your father and I intend to keep it. I will be checking on you from time to time, but if you ever need me for anything, you can reach me at this number.

The man handed him a plain white business card with only a telephone number printed on it. Nick looked at it, turning it over to see if anything was on the other side. It was blank. He looked back at the man. He seemed to have expected the confused look on Nick’s face.

Call me Uncle Billy, he said with a warm smile. Whoever answers that phone number will know how to reach me.

Uncle Billy leaned in close and squeezed Nick’s right shoulder with his meaty left hand.

Be sure to call me, he said, especially if you are in any kind of trouble. I’ll drop everything and do whatever I can to help you. That’s the promise I made to your father. I owe him so much more than that, so you be sure to call.

Nick looked the man in the eyes.

Thank you, he said. Thank you for telling me about my father.

The man just smiled.

Now let me see if I can still shoot one of those things. How the hell did you see that little bird anyway? My eyes must be failing me.

Nick passed the rifle over to the man, watching him check the safety and work the action. He

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  • (5/5)
    From the beginning to the last word Carnes had my attention. I put all else aside to read this story. Being prior military, I am drawn to honor, integrity, and loyalty. Pacts are often made during war, even to this day. The events that took place, some of the characters in the book, and what happened was real. Carnes took a handful of fiction and mixed in a plethora of history to create an incredibly good book. I highly recommend it!
    — CJ Loiacono