Well, not exactly empty.
The velvet lined case held clear indents of where the Crown, Scepter and Orb had been kept along with a few pieces of cloth and what I was told later was St. Stephen’s Sword. The latter looking the part of a primary weapon of a middle ages king with a medium length iron blade with blood grooves, a large curling hand guard, red rope wrapped grip and a massive pommel designed as much for bashing helmets than as a counterweight to the blade. As impressive find but considering what we were expecting a major let down if not an insult.
For a few seconds, after the trunk was opened the room was as silence as a tomb. Speaking for myself, I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach hard. I had been pulled from my OCS class, flown a third of the way around the world, spent weeks searching for the holders of the keys, watched a man murdered, all in anticipation of this moment only to see an empty case. No wonder one Gombos, Pajtas, and Horthy had not had so easily turned over the keys to us. They knew the keys would not provide us with the Crown. They were just another deception in a long series of deceptions. We had been played again and the realization that they must be laughing at us behind our back made my blood boil.
Considering the depth of my anger, I could not imagine the depth of Kubala’s and Granville’s fury. Kubala who had been burned badly by the presumptive telegram he had sent to SHAEF when the trunk was discovered was now going to have to report that the trunk had been empty the entire time. The personal embarrassment would be immense. The effect on his career catastrophic. This was a disaster beyond comprehension and must have him ready to spit acid.
I could tell that Granville was ready to murder Pajtas. From the moment they met the Hungarian Colonel had been playing him. First, insulting him then treating him as an inferior and then for months playing him for the fool all the while with a shit eating grin on his face. I knew George well enough to know that this final insult was the straw that would break the camel’s back. Any restraint that he had employed in his dealing with Pajtas was now out the window. Which is why I was in no way surprised that what followed our collective moment of stunned silence was Granville grabbing Pajtas by his tunic, throwing him up against the wall with his arm pressed across the Hungarian’s neck. What was surprising was Granville silence. He was just staring into the now bulging eyes of Captain of the Guards as the latter’s face went from red to blue with only choking and gasping sounds escaping his throat. It was only when it seemed that Pajtas about to pass out that Granville let him slip to the floor gasping and holding his throats.
Granville summoned the two MP’s who were standing by the door and said “Throw this piece shit in a cell. And don’t be gentle.”
When Pajtas had been dragged out of the room Kubala turned to Granville and said “This is the FUBAR to end all FUBAR. What the holy fuck am I going to tell Patch? Fuck what he going to tell Eisenhower. Shit Truman. That we still do not have the Crown. That some lowly fucking pissant motherfucking Hungarian Colonel has fooled us once again. This is not going to look good for either one of us George. We will be lucky if they do not pack us up and send us to some god forsaken malaria infected island in the Pacific or some piece of deserted piece of Tundra in the Aleutians where we can play patty cake with Tojo or piss ice cubes.. We are well and thoroughly fucked.”
Granville was still furious. You could practically see the steam coming out of his ears. I had learned over our time together that Granville was not the type to get overtly angry. He got even. The words that came out of his still clenched jaw were cold and emotionless. He said “He knows where the Crown is. And he is going to tell us. Whatever it takes. He will give us the truth this time.”
Kubala said “We don’t have time to let him marinate. We need to find out what he knows right now. Patch is expecting a phone call from me and I have no intention of letting him know that we got burned again by the Hungarians. It is an ass chewing we can do without. It will go much better for us if we tell him while the trunk was empty, we recovered the Crown anyway.”
Granville eyed Kubala and replied “I agree. Why don’t you and I pay him a visit a visit and remind Colonel Pajtas where his best interest lies.” Kubala nodded and as Granville and he headed towards the door said to Paul, Andrews and me “You three wait here.”
When they returned, about an hour later, they were bearing grim smiles and Kubala was rubbing the knuckles on his right hand. Granville was carrying a folded army map which he laid out in the table in front of us. Andrews who had been antsy during our wait and chain-smoking Pall Malls asked anxiously “How did it go Major?
