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The Long Road Home, Chapter 38.

"Maria still held her breath as she reached up and turned the door handle."
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Author's Notes

"Katarina and Maria continue the long drive back to Munich. With her sister's condition worsening, can Maria find the fuel they need, and will she have the strength to get them home?"

Munich, February 21st 1945

Driving slowly along narrow country roads, Maria considered what Stefan had said about finding more fuel. She estimated that the twenty litres he had put in from the can would be enough for one hundred and fifty kilometres at best. He also said that there had been very little left in the tank. It would be very unwise to count on that to take them any further. With the now-empty can on the rear seat, Maria decided that the best option was to get whatever she could as soon as she could. She looked down at the gauge, but why? She knew it was broken. The needle had never moved from the Empty position.

“What are... you thinking... about?”

She looked at her sister, whose words had not come easy to her. There were definite breaks while she took deep breaths.

She looked awful, Maria thought. She was pale, and her chest was rising and falling as she struggled to inhale sufficient oxygen. Worse still, her breath was wheezing again.

“Oh, nothing really,” Maria answered her. “Just where to get fuel from.”

An uneasy silence fell between them, and Maria concentrated on the rough road. Finally, she asked,

“Are you managing all right, Trina? I have one more vial of Morphine if you need it.”

“I am fine,” her sister lied. “When you get tired, I will take over.”

Maria smiled.

“All right,” she replied, without conviction. She was well aware that Katarina was not fine, not by a long way. It would be down to her to get them home and her alone. “You rest now. I will let you know when |I am too tired.”

Katarina closed her eyes.

“All right,” she whispered.

The kilometres passed far more slowly than Maria wanted, but she didn't dare drive any faster. The road was unsurfaced and very rough, It was also littered with frozen puddles which could hide holes of unimaginable size and depth. Better to take a little more time than to destroy the car, she thought.

The terrain was flat, and she could see for miles across the open fields. They passed through villages which were little more than just a couple of houses and passed farms. If she couldn't find anything within the next couple of hours, she determined that she would stop and ask for fuel at one of them. Although she doubted that they would have any.

As she considered this option, she noticed something in the distance. It looked like a lorry parked at the side of the road. The nearer they got to it, however, the stranger it appeared. It looked as though it were tipping over.

Maria stopped the car in front of it. It was a grey Wehrmacht truck, the big Mercedes badge clear on the grille. It had partially left the road and was halfway into the ditch at the roadside. How it had not tipped over surprised her.

Katarina was sleeping, so Maria opened the door as quietly as she could and stepped out. The sight that greeted her was gruesome. The truck's windscreen was liberally coated with dried blood, so thick that she could barely see through it.

Although having seen some horrific injuries over the past years, Maria still held her breath as she reached up and turned the door handle.

Unfortunately, due to the steep angle, she was not strong enough to pull the door open. She gave up and went around to the other side. To her dismay, she couldn't open that door either, as the truck was resting on it. That left her with no option. She unstrapped the Pick-axe that was attached to the front wing.

When she lifted it from its mount, she almost dropped it. The weight was nearly too much for her, and she struggled to raise it high enough. However, with the point facing down, she let it fall against the windscreen. To her relief, the glass shattered immediately, and the heavy implement fell inside. With great care, Maria knocked the remaining glass out of the frame and peered in. It was enough to reveal that there was nothing she could do. Both the driver and his colleague were dead. The damage to their bodies was not survivable.

It was something she had seen before. The back of the cab was riddled with large holes, the kind created by an aeroplane. The shells, for it was obvious that they weren't just bullets, had smashed into the wooden structure of the cab. The poor souls inside had been torn apart instantly, their remains spattered over every part of the cab.

Maria sighed and climbed down. She didn't have time to do anything, even if she could have. What she needed was Benzine.

Back at the other side, she looked at the fuel tank. Her heart sank. There were holes where shells had passed through the canvas. The timber was splintered as they had passed through the wooden floor of the load-bed. Finally, they passed directly through the fuel tank, leaving two gaping holes in it. It was bone dry.

At the back, Maria lifted the edge of the canvas cover. Nothing, the truck was empty!

But then, something caught her eye. In the gloom of the canvas-covered truck, she noticed a box. Had it just been a plain, grey box, she probably wouldn't have given it a second glance, but it wasn't. On the top of it was a large white circle with a red cross!

With a brief glance across at the car, she hurried to the rear of the truck and climbed inside.

The steep angle of the floor made the climb to the front very difficult.

The box was fixed to the floor, so Maria opened the lid. Inside, amongst all the usual dressings, was a cardboard box. She knew what it contained. Morphine!

The relief she felt was immense. Now she could give Katarina another dose without the worry of there being no more.

Ever conscious that the car engine was still running, and the precious little fuel they had left, Maria grabbed the little box containing the morphine vials. Along with some needles, she filled her pockets with dressings, then made her way back outside.

Back at the car, she put the dressings into their First Aid satchels. The Morphine went into her own.

At that moment, her sister awoke.

