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Dachau, April 30, 1945
Will Judge nodded, struggling past the hopeful expressions along the path. After a few minutes of staring into faces filled with fear and relief, he twisted free of the sea of bodies. The smell of decay rushed up, wobbling his steps. He swallowed again and again, but he couldn't stop the rising sadness that filled his throat with bile. Dashing behind a jeep, he leaned against the fender and threw up. Then he wiped his mouth on the back of his sleeve. He sucked back air, needing a deep breath to quell the nerves, but his lungs seized; his stomach lurched again. A quick glance behind brought little comfort. What was taking them so long?
He slouched in the dirt and pulled a letter from his pocket, dizzying a black fly with a swat of the paper. Long braids and a silly grin filled his head. That frecklefaced kid Abigail Richardson had written to him faithfully since he'd left for Germany. Funny girl. What was she now, fifteen or sixteen? Maybe older. He couldn't say. He read the lighthearted story she'd scribbled across the pages and it brought a smile; no doubt her thoughtful intent. Years past, when her family was stranded at the Judges' home for Christmas, he had terrorized her, bullied her, made her giggle and cry. She was a skinny little mouse back then.
That was a long time ago, a long way from here.
He folded the letter and put it in his pocket next to the cologne-soaked love letter from Jeannine. A sigh escaped his lips. Now there was a woman! All the curves and attitude one man could hope for. Although they'd only had a couple of dates, her letters filled his heart with talk of a sweet life together once he returned. A sigh of hope caused his fingers to tingle and tremble as he patted his pocket. He could almost hear his mother, finger pointed, lips pursed: "And what do you know about the girl other than she has a beautiful face and curves?"
His mother would be right, of course, but he and Jeannine had come to know each other quite well from the steady flow of letters. All their hopes and dreams filled each page, giving him a reason to get back home alive.
The fly buzzed him again, this time with reinforcements, pulling his mind back to the present. The odor of sewage slithered into his nostrils and assaulted his senses. He walked around the vehicle and stared. Putting on a good face, he waved his hand as he marched closer.
Withered remnants of humanity cheered, tossed tattered hats in the air and supported themselves as best they could on scraps of wood or the barbed wire fencing. Souls waiting to be filled with somethinganything but the lingering fear of the Third Reich.
A pale arm in faded striped clothing reached through the fence as if functioning on its own and clutched Will's hand with bony fingers. Then another and another until Will staggered against outstretched limbs. They seemed to hang on in case he'd change his mind about their liberation and leave them, once again, to the Nazis.
"American? Yank, yes?" Another man grabbed while two others dropped to their knees in the dirt to pray and dozens of others simply fell over, the excitement almost too much exertion.
Will swallowed hard. He couldn't wait another second for these gates to be opened wide. Nor should he. The people had a right to be freed. He rose up with a determination in his bones he hadn't felt before and ripped wire clippers from a back pouch. Marching around the vehicle, back to the barbed-wire fence, he cut through one line at a time until an entire section had been removed.
As the fence separated, a collective cheer bathed in tears rose to the heavens, and hundreds of voices started singing. What song? He wasn't sure. In Will's mind his own favorite, "Amazing Grace," churned like notes through a bagpipe. And he whistled the tune.
With the fence at his feet he expected a rush to freedom, but as suddenly as the cheers had erupted, an eerie quiet settled over the camp. No one moved. Only questioning looks: first to him, then to the fence and finally to each other. Again, not a soul put a foot forward. What was wrong?
Though the gaping mouth of liberation awaited, the men and women remained inside the camp. Why didn't they leave? Were they afraid this was a trick? They must think the Americans were really Nazis playing another hateful game with them. Will had heard horrific stories of how the soldiers had toyed with their captives.
He shuffled dust up with his feet as he motioned for them to move away from the confines of the camp. "Come out." He swung his arms in large arcs, sending the dust clouds in all directions. "You're free. Come on. What's wrong?" The prisoners seemed to be holding a singular breath. No one moved.
For the longest time Will remained rooted in place, unsure what to say or do next. Surely one brave soul would break through the fence and bask in the freedom. He tugged at his collar, heat seeping up his neck.
No one budged from the nightmare but a small boy.
Only about three years old by Will's account. It was hard to tell, what with the wide eyes sunken into such a hollow face. The tiny creature, also dressed in striped pajama-style clothing, inched forward, looked about, took a few more steps and then wrapped his arms around Will's leg. Hanging on oh so tight, he smiled through tears until he'd bathed the leg of Will's uniform like an overturned baptismal fount. Abigail Richardson came to mind again, but even skinny tomboy Abby hadn't looked like this. The boy was nothing but skin and bony protrusions. And a huge smile. Cold fingers clung to Will's thigh, digging in for dear life.
Will rubbed the boy's head. "You got folks here, fella? You're one brave little man."
Silent, but with a determined look, the boy glanced up, held out his open hand. "Take, Yank." His skinny fingers revealed a dried-out crust of bread, sticky with sweat and dirt, no doubt misered away from his last meal, and now offered as a thank-you. Instant realization of the magnitude of the gift moved Will's heart. The widow's mitefrom a child. He bent down, fighting tears of his own, and tugged the boy to his chest.