“The son of a bitch acted as if butter could not melt in his mouth. He calmly told us that he had known all along that the Crown was not in the trunk. Two days before Granville arrested him, he and his men had buried the crown and its retinue near a lake in Mattsee Austria. He told us he would be happy to show us where they are buried. He gave a glance to Granville and added “That didn’t take any time at all, but we spent the next little while explaining to Pajtas in let’s say violent detail what would happen to him should this be another one his lies.”
Granville, clearly uncomfortable with Kubala’s description of events added “We merely told him with a little punctuation that should we fail to recover the Crown this time around what the consequences would be to him and his family. That our associate Colonel Himler would be delighted to spread rumors with his network of Hungarians that Pajtas had betrayed his confidences and sold the Crown to the Soviets for money and a position in the new government.”
“I have never seen the color drain out of their face any quicker” interjected Kubala.
Granville, ignoring Kubala’s remarks continued “But now we have another problem.” Paul, Andrews and I focused our attention on him, but it was Kubala who continued.
“Mattsee is in the Third Army’s territory. We cannot just go there and pick it up. That would violate at least a half dozen standing orders on transferring war bounty from one army’s area of control to another. We need to go through the chain of command. A former request to Patch, who would then have to bring it up with Patton, orders would have to be issued. It would take forever and presents a number of problems for us. First, it could take weeks before we received former permission if we received it. Patton may decide that he wants to dig it up himself being the glory hound that he is. Or worse in the time that it takes to get permission somehow someone else discovers the Crown before we can get too it. Second, we would have to admit to Patch that once again we have thought we had the Crown in our possession only to be embarassed by Pajtas. It is a conversation that Granville and I would prefer not to have.”
Kubala then made eye contact with Andrews and said “We need to figure out a way out to solve this problem.
Andrews was quick on the uptake. He drawled “Major, give me a truck a couple of boys who know how to use a shovel and I can get the crown one half faster than no time.”
Kubala asked “How are you going to get past Third Army sentries?”
Andrews grinned “Those boys. Ain’t no big thing. I do it…It ain’t no big thing.”
“What happens if it is a big thing, and they stop you.”
“I’ll just tell him the truth. That we are off hunting Nazi gold and when they are finished laughing at us. I’ll tell him that we heard there was a whorehouse in Salzburg that was hotter than honeymoon hotel and we are aiming on seeing if it were true.”
Even Granville laughed at that one. Kubala asked “What did you think George?”
Granville replied “It could work. And what do we have to lose? If he gets caught, he can claim he was just looking for a little companionship and won’t even get back to us. But what if some civilians see us digging. They could cause trouble for us. Either with the local police or MP’s. How is your German Andrews?”
“I can say hello, goodbye and swear a little.”
“Floessel and Gross, are you boys up to visiting a whorehouse in Salzburg? Maybe translate for Andrews if he gets in trouble with a Madam.”
It was asked as a question but both Paul and I knew it was an order. I replied “Funny you should mention it sir, Paul and I were just talking about how about how we had heard that the brothels of Salzburg were worth a visit.” Then pausing I added However, sir, if I may, I would like to suggest an alternative to Lt. Andrews ’s plan?”
Granville nodded while Worth shot daggers at me with his eyes. I said, “I think the plan as it stands is perfectly viable.” I glanced over at Andrews, he seemed a little mollified by my statement but was still hostile. “However, it has one major flaw. That is, Colonel Pajtas. If we are going to enjoy the pleasures of Salzburg why would we be bringing along a Hungarian officer? They discover him. Mission is over and were in hot water with the brass.”
Andrews interrupted “Hell that ain’t no problem. All we have to do is put him a one of our uniforms and no one will ever suspect a thing.”
I replied as tactfully as I could “You are right. Under ideal circumstances we could “hide him” in one of our uniforms and no one would be the wiser. But what if Pajtas decides that he wants to derail this whole operation. He has not demonstrated any great willingness to help us in the past. In fact, just the opposite. What happens when we get to a check point and he decides to yell out in Hungarian or identify himself as a prisoner of war. Game over. We are fucked.”