“Maria? What's... happening? Why... have we... stopped?” she asked. Again, deep breaths punctuated the questions.

“There's a lorry,” Maria told her. “I thought it might have fuel, but it's empty. How are you feeling?”

Katarina took several more breaths before replying.

“Not... not so bad. My chest hurts though.”

Maria took the syringe and a clean needle from her bag.

“There was Morphine in the First Aid box,” she said. “I'll give you a shot. You need to be relaxed to fight the Oedema.

Katarina didn't argue. She knew how sick she was.

The day wore on. Maria peered intently at the road ahead of her. The car splashed through puddles, shattering the ice which covered them or slipping across those bigger but more shallow ones that had frozen solid. All of this made the journey slow and tiring in the extreme.

From time to time, she glanced across to her sister. The morphine had taken effect and helped her sleep, but her breathing was becoming more laboured by the hour.

The columns of displaced citizens had gone, maybe because she was on more rural roads now. That also meant that there was little chance of finding fuel. They had encountered two more abandoned lorries, but they had also been dry.

Maria realised that they had already covered some one hundred and fifty kilometres. There was no option but to stop at the next town. She prayed that they could get that far.

Much to her relief, the next town soon appeared. She had no idea what town it was, but it seemed busy. As she drove along the main road, she couldn't believe her eyes. There was a small workshop, and in front of it was a Benzine pump!

When she stopped, her euphoria rapidly faded. The workshop seemed deserted.

The main door to the building was slightly open, so she pushed it a little and called out.

“Hallo! Hallo!”

She waited but there was no reply. She tried again.

“Hallo! Is there anyone here?”

Something scraped at the back of the workshop and then a crash. A grey-haired man in dark blue overalls appeared.

“What do you want, Sister?” he asked, seeing her uniform.

“I need Benzine,” she told him. “Enough to get to Munich.”

The old man laughed.

“Wouldn't we all! There isn't enough here to get you to the end of the street. Hasn't been for months.”

Maria's heart sank. If she couldn't get Katarina home then she was in no doubt that she would die. She felt sick and almost fell sideways, supporting herself by leaning heavily on the door frame.

The man stepped forwards to help.

“I don't know what to do,” she told him. “My sister is very sick. I have to get her home. I don't even where we are, or how much further we need to go.”

He pulled out a small drum for her to sit on. From the noise it made, she could tell that it was empty.

“This is Eichstätt. About a hundred kilometres from Munich,” he told her. His voice was a gentle as he could possibly make it. “How much fuel do you have remaining?”

She looked up at him.

“I don't think there is any. We emptied the can at Geiselwind, twenty litres. The boy that helped us said it was almost empty.”

The old man shrugged.

“Then you have done well to get this far. Another can full will get you home.”

“Then you have some?” she exclaimed, her voice hopeful.

“I didn't say that,” he replied. “There is none here.”

He rubbed his chin, thinking.

“There might be somewhere you could try, though. At the other end of the town is Oflag seven-B, a prisoner of war camp. They have some vehicles.”

Maria opened her eyes wide.

“A prisoner of war camp?” she exclaimed. “You think I can just drive up and ask for Benzine?”

The old man shrugged.

“Well, if you can think of a better idea. You won't find any fuel elsewhere.” Seeing the look on her face, he continued. “It is run by the Wehrmacht. They have never troubled us here. There are no SS units there, at least, not that we have seen,” he added.

Maria sighed.

“I suppose we have no option, then,” she conceded. “Thank you.”

She followed his directions until she found the long white building he had described. In front of it, bordering the road, was a tall wire fence topped with barbed wire. From where she had stopped in front of the gate, she could see a guard post overlooking a grassed compound.

As soon as the car stopped, it was approached by a soldier holding a rifle.

Maria opened the window as he bent to speak. Before he had a chance, she said,

“I am Matron Maria Kaufmann of the German Red Cross, and this is Matron Katarina Langsdorff. We have orders to report to the Ludwig-Maximillian Hospital in Munich, but we don't have enough fuel. Can you help us?”

The guard didn't answer but merely demanded her identification papers. Maria handed him her card.

He looked at it, then at her, and then folded the card and handed it back.

“Matron Langsdorff doesn't look too well,” he said, looking across at Katarina. “What is wrong with her?”

“She was beaten by...” she stopped, and then, “...injured in an air raid. I need to get her to the hospital as quickly as I can.”

“Wait here,” he replied and stomped back towards the sentry box.

When he didn't return, Maria began to wonder whether he had forgotten them, although she was sure he hadn't. After all, two nurses in a battered old car didn't turn up at the gate every day, surely?

The minutes passed by, and then a Kubel appeared from behind the building. It came to a stop on the other side of the gate, and an officer jumped out.

The sentry opened the gate a little way to allow him to pass through.

“I believe that you are asking for fuel?” he asked when he reached the car.

Maria nodded.

“We have to get to Munich,” she repeated. “Tonight.”

“And your colleague. What is wrong with her?”

