Authors: David King
A fight was brewing at the Sidi Bar when Sergeant Sam Troy stalked out of the glaring, blaring Algerian clip joint with Sergeant Jack Moffitt. Troy of the Allied Forces' famed Rat Patrol was angry. He slammed his cocked brim Australian bush hat on his head and stared icily back at the table where Private Mark Hitchcock and Private Tully Pettigrew were cozying up to their half-breed girls while they snarled over their drinks at every serviceman who glanced in their direction.
It was nearly midnight, and an hour earlier Troy hadn't even thought of coming to the Sidi Bar. The name alone had been enough for him. It was some Algerian-bred Frenchman's corrupt idea of a pun. It meant, very roughly, depending on your translation of Arabic, "City" Bar. It was a low-down dive, the same kind of honky-tonk that had sprung up all over the world in cities where GIs spent their free time and money when they were given brief respite from the fighting. The jammed place, laden with the stench of slopped Egyptian beer, sweetish Turkish tobacco and cloying perfume, clanging with the din of ancient jukebox records and obscene, drunken talk, was a familiar environment. Such joints as this were Rush Street, Broadway, Beale, Alameda; and Main, Center and Front all rolled up in one. They were little chunks of home, Troy supposed, and that was why servicemen flocked to them—that and the women they offered.
At first he'd been more irritated than angry with Hitch and Tully. They'd got tight, not falling down drunk, but tipsily tight over his mild protests, and because the four of them comprised the Rat Patrol, Moffitt and he had gone along to try to keep things under control. But when they forcibly brushed off his efforts to drag them back to the hotel and had gone for these two cheap little pieces of baggage, he'd felt no obligation to baby-sit. Oh, the girls had invited it, there was no doubt. Troy had seen and heard the come-on. The two girls had been crowded at a table with three sailors and Troy didn't blame the babes for wanting to ditch the Navy. The sailors had been cold-looking fish with dead eyes. Both of the girls had looked up when Hitch and Tully purposefully brushed them as they walked by the table on a detour to the bar. Troy had seen the raised eyebrows and tentative smile one had given Hitch and had heard the second murmur as she plucked at Tully's arm: "Hey, you big GI! Got cigarette?" It was funny. She looked like the rest of the waterfront breed of women in Algiers but she'd had an oddly heavy accent. Troy didn't think Hitch and Tully really gave a damn about the scrawny women. They'd taken the girls defiantly from the sailors because they were itching for a fight. Oddly, the sailors hadn't come up swinging but they were at the bar now, drinking straight shots. Probably building up their courage. It wouldn't be long before the Sidi Bar was a brawling madhouse.
The two sleazily dressed girls had acted strangely after they'd come to the table with Hitch and Tully. They'd sat limp and silent, not protesting the halfhearted passes Hitch and Tully made, but not responding to them either. The girls kept looking at the sailors, as if they were afraid of them or waiting for instructions. If Hitch and Tully found themselves rolled before the night was over it might teach them a lesson.
The four of them, Hitch and Tully, Moffitt and Troy, were at the tag end of a ten-day pass and Troy was bored and disgusted. He'd been in the open, far-flung wastelands of the desert so long he'd forgotten how it felt to be cramped up in a city that was nothing but a den of thieves. He wanted to get back to Bir-el-Alam in Libya where the Rat Patrol's jeeps with the heavy machine guns mounted in the rear had been mucked down during the heavy rains of winter, to get behind the enemy lines again in the lethal vehicles and start prowling. The men of the Rat Patrol were hunters.
Troy pushed through six bleary-eyed GIs and stepped with Moffitt into the chill, damp night. In the dark and narrow street he hesitated, half turning. Annoyed as he was, he was concerned about Hitch and Tully. Hitch, the Ivy League school drop-out, had tucked away the steel-rimmed glasses he usually wore and hadn't chewed off the taste of his last drink with his normal mouthful of bubble gum. And Tully, the hillbilly who'd run the ridges with Kentucky moonshine and always rolled a matchstick from one side of his mouth to the other with his drawl, had been empty-mouthed and hard-lipped.