Granville says “Okay Sam. What is your solution.”
I took a deep breath and turning to Kubala asked “Major, do you need anyone else’s authority to transfer a prisoner from your custody to another’s.”
I could tell from Kubala’s look that he saw where I was going with all of this. He said “No I don’t. special orders to transfer prisoners. I can do that on my own authority. Go on.”
“Then why don’t you issue orders transferring Pajtas to Camp Orr. It is a legitimate cover. If Pajtas complains then we just tell the guards it is the normal prisoner mouthing off. We can justify the guards who are accompanying us security needed to the high value nature of the prisoner. Then once we clear the Third Army checkpoints, we can make our way to Mattsee and if we can stop by a patrol on the way there, we can always say we got lost.”
For a moment, no one said anything then Granville turned to Kubala “What do you think, Paul?”
Hesitantly, as if were actively trying to find flaws in the plan while speaking said “Well I guess it could work.”
When he was interrupted by Lt. Andrews “What are we going to say about him.” pointing at Paul. He is clearly not Army.”
Andrews clearly did not like to be shown up. But what choice did I have. Our goal was to develop a working plan to recover the Crown and its retinue. I couldn’t let personalities get in the way, but I also did not need to make an enemy of him either. I replied “Good point. I think the plan I proposed might have an advantage there as well as Paul’s presence can be explained away factually. If anyone bothers to ask, we just tell them the truth. He is a special liaison between us and the Austrian Underground who is hitching a ride with us.”
Andrews looked pissed that I had managed to dodge his bullet. Meanwhile, Granville had just a hint of a prideful smirk that his protégé had developed a workable plan. Kubala said “Lets go with Floessel’ s plan.” Then laying out the map he had been carrying on the table added “Lets figure out the best way to get to Mattsee.”
Orders needed to be cut. Vehicles requisitioned and troops recruited. As a consequence, our mini convoy of a deuce and half and Jeep did not get underway until early afternoon. Andrews, who been placed in operation control of our adventure was in the Jeep along with the driver. I thought that this was smart. While more of a blunt object than a refined instrument he had a gift with words that we hoped would get us through any rough spots. Moreover, he was Kubala’s boy, and it was clear that the Major wanted to make sure that he was in control. That put Paul, Pajtas, me and a squad of farm raised GIs in the truck. The troops in the back with Pajtas and a driver, Paul and I in the cab of the truck.
We had decided to take one of Hitler’s super roads, the Autobahn to Munich as it should get us there far faster than the secondary roads. They had been built for speed and I could remember how the Austrian press hailing them as one of the marvels of the age with one driver setting a speed record of nearly five hundred kilometers an hour on one of these roads. Unfortunately, for us the Autobahn to Munich had apparently been considered a primary target of our air force and artillery. It was heavily cratered and made for a much slower go than we had anticipated, and we didn’t get to Munich until nearly dusk.
We encountered the first checkpoint for Patton’s Third Army right outside of Munich. You could tell they were Patton’s men as their kit was exactly as army specification. Not a button, insignia or medal out of place. Ties perfectly knotted. They were also humorless and completely resistant to Andrew’s charm. They wanted to know who we were, where we were going, and who told us we could do so. Even after our orders were presented to them, they seemed to read every word twice and then radioed their HQ to make sure that we could proceed. When they finally let us through the checkpoint with a smart salute darkness had fallen completely.
As we drove away Paul lit a cigarette and said to me in German “Don’t be so proud of yourself. Your plan was not that smart.”
“It didn’t need to be that smart. Just smart enough to get us into Third Army territory. Which considering what we just saw, Andrews never would have. Besides, I didn’t hear you offering up any plans.”
“Do you really think that Kubala would have listened to me?”
“Well, there is that.” I said laughing. “I was surprised he even listened to me.”
