Summary: Sgt. Saunders must contend with a personal loss.
Acknowledgement: A big round of thanks to DocII for beta reading the story, especially for her patience in going over endless re-writes of the same scenes. Any mistakes are solely mine.
Note: The following denotes foreign dialogue, generally German: "/Dialogue./"
Disclaimer: Combat! and all related characters belong to ABC, Image Entertainment, and Disney; this is an original story that doesn't intend to infringe on their copyright. Constructive feedback--the positive and negative kind--is welcome and encouraged.
Copyright: October 2005
We Regret to Inform You
By Syl Francis
The German artillery shells pounded them relentlessly. Half the platoon was already wiped out.
A helmetless, blond head popped up at the sound of the lieutenant's voice. The helmet, Saunders wryly recalled, had been a battle casualty after the first barrage. Had that happened less than an hour ago?
"I want you and Brady--" The platoon leader indicated the radioman, a recent replacement. "--to make your way up to that point." Handing Saunders his binoculars and map, he added, "See if you can spot their artillery from there!"
Both men nodded their acknowledgement and began low crawling toward their objective, a bombed out farmhouse. What was left of the building wouldn't offer much protection against possible snipers, Saunders knew. Only part of one wall still stood, not more than three feet high and less than ten feet in length. Still, it was better than nothing.
Reaching the base of the ruined farmhouse, Saunders signaled Brady to set up his radio while he continued crawling alongside the remaining wall. Reaching the end of the wall, Saunders took out the field glasses. A quick glance through them showed him that he needed to move farther up. Looking back toward Brady, he waved the radioman forward.
"I've gotta move up some," Saunders explained. "I can't see anything from this angle."
"Are you kidding?" Brady protested. "Saunders, you've got no cover out there."
Saunders just looked at him, his piercing blue eyes showing he knew and understood the risks. There was little point in stating the obvious: The Germans had been pounding them almost nonstop since dawn. If he should be caught in the open during the next barrage--Saunders deliberately shoved such thoughts out of his head.
Taking a deep breath, Saunders low-crawled until he reached a slight dip in the terrain. Taking out the binoculars, he again looked through them. To his utter surprise, he immediately spotted a sudden flash in a copse of trees. Zeroing in on it, Saunders felt a momentary feeling of triumph.
Grinning ruefully, Saunders realized that his eyes had practically tripped over an emplaced Kraut artillery battery. He counted three guns--88s! Checking the map, he hurriedly marked the position. He was about to call it in, when he spotted movement approximately 350 meters farther out. Training the binoculars at this new location, Saunders spotted two tanks--Mark IVs. Seeing several soldiers milling about the tanks, he realized that the tanks had infantry support.
The Krauts were readying to launch an attack. The artillery had obviously been 'softening' up the Allied lines in preparation for the German offensive. Waiting no longer, Saunders got Brady's attention.
"Brady! Fire mission! Enemy battery!" Quickly, Saunders called out the coordinates. Nodding, Brady relayed the information to their own artillery. Within one minute of calling in the fire mission, Saunders heard the distinctive sound of American 155s flying overhead; the shells landed with a deafening roar.
"Up one-hundred and fire for effect!" he yelled.
Brady radioed in the correction. Within seconds, the American shells found their target. Even from this distance, Saunders could hear the screams of the German artillerymen who had been caught in the barrage. Steeling himself to the human carnage before him, Saunders next turned his attention to the waiting tanks.
"Brady! Fire mission! Two tanks and enemy infantry!" Even as he said these words, Saunders saw the tanks start moving forward into the open. Hastily checking his coordinates, Saunders mentally adjusted his original estimation and called in the new coordinates.
He saw two enemy soldiers break from the rest of the formation and make a dash toward the cover of the trees. Saunders brought his weapon up and fired, however, the two Germans made it to the safety of the tree line. To his right, the rest of his platoon opened up on the exposed Kraut infantry.
Meanwhile, Brady was relaying the fire mission, shouting over the noise of battle in order to be heard. The next instant, the 155s rained down on the advancing enemy tanks and infantry. The rounds fell too far over the target, and Saunders hurriedly made an adjustment. "Down two hundred!" he called. The adjusted fire still fell too far over. "Down another hundred!"