"Easy does it, Sam," Moffitt said quietly.
Troy glanced swiftly at him. An amused smile lingered on the Englishman's lips. Despite Troy's hunch that Hitch and Tully were asking for more than they could handle, he smiled quickly. There was something steadying about Moffitt's cool appraisal of any situation. At first the doctor—for Moffitt was a Doctor of Anthropology at Cambridge—had rasped on Troy's nerves. He'd thought Moffitt's constant, perfect balance was a posture of superiority. Moffitt had come to the Rat Patrol on loan from the English Army's Scot Greys to assist in locating and destroying an abandoned British fuel dump before the Jerries reached it. He'd proved his mettle, had liked the action and been given detached duty with the Patrol. He knew every inch of the vast desert from anthropological field trips with his father. Troy had come to realize that what he originally thought was a pose was actually an unusual degree of calm and calculating courage in the face of danger. He relied on Moffitt.
"They worry me, Doctor," Troy said frankly as they walked slowly down the alley toward the boulevard along the bayfront. "We could have wrestled with them, carted them off, but the shape they were in, they'd have slugged us for sure. I'd rather have them fight the sailors."
"And a noncom never strikes an enlisted man or officer, now does he, Sergeant?" Moffitt asked and chuckled.
"Not if anyone is looking," Troy agreed and laughed.
They turned onto the boulevard where the pavement glistened dully under globes of diffused light in the partially blacked out city. Even at midnight on a cold, moist night, the avenue was thronged, and in the harbor, lights blinked off and on where clanking cranes worked around the clock unloading supplies. From overhead came the drone of the P-40s and Spitfires that maintained a constant air cover. Algiers reveled in its wartime prosperity, its normal population of a quarter million almost doubled by the Allied Forces from more than half a dozen countries who'd come to drive Rommel's Afrika Korps from North Africa.
"Whatever do you suppose really happened to our old chum, Dietrich?" Moffitt asked and pulled his beret over one eyebrow.
Troy frowned at the reference to their personal adversary. Captain Hans Dietrich. He was commander of an Afrika Korps armored unit and most of the Rat Patrol's forays behind the Jerry lines had been directed at him. Their last mission before the rainy season had been an assault on his headquarters at Sidi Abd.
"Nothing we know for sure," Troy said slowly. The question bothered him. "Rumor. Speculation. That's all we get"
"Oh, I'd say, rather not," Moffitt exclaimed. "Before we left Bir-el-Alam, the reports were definite that he was no longer at Sidi Abd. The speculation is, where is the chap? Some have him sacked. Some say he has committed suicide, although that I doubt, unless he displeased Der Fuhrer and was given the opportunity of doing away with himself. He has even been reported captured but I rather think that tale had its origin in our last mission when we did hold him for a bit. Slippery cod, isn't he?"
"An eel," Troy agreed. He grinned abruptly. "I hope nothing has happened to him that we didn't get to do."
"I'm quite sure Hauptmann Dietrich would appreciate your sentiments," Moffitt said, laughing. "I believe he finds the Rat Patrol a worthy foe."
And Dietrich himself was more than worthy, Troy thought. He was one of the most wily and daring Panzer commanders in North Africa. Certainly Rommel would not have removed or replaced him.
"He's probably on leave, same as us," he said. "Waiting for the rains to stop so we can fight again."
"Rather," Moffitt. said, glancing at the cloud obscured night sky. "And I think the rainy season has come to an end. It may be damp but we haven't had a really wetting shower in the past five days."
"I hope you're right. Jack," Troy said dubiously. "I'd like to get back in the jeeps and cut a caper. This life is driving me nuts."