Paul laughed along with me and then said “Imagine that. Someone actually listening to something little Hugi said.” Then changing gears he added “Actually, don’t sell yourself short Sam. You have always had that gift. When you believe in something you can always convince people to trust your idea. Do not know why that is. It certainly isn’t your looks. People believe in you. They trust you. The only thing lacking sometimes is you believing in yourself.”
“I believe in myself.” I said a little defensively.
“Of course, you do. But not always. Sometimes you let a little doubt creep in. You need to work on that. I won’t always be around to boost up your ego.”
“Since when do you spend any time at all boosting up my ego.”
I could only see the part of his face that was illuminated by the glow of the ember at the end of his cigarette, but he seemed to be smirking when he said “More than you know my old friend. More than you know.” He paused and then added in a very serious tone “I need to tell you something Sam.”
Concerned I responded “Sure, what’s up.”
“After we finish our little fun in Mattsee I am going to head back to Vienna.”
“Why, I thought Granville and his friends have plans for you.”
“Then why are you heading back to Vienna?”
“Sam. Sam. Sam. Do I really have to spell it out for you?”
He did not. I knew. But I wanted to hear it from his own lips anyway. I said, with only a hint of belligerence. “Yeah, spell it out for me.”
“It is not overly complicated. Your friends seem to think that I can help them with a few things there. And I have agreed to help them.”
“But hell. There is nothing left for you in there. The city is destroyed. It will be years before it is back to anything approaching normal. You can’t build a life on that. I can write Max. I am sure he can figure out a way to come to the States. You could go back to school. Build a life there.”
“Sam, I can’t leave Mama and go to, what did Edie call it, Fairyland. She is old. There is no one to take care of her except me. You would not abandon you mother. I can not either.”
“Maybe Max could find a way for her to come as well” I said grasping at straws.
“Come on Sam. You know that really is a fantasy. The line of refugees trying to go the United States from Europe is going to be endless. Unless you have a special skill, like Pichler, or an incredibly special friend you are going to be on that line for a very long time. Besides, you are forgetting something.”
“What is that?”
“That what your friends are asking me to do I am exceptionally good at. I have been doing it for years and would not have survived unless I had certain talents. Even better I like it.” He chuckled and added “In a lot of ways it’s just the adult version of the games of cowboys and Indians we played as kids.”
“Yeah, except Winnetou will be in one place and Old Shatterhand somewhere else.”
“Well, there is that. But think of another way. Vienna is going to be the place where east meets west, and I am going to have a front road seat. Who knows what opportunities will fall into my lap? And instead of having to hustle for money like the rest of the city your Uncle Sam will be paying me…” and then, completely out the blue he began to cackle with laughter.
“What is so god damn funny.”
Catching his breath between chortles he said “You!”
“What about me?”
“You are Uncle Sam!” and then broke down again in laughter.
When he recovered sufficiently from his laughing spell he continued “Seriously, Sam. I know you want for me what you have. The future we both dreamed about years ago. But that ship sailed for me a long time ago. I do not mind. We all have our destinies. And I will make the best of mine. Just like you will make the best of yours.”
“But you are still caught up in the could have, should have and would have with Tomahawk, right?”
I nodded. He said “You need to get over that. You weren’t responsible then. You certainly are not now. But Sam, you are responsible for my new life. Your friends have given me a lifeline that I can live on, better than most, until something else comes long. Stop beating yourself up about the past and take a little credit for the future.”
He then said “And, as your elder, can I offer you one additional piece of advice.”
“You are five months older than me…”
He persisted “As your elder my advice is don’t get caught up the glamorous. Live the life you have imagined for yourself, not the one others have imagined for you.”
“So says the brave and wise Winnetou?”
“So says the brave and wise Winnetou!”
