The truck jerked to a halt, and an American soldier got out of the passenger door. He carried a rifle, and there was a pistol tucked into his belt holster besides. Another soldier stepped down from behind the wheel. Fannie's heart jerked when one of them flipped back a canvas covering the back and ordered the prisoners off the truck. She took only tiny breaths as she counted eight men climbing down. The enemy! Here on their soil! One by one she took note of them, especially of their youth. Why, they looked hardly older than she or Jerry. They wore tan and brown uniforms with the giant letters PW stamped on their backs. Their hair was cropped short, and they squinted into the morning sun as they took in their surroundings.
Fannie raised her chin, and a sigh of relief sat on the edge of her lips. Then the last two prisoners emerged, and she pressed her mouth into a line. They were older than the others. Not old, but definitely more mature or even in their prime. Probably not more than twenty-eight or thirty, they both had the same cropped haircuts as the younger men, but they had the solid bearing of a few extra years and experiences. Only about an inch separated the two in height, and both appeared taller than any of the men in Fannie's family. The face of the darker-haired man was narrower, and his eyes peered hawk-sharp toward them. The fair-haired man glanced toward her family and away with a set square jaw, taking in the barn, the sheds, and the fields. What was he doing? Calculating a way to escape or where to find a tool that would make a lethal weapon? Fannie twitched when Jerry's boot scraped on the floorboard. His voice brushed her ear. "Well, this should be interesting," he said.
"Well." Mom might as well have grunted. It was as though her mind was so full, she couldn't sort through it all, and just that single word leaked out to make space. Was that all she was going to say?
Jerry moved to the steps.
"Jerry." Mom halted him.
"I'm just going down there. Somebody's got to."
He started down again, and this time Mom didn't stop him. He was too young for this. They would smirk at him, disrespect him. The Germans would smirk at all of them. Kids and women ordering them around. With a huff, Fannie started after Jerry. "I'll go too."
"Thank you, Fannie." Mom's words brushed over her in an almost-whisper as Fannie walked by.
She would not look at the prisoners. Not directly. She wouldn't give them an opportunity to catch her eye. She grazed them with only the most general glance as they lined up behind the truck. The guard called them to attention, and they straightened. Even so, with only that barest look, she could tell they stared. Not at Jerry but at her. Did one man lick his lips? Fannie's stomach cinched in on itself.
The guard dipped a nod at her. "Ma'am. I'm Corporal Taft. Where would you like the prisoners to begin?"
She blinked and drew herself taller as she scrambled for an answer. Then she pointed in a general direction toward the field west of the house. "The potatoes need hilling. Back there."
She turned to Jerry, who stood beside her, hands on his hips and feet braced apart. "Jerry, why don't you go get the hoes out of the shed. All of them. Looks like we'll be short. Bring the bug cans too." She faced the guard again. "You can have a couple of your men pick potato bugs." She glanced their way again.
One younger prisoner nudged the man next to him, and she tore her gaze away, berating herself for making eye contact as she turned to the field and shielded her eyes. She steeled her voice not to shake. "Follow me. I'll show them where to begin."
Corporal Taft shouted orders in English and then in German, and the men filed behind her. She forced a thick lump down her throat as they moved together like a hen leading her overgrown chicks to the field. There she stepped back as the American soldier told the prisoners what was expected. Jerry trotted up with hoes and handed them out. He gave her a grin, and she responded with a tiny shake of her head. She didn't need the prisoners thinking they were thrilled about having them here.
"You'll be right here then, Corporal Taft?" The thought of him turning his back on the prisoners unnerved her.
"Yes, ma'am. Right here. Or maybe in the shade over there by that tree." He nodded toward a cottonwood that edged the corner of the field nearest them. "You don't have to worry. These Germans are the safe ones. Most of them are glad their part in the war is over."
She took a more normal breath. Was that so? If the corporal was telling her so to ease her mind, it worked, if only slightly. She hoped it was the truth. "Thank you, Corporal. I'm glad to hear it."
"If they try anything, they'll lose working privileges permanently. They don't want that. They're willing to work. Not like the Japanese. The Japs would rather stand before a firing squad, some of 'em."
"That's right. But not these Germans. They'd rather work than loaf around. And we've been careful not to let any of the real troublemakers out of Camp McCoy."
"Troublemakers?" Then there were problem prisoners after all, as she first suspected. Just like that, she was on edge again.
This excerpt ends on page 18 of the paperback edition.
Monday we begin the book On the Way to Christmas by Sheila Roberts; Melissa Ferguson; Amy Clipston.