The Rat Patrol was the best assignment he'd had in the Army, Troy thought. A part of the long-range penetration scheme, the Rat Patrol's assignment was to get behind the enemy, harass him, and destroy his communications, supplies, equipment and personnel. "Butcher and bolt," Churchill called their type of operation. Such commando raids kept the enemy off balance. Best of all to Troy, the Rat Patrol was an independent action. There was no red tape. Once a mission was assigned, no one told them how to do it. Get the job done and damned if anyone cared how you did it. The success of a caper depended on yourself and the men you'd picked. With Moffitt, Hitch and Tully, he had a team that hadn't been beaten yet. Hitch and Tully, he repeated uneasily in his mind. Maybe Moffitt and he should have stayed at the Sidi Bar with them. Without Hitch and Tully, the Rat Patrol would come to a standstill. They drove the jeeps while Moffitt and he manned the guns, and when the patrol was on foot they were in the thick of action.
Beside Moffitt, Troy shouldered and elbowed through the thin-chested and gaudily dressed streetwalkers, the sidewalk hawkers in dirty flowing robes, the tipsy soldiers and sailors and the fat Frenchmen, Greeks and Armenians in tailored suits who followed the armies like jackals, profiteering from the Black Market. Little bare-legged Arab boys scuttled like persistent beetles after the servicemen, offering their services. The moisture-laden air pressed the military odors of the city on Troy, the smells of cosmoline and cordite overriding the subtle fragrances of herbs and spices.
In the center of the white-faced commercial facade of the town, they turned into the bar at the Aletti hotel, where they'd managed to bribe their way into an overpriced room with two double beds. The Aletti seemed even more crowded than the Sidi Bar because the arched Moorish room with hanging brass cylinder lamps was smaller. Smoke lay in blue layers in the muted light, but the aroma was different. Most of the men in the Aletti were officers and they smoked Havana filler.
They found a place where they could reach over compressed shoulders for their drinks. Troy ordered a bourbon ditch and Moffitt Scotch and water without ice.
"Shall we push on and carry the drinks to our billet?" Moffitt asked, smiling and guarding his glass from the crowd that ebbed and flowed like the tide.
"We'll bunk alone tonight," Troy said, nodding, teeth showing whitely in his toast-colored face when he smiled. But doubt nagged in the pit of his stomach. It was ten to one Hitch and Tully would get into trouble and it would be up to Moffitt and Tully to get them out of it. Troy's eyes narrowed and his mouth grew thin. Moffitt and he had broken out of enemy prison camps but never into a GI stockade. He supposed there always was a first time.
As the crowd propelled them through the archway into the stucco-walled, tiled lobby, Troy tumbled into the steadying arms of a tall and straight-backed, lean-faced officer with silver eagles on his shoulders.
"I've been looking for you," the colonel said crisply, and Troy stiffened with surprise. It was Colonel Dan Wilson, the Rat Patrol's commanding officer, and his face was tight. He was carrying a small brown canvas bag.
"A bit of a shock, popping into you here," Moffitt said, eyes darting to Troy. "Have we resumed the war or are you merely on leave with the multitude?"
"He said he was looking for us," Troy said, grinning at Moffitt. "That means he isn't on leave."
Wilson frowned, hastily looking around as if to check who might have overheard and showed interest in Troy's remark. He called attention to the bag.
"I haven't been able to get a room," he said with some urgency. "The clerk told me you have one here. Do you think you could squeeze me in?"
"Right-o, any old port in a storm, eh, sir?" Moffitt said easily and laughed.
Troy nodded and led the way, weaving through the crowded lobby where babble in a dozen languages scrambled all conversation into mishmash. Something has come up, he thought, something big, or Wilson himself would not have come for us. That bit about the hotel room was hogwash. If Wilson couldn't buy his way into a room at a hotel, there were billets maintained for officers of Wilson's rank. We're back in business, Troy thought cheerfully, and then he remembered Hitch and Tully and his stomach sagged.