a gate open, a pair of wire-cutters lying near the wire. Then schuß! this part of my life will be behind me,” he pledged. “I’ll be away so fast there will be a little clap of thunder as space closes behind me. They’ll find a rut burned in the field where I passed.”
At zero eight-thirty hours, the prisoners were ordered by their senior non-commissioned officers to clean the train from end to end. At ten hundred hours the train ground to a halt beside a water-tower while the engine drank. At ten-ten a detail was despatched by bicycle into a nearby town to buy materials to repair the damaged window. The departure of these old soldiers on rusted bicycles coincided perfectly with the beginning of Commandant’s Inspection.
Oberstürmführer Kassner and a bevy of subalterns and non-commissioned officers made their way the length of the train, polished and clipboarded. They strove to see that everything was being kept in sound military order and that personal disciplines were being maintained. At noon the order was passed to eat a boxed lunch passed out by perspiring Vet Guards in shirt-sleeve order.
By thirteen hundred hours the sky was aflame with sun, and the train was a blistering oven, with no movement to circulate stale air. Prisoners lay around stripped to the waist, trying to ease the painful prickly heat rashes that appeared under their arms, dabbing it with camomile lotion from the medic, a harried little man from Trier who looked as though he wanted to melt down himself. By fourteen hundred hours the train groaned with heat, and a grumble rumbled through while rails shimmered and wavered under the blast of the great furnace in the sky. It was then Hamish decided they were sitting atop a powder-keg, as any sign of a breeze vanished and the afternoon promised to heat up even more.
It seems an extremely dangerous situation—sitting at a water-tank siding in the middle of nowhere with more than a thousand bottled-up men. Explosive conditions. Hamish sipped his scotch-and-water. “Sar-Major, it’s far too hot to keep Jerry locked up. Enfilade the entire train with four Brens, detail sharpshooters to any high points. We are going to allow the prisoners to sun-bathe. Then twenty-five at a time, they will be marched under escort to that nice lake over there.”
The R.S.M. stared with bloodshot blue eyes at the sheen of water. “That’s no lake, sir. That’s just a goddam slough—a leech farm, fer crissakes.”
“You Canadians are a bit much. Whatever you colonials may term it, it looks like a bloody great loch to me.” His gaze was about as friendly as a cobra’s.
The R.S.M. did not move. “If you don’t mind me saying—I don’t think that’s a very good idea, sir. We’re thin on the ground with guards as it is, with not a spring chicken among ’em. If these bastards took it into their heads to run, we’d be behind the eightball, sir.”
There was a long hot silence. Sweat dripped from the tips of Hamish’s moustache. “Eightball. Eightball? Now what the hell does that mean? Bloody colonials,” he fumed. Pulling himself to his full height, he spoke to the blazing air. “Release the men in orderly manner from various compartments. They may remove all but their nether garments, for decency’s sake. We can take no chances—there may be ladies happening along this way. They may sunbathe, talk, eat, and smoke.”