Almost there! As Saunders called in his final adjustment, he raised himself on his elbows to obtain a clearer view. He failed to notice that one of the two soldiers who had run into the trees was gesturing in his direction. His companion nodded and taking a kneeling position, calmly sighted his weapon and fired. Saunders cried out at the sudden, intense pain.
Instantly at Saunders' side, Brady checked him for wounds. What the radioman saw made his blood run cold. Tenderly holding the other man, Brady inexplicably felt hot tears course down his cheeks.
Saunders looked up at Brady with unseeing eyes, his last thoughts of his brother. "Chip...?" he whispered.
Sergeant Chip Saunders tensed his body, ready to leap out from behind the tree he was using for protection. All around him, the French countryside rang with the staccato sounds of battle, and the air stank with the smell of cordite and his own sweat.
He jumped out and squeezed a long burst from his Thompson sub-machinegun. The next instant, he spun back behind cover, just avoiding being hit by the German heavy machinegun fire. The ground around him exploded in mini volcanic-eruptions as the enemy rounds struck the spot he had just vacated.
He was aware that Private Paul 'Caje' LeMay's Garand was responding with a rapid stream of semi-automatic fire. Simultaneously, Saunders heard the distinct roar of Kirby's BAR fire several short bursts in quick succession. The next moment he realized that he was no longer the enemy's primary target and took the opportunity to seek better cover.
Spotting a large log lying twenty feet away, he took off. As soon as he did, Saunders felt the enemy bullets trace a hot trail on his heels. Running the same zigzag pattern that helped him lead his high school football team to the regional championship, Saunders made it to the log and dove over it without breaking stride. Hitting the ground, Saunders executed a shoulder roll and came up firing.
"I'll feel that for a week," he muttered, scowling at a dull ache coming from his right shoulder. As he fired off another volley, Saunders thought about the new replacement, a green kid named Daley. Unsure of the soldier's first name, he felt a momentary stab of conscience.
The nervous newcomer had panicked at his first sight of the enemy and completely disregarded their orders not to engage. Before anyone could stop him, Daley had fired his weapon and given their position away. The squad had had no option but to fight.
Saunders rolled on his back and waved his hand, catching the attention of Privates Hummel and Littlejohn. Using hand signals, the squad leader indicated he wanted them to flank the enemy and get within grenade range. Both men nodded in acknowledgement and took off.
"Kirby! Caje! Everybody!" Saunders shouted. "Give Hummel and Littlejohn covering fire!" At his words, the squad's fire grew in intensity. Less than two minutes later, a loud explosion rocked the area, sending shrapnel and other debris flying through the air.
The enemy machinegun lay still.
Hummel appeared next to the enemy emplacement and waved the all clear. Saunders took a deep breath and came slowly to his feet. His relief was short-lived, however. He caught Doc's eye, the medic's silent message clear. The war-weary sergeant felt a familiar cold sensation grip his insides as Doc leaned over the newcomer, working rapidly.
Private Daley had not had a good first day at the front.
Saunders wearily led his squad back to the platoon bivouac area. He called a halt and walked toward the litter, glancing questioningly at Doc. Doc shook his head. Saunders nodded tiredly, his shoulders slumped. He lit a cigarette, and took a long drag, wracking his brains for the kid's first name. It would not come. The soldier had just joined them that morning prior to moving out on patrol.
Daley. Private 'No First Name' Daley, Saunders said to himself--eighteen years old, captain of his high school football team. Football was something that he had had in common with the new arrival, and Saunders put him at his ease by taking a few minutes to discuss the game's finer points with him.
Staring at the boy's pinched face, Saunders recalled Daley saying that his father owned a hardware store and that he was supposed to take it over one day. It looked like they would have to find someone else now.
"Go on, Doc," he murmured. Doc nodded and motioned to Nelson and Littlejohn, the two litter bearers, to head toward the aid station. Saunders watched them as they trudged off, wondering idly how many more young men under his command would fail to return home and their former lives. Taking a final drag from his cigarette, Saunders dropped the butt and ground it with the toe of his boot.