When we got Salzburg we transferred Pajtas to the Jeep. Andrews wanted him front and center when as we approached Mattsee. While he had marked on a map where were going it was dark and as Andrews told us “trying to find someplace in the dark could go cattywampus faster than a duck on a June bug.” Something he wanted to avoid considering the longer we spent here the more likely our activities would be discovered. We also had one other advantage in our search, a near full moon that had just peaked over the horizon as we entered the town of Mattsee. It case just enough light for us to make out road signs without us having to use flashlights to illuminate them.
We headed north out of the town and following the shore road. About 6 kilometers out of town the road branched, and we followed the lesser of the two. Another three kilometers on we made a left onto a rutted dirt road that made a hard right turn when it reached the lakeside. A half mile after that the road dead ended at low stone wall that ran parallel to the shore. Here Pajtas got out of the jeep and walked twenty paces down the wall and then eight out from it (I would learn later that the paces corresponded to St. Stephens day in Hungary) and proudly pronounced. “Here we dig.”
The farm raised GI’s, all over six foot and broad, began attacking the spot with their entrenching tools while the rest of us illuminated the spot with our flashlights. There had been a conversation about bringing along real picks and shovels along with us, but it had been abandoned when it was decided that they would seem suspicious if our truck was searched. The lack of proper tools along with summer hardened ground made for slow going. The lack of progress also made us question whether or not Pajtas was telling us the truth. According to him, they had buried the Crown and the rest in early May. How could the earth be so tough when it was only disturbed a few months ago? Even if they had firmly tamped the ground down when the buried the items the ground should not be this tough.
After an hour of digging and where we had only gone down about eighteen inches, Andrews let his doubts get the better of him. He grabbed Pajtas by the collar and lifted him up so that he was standing on his tip toes and said “Pissant, if we don’t find anything at the bottom of this hole the next people to dig it up will find you.”
Pajtas clearly unnerved by Andrew’s anger said “This is the spot. I know it. But we dug it deep so it would not be uncovered. Have a little more patience.”
The digging continued another hour and several feet before we heard the clang of metal against metal. This was good news but it slowed the digging down even further. Pajtas had told us that when they had removed the Crown, Orb, and scepter from the trunk that had wrapped them in leather and placed them in an emptied and halved fifty-five-gallon gasoline drum. The drum had then been resealed before being placed in the ground. This meant our diggers needed to carefully find the corners of the container and the slowly excavate around it so it could be lifted out of the hole.
This was painfully slow. Our goal had been to get in and get out under the cover of darkness. Our late start and the slow going with the dig were conspiring against us time wise. According to my watch it was nearly 1:30 and with sunrise only 4 hours away if we did not get a move on our activities would be exposed to the light of day. It was just after 2am when Andrews called to the diggers “Boys, you think you can lift that can out of there now.” They put their entrenching tools downs and then the dug their fingers under the drum and tried to lift it up. At first it would not budge but they began wiggling it from side to side until it finally broke free from the earth and it was lifted out of the pit.
Andrews reached down and pulled out a large Bowie knife that he had strapped to his calf. Using the blade with the deftness of a surgeon he cut the rope that held the tattered canvas that encased the barrel. Once the wrapping was removed, he placed the blade of his knife in the seam that bifurcated the barrel and pried it open. Under the dim illumination of our flashlights, we could see that the leather in which the Crown and its retinue had been wrapped had suffered from its time underground. It was in tatters, the holes exposing glints of gold and the scattered refractions of gemstones. I think we were all holding our breaths as Andrews reached down and pulled out of the barrel the object that was clearly the Crown. Carefully, he removed the ruined leather that clung to it revealing a gemstone and pearl encrusted gold crown with dangling gold chains with rubies and emeralds at their ends. At its top was a gold cross bent at 45-degree angle. It glittered in the combined light of our flashlights and the headlights of the jeep and truck.
Andrews said, “Holy shit” and then pointing to the cross added “The goddamn thing is broken.”
Pajtas, who had the look of a true believer looking at a holy object said “No. It is not broken. That is the way it has always been. It is beautiful, yes?”
