The Land Beneath Us (Sunrise at Normandy #3) - Sarah Sundin



FRIDAY, JUNE 11, 1943

Most men woke in a cold sweat when they dreamed of their own deaths, but not Private Clay Paxton.

Clay crawled through a foxhole, just like in his recurring dream. Bullets zinged overhead, but these were American bullets fired to teach the Army Ranger recruits to keep their heads down.

“Come on, G. M.,” he called to his buddy. Gene Mayer might be fast and wiry, but the Californian wilted in the Tennessee humidity.

“Right on your heels, Pax.”

Clay slithered out of the foxhole and under rows of barbed wire. His wrestling training kept his movements low, controlled, and speedy, even with full gear on his back.

The soldier to his right cussed. His rifle barrel had gotten caught in the wire.

“Back up, Holman.” Clay elbowed his way through the dirt. “Try again. Head low.”

Holman cussed again, but a friendly sort of cuss.

Clay cleared the wires and sprinted to the next station in the obstacle course, his respiratory rate fast but even.

He clambered up a cargo net and slapped his hand on the wooden platform that led to the rope bridge over the Elk River.

A boot slammed down.

“Watch out!” Clay yanked his hand away, and he lurched down, barely catching himself.

Bertie King sneered down at him. “No room in the Rangers for a half-breed.”

If he wanted Clay to bite, he’d have to use fresher bait than that old worm.

“No room for a half-wit either, King,” Gene said. “Let him up.”

“What’s the holdup, boys?” Sergeant Tommy Lombardi strode over. “King! Get your tail over that bridge. Paxton, Mayer, what are you waiting for?”

King stepped out onto the bridge, muttering obscenities about Lombardi’s Italian blood.

Clay puffed out a breath. Nothing stupider than insulting your sergeant.

He hefted himself onto the platform, grasped the two side ropes, and set his boot on the center rope. Angling his feet, he worked his way across.

“Why do you let him talk to you that way?” Gene asked.

Clay shook his head. Not only had he never been the brawling kind, but any fight would be considered his fault, just because his mama was Mexican. “Let’s save the fighting for the battlefield.”

“You have to put up with this a lot?” Gene asked, his voice low and hard.

“Not as much as you might think.” Growing up, he’d had Wyatt and Adler to protect him.

Until that night two years ago when they’d stripped him of his future and cast him into a pit. Showed what they really thought of their half-breed half brother.

Pain and humiliation threatened his balance, and he hardened his chest. None of that mattered anymore. The Lord had given him the recurring dream to show him the way out of the pit, and Clay thanked him once again.

On the far side of the river, Clay ran through the forest, hurdling logs and darting around boulders. Gene’s long legs gained on him.

As soon as Clay had seen the notice about the Rangers at basic training, he’d volunteered. Styled after the British Commandos, the US Army Rangers had already seen action in North Africa. In April, the 2nd Ranger Battalion had been activated at Camp Forrest, and now Clay hoped to replace one of the original volunteers who hadn’t made the cut.

Clay jogged to a dangling rope and climbed ten feet to the single rope line across the Elk. Hand over hand, Clay swung like a monkey over the green water.

An explosion to his left, and a geyser shot up and soaked him.

He didn’t lose his grip or his nerve.

“Do that again, boys,” Gene shouted. “Feels good.”

It did, and Clay laughed.

On the other side, he sprinted toward a ten-foot-tall wooden fence.

“They don’t call me king for nothing.” Bertie King straddled the fence and beat his chest like Tarzan. “You girls might as well give up, ’cause they only take the best. Me.”

Clay worked wet fingers between the planks and made his way up. Didn’t King realize the Rangers wanted men who worked together?

“No stinking Jews.” King kicked at Sid Rubenstein’s hand.

Ruby dropped to the ground, yelling and swearing.

King threw back his head and laughed.

A mistake.

He lost his balance and toppled backward. With a scream, he cartwheeled to earth and landed hard on one leg.

A crack.

Two years ago, a scream, a fall, and a crack had changed the course of Clay’s life. Once again, he scrambled down to help.

King’s lower right leg bent at an unnatural angle. The man cussed and struggled to sit up.

“Lie down, Bertie. Stay calm.” Clay pressed on the patient’s shoulders. “Gene, go get the medic.”