"Caje," he called. The slender, dark Cajun came up to him. "Scout out a place for the squad to bunk for the night. I need to report to the lieutenant."
Caje nodded and took off. Saunders knew that there weren't many places left in the bombed out village that could still be used, but if one existed, Caje was the man to find it.
"The rest of you guys just take it easy until Caje gets back. I'll be in C.P." Not needing to be told twice, the remainder of the squad collapsed in place, while Saunders made his way toward the Second Platoon's command post. Stifling a yawn, the exhausted noncommissioned officer adjusted the strap of his tommygun on his shoulder.
As Saunders walked away, Kirby's voice floated from behind him, "Man...after the war, I ain't never walkin' anywhere no more...No siree, ol' Kirby's gonna ride everywhere in style!"
"You own a car, Kirby?" Baum asked.
"Own a car?" Hummel snorted. "The questions is--can he drive?"
"Stay out of this, Kid," Kirby said, brushing the seventeen-year-old private aside. "This is just between us grownups."
It was Baum's turn to chuckle. "Since when are you a grownup, Kirby?"
"Awww...cut it out, you guys!" Kirby whined. He scowled darkly as the two soldiers ineffectually smothered their chortles. Finally, Baum took pity on his friend.
"Okay, okay, Kirby...we're just pulling your leg. So, tell us. Do you or don't you own a car?"
Kirby gave him a sour look. "Very funny, Baum. No, I don't own a car--yet!" He paused dramatically. "But me and Murphy--you know Murph, don'tcha, Baum?"
"Yeah...works in the motorpool."
"Yeah, that's right. Well, me and Murph, we got this idea about shipping us a jeep home--"
"That's crazy," Hummel scoffed.
"No! Listen!" Kirby insisted. "See...Murph's gonna ship the jeep home one piece at a time--!"
"Now I know you're crazy." This came from Baum. Hummel nodded in agreement.
"Murph's already shipped most of the engine," Kirby explained excitedly, "but he's running into a problem with the chassis. You know hard it is to get a jeep chassis through the postal censors?"
"No, but I'll tell you what will be hard," Baum said dryly. "Convincing the court martial board to let you off with only twenty years." Both Baum and Hummel burst out laughing.
"Awww...you know what your trouble is? Neither of you bums has any imagination. No siree...no imagination at all! Must be that Kraut blood in you, Baum...!"
"Hey, Kirby," Hummel began with a straight face. "How about you taking me out for a spin in your jeep? After you get out of Leavenworth Prison."
"Aw, shut up, Kid...Whyn't you go play with your teddy bear?"
Baum and Hummel broke out in laughter.
Walking away, Saunders shook his head and rolled his eyes. He told himself to bend Kirby's ear later for a good ten to fifteen minutes. No...make it twenty, he decided. Then he would give him latrine detail for about a week. That should be enough to get Saunders' pet goldbrick off this latest scheme. If not, the sergeant knew plenty of other, less pleasant ways to motivate a soldier.
Arriving at platoon headquarters, Saunders gave a cursory knock and entered without waiting for permission to do so. His platoon leader, Lieutenant Hanley, was listening intently into a radio handset. Nodding at Saunders, Hanley held up his free hand indicating he wanted the noncom to wait and waved to a coffeepot sitting on top of a wood-burning stove.
Saunders nodded his thanks.
"Yessir," Hanley said into the handset. "I understand, sir." He paused, listening. "Sergeant Saunders just walked in. Yessir, I'll get right back to you. King Two out!"
Returning the handset to its cradle, Hanley blew out a long breath and ran a hand through his dark hair. Turning to Saunders, Hanley gave his squad leader a questioning look.
Taking a sip from the bitter coffee, Saunders nodded and walked over to where Hanley had his map laid out. "We ran into an enemy machinegun on our return trip along this area...Sector Charlie. There's a crossroads here--" He ran his finger along a road. "--where the Krauts have set up a checkpoint. We tried to avoid them, but that new kid Daley panicked." He paused. "He fired and gave away our position. We had to fight. Daley got it. Doc's taken him to the aid station, but it's pretty bad."