Andrew’s relieved to know that the Crown was as it should be rewrapped it cin its tattered leather wrapped and went on to the remove the other objects from the barrel: The orb, a gilded sphere globe about three inches in diameter with a small heraldic shield on its front topped with a double patriarchal cross and two coats of arms engraved it sides. I had read somewhere that these orbs were symbols of kingly authority as supreme justice on earth. It was an interesting piece of hardware but not as impressive as the crown or even the coronation scepter, which was pulled out of the container next. It was a cloisonne and gold handle topped by a rock crystal ball and ten dangling gold chains with small gold balls at their ends. Anton Skoda, in that long ago car ride, had told us that that the crystal was from the ancient Magyar homeland and that many believe that it had magic powers. The scepter both confirmed the Kings ties to past and helped him rule in the present. As a group we were mesmerized by the objects. They were beautiful in the way that ancient artifacts often are. Not because they glittered and were made of precious stones and metals, but they radiated history. Their age and the reverence in which they had been held for a millennium provided them with a magic that could only be felt when gazing at them.
We could have gazed at them indefinitely. They were that captivating. Andrews is the one who broke the Crown’s spell on us. He said looking at his watch, a Rolex, which struck me as being slightly out of place on his wrist and said “We need to put a little giddy up in our get along if we are going to be back in Seventh Army territory by dawn.” Suddenly, everyone seemed to have something to do. Andrews and Pajtas began carefully re wrapping the Crown, the scepter and orb back in the tattered leather coverings in which we had found them and placing them back in them gently back into gasoline drum. The farm boy GI’s began back filling the hole they had dug. No doubt anyone who came along this way would know that someone had been digging here but that evidence would fade with time which was the goal.
I should have said that everyone seemed to have something to do with the exception of Paul and me. While the privates backfilled and Andrews and Pajtas gave their tender loving care to St. Stephen’s crown and glory we were left with nothing to do but stand in awkward silence on the periphery. Both of us knew that the latest chapter in our friendship was about to conclude yet neither of us had the courage or the words to address it. There was a raft of emotions I could have expressed. How relieved I was at finding him alive and in his way thriving. That his expungement of the guilt I felt for his “death”, leaving him behind and his life underground was a gift I could never properly repay. How much I appreciated his ability to hold up a mirror to me and my thoughts and force me to look into until I saw who was really there. I wanted to tell him that he was my brother and that I loved him. That the bond between us would never die.
But I said nothing. Not because what I felt was not important but because long ago Paul had figured out how the other thought. He knew what I was thinking, and I knew he felt much the same. Words were not necessary because they were inadequate. Silence gave more understanding than words ever could.
Which is why we stood in silence until everyone had completed their tasks and were climbing back aboard our vehicles. Andrews, who had just placed in the gasoline drum containing the Crown and its retinue in the back of the deuce and a half approached us and said. “I am putting Pajtas in the front of the truck with the driver. I am going to sit in the back and guard the prize. You take the lead in the Jeep. Gross can sit in the back.
Andrews clearly did not know that Paul would not be making the return trip to Augsburg. I guess he did not need to know. I turned to my friends and instead all the things I had been thinking and said “Can I give you a lift to Salzburg.”
He replied with a grin “Thank you that would be very helpful.”
The trip to Salzburg took far less time than it had in the opposite direction. Before we knew it we were driving through the city made famous by Mozart. On the drive down from Matssee there had been little conversation between mostly because talking in an open Jeep was nearly impossible. As we passed through the center of town, I felt a tap on my shoulder and Paul pointed to sign that indicated that the train station was only a few blocks away. I was about to tell the driver to head to the station but my childhood friend shook his head and indicated he would get out here. I gave our driver a signal to pull over. When we came to a stop my Paul jumped out of the back of the Jeep. We looked at each other and I began to say something, but he shook his head. Silence said more than words. Then he did something unexpected. He saluted me. More out of reflex than understanding, I saluted back. Then, he pulled his ruck sack over the shoulder and disappeared into the night.