Maria said the same thing to him that she had told the sentry.

Without a word, the officer went around to the other side of the car and opened the door. He crouched down beside Katarina.

From his pocket, he took out a stethoscope, put the earpieces into his ears, and placed the other end against Katarina's chest at the base of her throat. She barely moved.

After a moment of study, he stood up and returned to Maria.

“Matron Kaufmann, your colleague is in a serious condition.”

“Yes, I am well aware of that! Please, let us have some Benzine, and then I can get her to the hospital!”

“Matron, I am the camp doctor. She needs immediate treatment, or she will die.”

Maria banged the steering wheel with frustration.

“Then please, don't delay us any longer!”

He gestured to the sentry.

“Right. While the guard puts some fuel into your tank, I will get some morphine and...”

Maria interrupted him.

“I gave her morphine already.”

“...and a mercurial diuretic,” he continued.

Maria stared at him, eyes wide.

“Mercury?” she exclaimed. “That could kill her.”

The doctor shrugged.

“It could, but it could also help her to recover. Without it, she is likely to die anyway.”

He didn't wait for a reply but returned to his own car. With a scrabbling of tyres on the gravel, he sped away.

The guard was just pouring the last drops from the can he had taken from the Kubel when he returned. Once again, he opened the door and crouched beside Katarina. Pushing up her sleeve, he tied a cord around her arm and looked for a vein to rise in her forearm, tapping her arm impatiently until he was satisfied. Katarina's blood pressure was so low that the vein he chose was barely visible.

Maria watched intently as the thin needle disappeared into her flesh and the doctor squeezed the plunger, finally withdrawing it when he was done.

Next, he produced two small tablets, which he placed into Katarina's mouth along with some water to swallow them.

“Prontalbin,” he said, as he handed Maria a small box. “Give her two every six hours.”

Maria was grateful for the antibiotic tablets. She was acutely aware that Katarina needed them to fight the infection that was causing her Oedema.

Before long, they were back on the road towards home. Maria was still worried about her sister and tried to drive a little faster. The condition of the road, however, made that almost impossible. Then it began to snow. A few lazy flakes at first, drifting slowly down from the thick clouds. Soon, though, there were more and more.

Somehow, the snow began to make the day brighter, but soon it began to have a hypnotic effect.

Maria was tired anyway, but the drifting flakes distracted her from the road, and she found herself watching them as they drifted to the ground.

Suddenly, she was brought to her senses by the sound of an approaching aeroplane. The roar of the lone engine conjured images inside her head.

“Oh no, not again!” she yelled as a single fighter flashed low overhead. Her first thought was to find cover, but there was none. They were surrounded by open fields!

Another roared past.

Maria searched frantically for somewhere to hide the car as the first aeroplane turned back towards them. This time it approached from the right and headed directly for them. She braked hard and threw herself across her sister, protecting her from the hail of bullets that never came.

The fighter passed above them, flying much slower than on the first pass. This time, she saw the black crosses that were clearly marked under the wings. She also noticed that its undercarriage was lowered.

“Of course!” she said aloud as she pushed herself back into the driving seat. “Katarina, they are landing at Oberschleißheim. We are nearly home!”

Maria's euphoria was short-lived, Katarina didn't respond. Her eyes were closed, and she was barely breathing.

Pressing her fingers against her sister's neck, Maria searched for a pulse. She soon found it, but it was weak and fast. She touched the palm of her hand to Katarina's forehead. It was warm, too warm.

“Oh, Lord. Please don't take her. Not yet, not like this,” she prayed aloud. “She has never harmed anyone or anything. You can't take her so soon, it's not fair.” A tear formed and rolled down her cheek. “It's just not fair!”

She wiped her eyes and slammed the car into gear. With a jolt, it lurched forwards, her right foot flat to the floor.

The light was fading as the countryside began to give way to houses. At last, they were in the outskirts of Munich. Soon they would be home and she could get Katarina into bed and look after her properly. It would be no use taking her to the hospital. She had morphine and Sulfonamide anti-biotic tablets, all the same things that the doctors would give her. Mostly, though, she needed to rest and be warm. Maria thought of the hot soup that her mother would make for her, and how she would fuss and take care of her. The hospital could do nothing more than that.

So concerned was she, that she failed to notice the damage that had been inflicted on the city. Even so far out, there was evidence of the bombing that Munich had suffered.

She didn't want to, but now she had to slow down. The car had no lights, and there were people in the streets, along with bits of debris from ruined buildings and damage to the road surface.

Soon, they arrived at a crossroads where she had to wait for a tram to pass. She reached across and took Katarina's hand. To her distress, it felt cold and lifeless. When she looked over, her head had rolled to the side. Her eyes were closed and her mouth open.

“No, Trina, please! Hold on!” She squeezed her sister's hand. “We are so close,” she sobbed.

The road was clear now, and Maria drove the last few metres as fast as she could.

© Copyright Anna Morgan 2021. Copying, transmission by any means, or any other use is strictly forbidden without the authors express consent.

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