Hanley nodded in understanding. "Anything else?"
Saunders shook his head.
Hanley sighed. "Saunders, intelligence reports a possible enemy build-up in that area. The Kraut checkpoint you ran into could indicate a possible attack route. I'll pass this on to S-2." Pausing, Hanley gave his squad leader a once-over. "You look like Hell, Saunders. Grab some shuteye. I have a feeling tomorrow is going to be a long day."
Saunders' blue eyes crinkled slightly in amusement. "Aren't they all, Lieutenant?" Finishing his coffee, the young noncom gave a half-hearted wave and stepped outside, taking a moment to let his eyes adjust to the dark. Making out the shapes of the ruined, empty hulks that had once been buildings, Saunders sighed.
The bone-aching weariness that came from twenty-two days of almost continuous combat and patrols was beginning to take its toll. He was only twenty-five years old but felt closer to fifty. Sometimes it seemed as if all he had ever known was war and death. Allowing his thoughts to gingerly return home, Saunders called up his mother's smile and his sister Louise's sparkling laugh.
Smiling at thoughts of 'The Brat'--the Saunders' boys somewhat unflattering nickname for their baby sister--the tired sergeant started back to where he had left the squad. As he walked, memories of his brothers forced themselves to the foreground. Tired mentally and physically, Saunders was unable to accomplish his usual feat of tamping down all thoughts and worries of his two younger brothers.
Joey, four years younger, was now a marine veteran fighting in the Pacific Theater. His last letter mentioned a promotion to lance corporal after a long, bloody campaign in a place called Saipan. Joey spoke of his awe and disgust at the Japanese defenders who either fought to the death or committed suicide rather than surrender.
And then, there was Chris--an eager, young (and yes, stupid in Saunders' mind!) kid who had dropped out of school at seventeen and enlisted. Eight years his junior, Chris along with Joey had been the bane of older brother Chip's adolescence--always tagging along, sticking their noses where they didn't belong or weren't wanted.
Saunders halted in the middle of street and again felt the bone-aching exhaustion descend upon him, accompanied with a sudden chill. It was the same kind of cold that usually signaled impending danger--a kind of sixth sense that Saunders could neither explain, nor had ever mentioned out loud; nevertheless, it was something that he had learned to trust.
Dropping low, Saunders made his way quickly to the far side of the rubble-strewn street. His heart hammering in his chest, the experienced sergeant was surprised to find his hands were trembling and clammy. Taking several deep breaths, he calmed his unexpectedly shaken nerves. He listened intently for the slightest sound and tensed when he heard soft voices approaching. He moved soundlessly toward a recessed doorway and waited.
Checking the safety on his tommygun, Saunders stood as still as a statue until the voices were upon him. Finger on the trigger, he jumped out. "Hold it!"
"Sarge!" Nelson's young voice squeaked out the word. He looked like he had just lost ten years.
Saunders froze. The next instant he felt as if his knees were going to fold under him. "Nelson? Littlejohn? Doc?" He swayed slightly in momentary shock. He'd almost pulled the trigger. Hands were instantly on him, supporting his weight.
"Sarge?" Doc's concerned voice washed over him. "Sarge, you all right?"
Taking a grip on his shaken nerves, Saunders nodded. Breathing deeply, he felt the weakness pass and managed to stand on his own feet. "Sorry...I heard voices...couldn't make out the words."
"That's okay, Sarge," Littlejohn said soothingly. "It could've happened to any of us."
"Sure, Sarge," Nelson chimed on. "I'm just glad it wasn't Kirby."
"Yeah," Littlejohn agreed. "Kirby tends to shoot first and ask questions later."
Saunders nodded, shivering slightly. "How's Daley?"
The others' expressions became immediately downcast. Doc caught his eye and sadly shook his head. "He didn't make it."
Saunders looked away for a moment, and without speaking, turned to go. Wordlessly, the others fell naturally in step behind him. As they walked, Saunders felt Doc's worried eyes on him. What had just happened? He thought of the foreboding sense of impending doom that he had experienced. What had brought it on, he wondered? He had been thinking of his family--Mom, the Brat, and the boys.
The boys, he thought. Had something happened to one of his brothers...?
Chip glared impatiently at the two pairs of identical blue eyes that gazed imploringly back at him.
"Joey! I told you to go home and to take Chris with you!"
Eyes narrowed, Joey raised his small chin in defiance and placed his hands on his hips, a mirror to his older brother's stance. "No! We want to go with you."
Meanwhile, at Chip's harsh words, six-year-old Chris's face crumpled in tears. His chin hung down to his chest, and his small shoulders shook. Chip sighed in annoyance. Not again! He watched as Chris rubbed a tiny fist across his eyes, and felt a momentary stab of guilt. Why did his brothers always have to tagalong after him? It wasn't fair!
"Come on, Chip!" Tommy Benton called, his face as red as his hair. "The rest of the gang's waiting!"
Chip hesitated, undecided over what to do.
"Don't you like us anymore, Chip?" Chris asked, his voice breaking in soft gulps.
Chip felt as if he'd just been punched in the stomach. Little Chris could just twist his oldest brother's insides with a wide-eyed look and a brokenhearted sniffle. As for Joey, the quiet middle brother rarely spoke these days--not since their father's death; therefore, his open defiance took Chip by surprise, easily breaching the older boy's defenses.
"Chip! Are you coming or ain'tcha?" Tommy repeated.
Looking at his younger brothers' hurt expressions, Chip ran a hand through his shock of wheat-colored hair and shook his head. "Nah, Tommy, go on without me. Tell the gang I have some stuff to do for my mom."
Gazing down at Chris, Chip playfully ruffled the small boy's blond head and took his hand in his. Turning to Joey, Chip placed his other hand on his brother's shoulder and gave it a slight squeeze. He felt a surge of warmth when his two brothers each gave him a huge smile.
"You fellas feel like sharing a root beer float?"
At their eager nods, Saunders smiled in his sleep...
A hand on his shoulder woke him. Startled, Saunders shot out of his cot like a cannon. Chris! Joey! The cry died in his throat before he had a chance to utter his brothers' names.
"Sarge! It's me, Billy!" Nelson's whispered call came from behind Saunders. "You asked me to wake you when I came off duty, remember?"
Chest heaving, Saunders found himself standing in the midst of his sleeping men. The squad was bedded down in a miraculously dry cellar that Caje had somehow managed to find in the smoking ruins of the village. Swallowing back the bile that suddenly threatened, Saunders ran a hand through his hair and nodded.
Relieved that his sergeant was all right, Nelson nudged his arm. "Here," he said, handing Saunders a cup of coffee. At his squad leader's questioning look, he added, "Compliments of Sergeant Morris." Morris was the King Company mess sergeant. "He says that breakfast will be ready at 0430 hours."
Taking the coffee cup, Saunders took a grateful sip. It was just the way he liked it, black and hot. "What time is it?"
Nelson checked his watch. "It's 0345 hours."
Lighting a cigarette, Saunders took a deep drag and then exhaled a long stream of smoke. "Thanks."
Nelson nodded and headed toward his bunk.
Walking outside, Saunders sat down on the remains of one of the building's outer walls. Memories of his father came in a flood: Dad and the three boys on a 'men only' camping trip. Dad yelling encouragement at six-year-old Chip who wobbled unsteadily on his first solo bike ride. Dad explaining to Joey the finer points of a batter's stance. Dad carrying Chris on his shoulders at the county fair the last summer before--
Saunders forcefully wrenched his thoughts back to the present. Hands shaking, he fished out another cigarette and lit it from the remains of the first. Smoking quietly, he concentrated on the coming day. He recalled Hanley's words that S-2 suspected an enemy build up and possible attack in Sector Charlie. If that were the case, then Saunders' entire focus would have to remain on the here and now. The lives of his men depended on it.
Effectively reminded of his responsibilities, Saunders turned back to the cellar. It was time to wake his men and get them ready for whatever lay ahead.
The squad leaders meeting at 0500 hours went about as expected. The 361st was moving up to Line Crossbow and digging in. King Company would provide security on the regiment's right flank. Second Platoon was tasked with providing the company with four forward emplaced listening posts and continuous patrols.
"The patrols are to avoid any contact with the enemy," Hanley said. "We need to know where the Germans are and in which direction they're coming. Four days ago, the Krauts launched an attack along Sector Able--"
"Sector Able?" Saunders asked. "Isn't that the 253rd's area of operations?" At Hanley's affirmative nod, Saunders glanced away quickly, making a brief show of lighting a cigarette. The 253rd was their sister regiment--and his brother Chris's unit.
Hanley gave his friend a thoughtful look, but when Saunders said nothing further, he returned to the briefing.
"Regimental S-2 believes that the attack along Able was little more than a probe, which the 253rd successfully stopped in its tracks. Unfortunately, four days is also plenty of time for the enemy to have tested our defenses and adjusted their operations plans." Hanley's intense gaze held the four NCOs in place. "From Saunders' patrol last night our intelligence believes that the Krauts' probable avenue of approach will now be through Sector Charlie--through us in other words. Our job will be to find them, report their locations, and stop them. Any questions?"
The four sergeants all shook their heads.
"In that case, second and third squads will each provide two L.P.'s along this line..." Hanley used the pencil he was holding and pointed out four possible locations for the listening posts. "In addition, first and fourth squads will provide continuous patrols in the sector." Hanley took a marker and drew a line that bisected their area of operations along a north-south axis. He marked the left side 'Arrow' and the right 'Quiver.'
"Saunders, your responsibility is 'Arrow.' McKay, yours is 'Quiver.' If you spot the enemy's movement, radio the information, then make it back to friendly lines as quickly as possible." Hanley's expression became grim. "I don't have to remind you that as soon as we receive their location, we're going to open up with our artillery."
"And we could be caught by friendly fire," McKay said unnecessarily.
"Somehow when it's raining down on me," Sgt. Jennings, the second squad leader said dryly, "it never strikes me as being overtly friendly in the least." The others exchanged humorless glances.
"If there are no questions," Hanley said, "you're dismissed." The four sergeants each gave Hanley somewhat casual salutes, which he returned just as nonchalantly.
As the NCOs shuffled out, Hanley's clerk called. "Lieutenant Hanley, Captain Jampel on the landline."
Nodding, Hanley picked up the field phone. "Lieutenant Hanley." As he listened, Hanley's intent expression slowly changed, going from grim to shocked to sad. At last, he nodded, his eyes downcast. "Yes, sir. I understand." He paused, listening. "No, sir...I'll inform him myself. What's that? A chaplain on the way here?" Pause. "How long ago did he leave?" Pause. "Oh, then he should be arriving shortly." Pause. "Yes, sir...I'll wait. Sir...how about R and R? I don't think he should go out--"
Hanley listened, his emotions warring with pain and anger. Finally, his green eyes flashed in outrage. "Now a wait a minute, Sir! He's the best NCO I've got! But something like this--!" Hanley stopped abruptly, his jaw set. "Very well, Sir. I understand. Out."
Taking a deep breath, Hanley slowly brought his hand up and rubbed his temples. Sometimes he hated his job.
Kirby and Littlejohn walked back to their squad area, their arms laden with ammo and supplies for three days. All the way to the supply tent and back Kirby let Littlejohn know exactly how he felt about being treated as little better than a beast of burden.
"Yes, sir!" Kirby grumbled. "Pack mules, Littlejohn. That's all we are to Sarge." Kirby looked up at his considerably taller companion, and to emphasize his point, he perfectly mimicked their squad leader. "Kirby! Littlejohn! Get on down to the supply depot and draw out enough ammo and supplies for three days. Oh, and once you've got enough stuff to break a horse's back, haul it back here."
"Why don't you say it a little louder, Kirby?" Littlejohn asked dryly. "I don't think the Krauts heard you."
"Huh! That all you got to say? I'm telling ya, pal...this is abuse of power!"
Littlejohn laughed. "Sarge? Abusing his power? Kirby, I think you're finally going over the deep end."
"Oh, yeah? Well, just you wait. You'll see...just mark my words. He's gonna have one of us carry the radio and--!"
"So?" Littlejohn scoffed. "Kirby, that's our job. We all take turns. You know that."
"All right. Okay. Bad example." Kirby's face lit in a sudden thought. "I know...How about the binoculars?"
"What about the binoculars?"
"Have you ever noticed how Sarge always has one of us carry the binoculars for him?" Kirby challenged.
"That's crazy! I've seen Sarge carry his own binoculars. He usually keeps them inside his jacket."
Kirby gave Littlejohn an annoyed look. "Well...what about his bayonet?" Kirby demanded. "Why doesn't he carry his own bayonet? He's always borrowing one of ours! I'm telling you, Littlejohn...Sarge--"
"--Doesn't have a bayonet," Littlejohn interrupted.
"Sarge doesn't have a bayonet because he uses a tommygun. You know a Thompson's barrel isn't fitted for a bayonet."
Kirby looked at Littlejohn, deflated. "It isn't?"
Littlejohn shook his head. "No, it isn't."
"Aw...shut up, ya big ox! What do you know?" The smaller man stomped off in a huff.
"I know enough not to listen to anything you say." Grinning, Littlejohn hurried to catch up. As he did, a jeep pulled up next to him.
"Excuse me, soldier!"
Still laughing at Kirby's back, Littlejohn took a moment to turn and face the jeep's occupant. Realizing that the passenger was a major, Littlejohn immediately straightened, assuming the position of 'attention.' He struggled to salute the senior officer by awkwardly shifting the heavy boxes of ammunition to one hand. When that didn't work, he started to put the ammo down, but the major stopped him.
"As you were, soldier," the major said. "I'm looking for Lieutenant Hanley, Second Platoon. Any chance you might know where I can find him?"
"Uh--yessir, Major!" Littlejohn stammered. "You'll find the lieutenant at the platoon C.P., up this road about five buildings down. You can't miss it. It's the only building that still has all four walls."
The major chuckled at the matter-of-fact description. "Thank you. By the way, what's your name, Private?"
"Very well, Private Littlejohn. We're having a nondenominational service before the company moves out."
"Service, Sir?" Littlejohn asked. It was at that moment that he noticed the Chaplain Corps insignia on the major's collar.
Smiling, the chaplain added just as the jeep began to pull away. "Yes, over by the field kitchen. Spread the word for me!" As the jeep moved off with a roar, the chaplain gave a final wave.
Kirby came up behind him. "Hey, you big ox! What's been keeping you? The Sarge sent me to find you, and let me tell you...he's in a mood and a half. He chewed me out a new one and the sun ain't even up yet!"
"So what else is new?" Littlejohn asked. Before Kirby could respond, Littlejohn continued. "Say, Kirby, when's the last time we had us a chaplain make a special trip to the front? You know...to hold services before we kicked off an advance?"
"I don't know...St. Lo, maybe?" Kirby looked at his friend with concern. "Why?"
Littlejohn explained about the chaplain's presence and the upcoming nondenominational service. Kirby became thoughtful.
"I don't like it, Littlejohn. If the big brass is sending a chaplain to pray for us and ask for divine intervention, you can bet they've already figured that the odds ain't so good."
"Aw, Kirby. Why do you always have to look at the bad side of things?" Littlejohn asked. He shouldered his burden and started again for the squad's location, Kirby following.
"I look on the bad side of things?" Kirby asked rhetorically. "Well, let me see...We ain't got no women and no booze. There's a Kraut out there with a bullet with my name on it--"
"And now some Bible-thumper is gonna pray for me 'cause the Brass thinks we're gonna get our butts kicked!"
Littlejohn shook his head at Kirby's conclusions. "How do you arrive at that idea?" Before Kirby could answer, they spotted Saunders heading in the direction of the platoon C.P.
"Hey, now there's one bright spot!" Kirby said. At Littlejohn's look, Kirby explained. "As long as Sarge isn't back with the squad when we arrive with the ammo, he won't be able to chew us out."
Littlejohn grimaced at Kirby's selfish musings. "Hanley probably sent for the sarge to let him know about the services." As far as Littlejohn was concerned, a service prior to moving out sounded like a nice idea. On the other hand, what if Kirby was right? What if the chaplain's presence did not bode well for the squad?
Saunders stared at the chaplain, uncomprehending. What was his name? Fox, Saunders recalled, Major Fox, the regimental chaplain. Why was he here though? What had he said a moment ago? What was he saying now?
To Saunders' frustration the major's lips were moving, but the sergeant couldn't hear his words. He felt strangely displaced, as if physically separated from his body. He turned to Hanley to see if the lieutenant could help clarify the chaplain's words. However, to Saunders' annoyance he couldn't make out what Hanley was saying either.
Saunders shook his head. Was this some kind of gag? What were the officers trying to pull? He started backing up, his heart pounding in his chest. Breaking out in a sudden cold sweat, he promptly wiped his forehead with his sleeve. He felt the room begin to spin, closing in on him. Panicking, he struggled against an intense need to be outside...to get away, to be anywhere but here.
Major Fox grabbed him by the sleeve. The chaplain's lips were still moving, but Saunders shook him off. "No!" he shouted, refusing to listen. With all the strength he could muster, the young NCO shoved the major away from him, pushing him against Hanley who instinctively caught him.
Moving as if in slow motion, Saunders started for the door. The exit appeared distorted as if viewed from the wrong end of a telescope. "No!" he shouted again. He didn't know why he was panicking. He didn't know why he was yelling. Or why the tears were running down his cheeks unchecked.
No! Chris isn't dead! He can't be dead. He's just a kid...just a kid.
Saunders finally reached the door only to be seized from behind by two pairs of hands. Falling backwards, he fought like a cornered animal but was easily subdued. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he realized that Hanley was holding him pinned to the floor, unwilling to let him go.
"...It's going to be all right," Hanley was saying over and over, the sound of his voice finally breaking through the red haze that had surrounded Saunders. At first the lieutenant's voice was little more than an insistent murmur, remaining in the background as Saunders fought back. At last, it became a comforting mantra, a soothing balm to the disconsolate noncom who finally lay still, exhausted by his struggles.
"Saunders...I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
At Hanley's soft words, Saunders turned his head into the protection of his friend's arms and the usually stoic noncom broke down. What about Mom? Who's going to take care of her? Saunders' shoulders shook violently, wracked by sobs. He didn't care who saw or knew. The pain was just too raw to hold inside. As he let his grief spill, Saunders felt Hanley's arms tighten and hold him closer.
Chris is dead. My baby brother is dead.
Saunders remembered holding Chris for the first time the day their mother brought him home from the hospital. From that moment forward, eight-year-old Chip had done everything in his power to protect him. Later, he took to heart his dying father's wish that he love his youngest brother in his place.
And for what? So that Chris's life would be wasted on some nameless hill in this lousy war?
"...be all right," Hanley murmured above him. Quieting down, Saunders blinked rapidly to clear his blurry vision. He wiped his face with sleeve and hesitantly looked up at his friend. Hanley's look of deep compassion pierced Saunders deeply.
It would be so easy to just let go. To quit. To let his grief take over. But he couldn't. He had a squad to take care of. Men whose lives depended on him. A mission to complete. He didn't have time to grieve.
Maybe later, he thought. Yeah...there'll be plenty of time later. A lifetime of laters.
Taking a moment to get his emotions under control, Saunders took a deep breath and sat up. Refusing the instant offer of help, he stood on his own, his movements slow and deliberate. Keeping his back to the two worried officers, Saunders shouldered his Thompson and lit a cigarette. His hands shook slightly, the only sign of his ordeal. He took several puffs before he could trust himself to speak.
"Thank you, Major." Saunders' voice was little more than a raspy whisper. "For coming here, and--" He couldn't go on. Instead, he brought the cigarette up to his lips and took refuge behind the act of smoking.
"Sergeant Saunders, I'll be holding a prayer service in another few minutes. Why don't you join us? In remembrance of your brother?"
Saunders shook his head wordlessly. He wasn't ready. He wondered if he ever would be.
"I understand, Sergeant." Saunders still had his back to them, so Fox gave Hanley a helpless shrug. "However...and I believe that Lieutenant Hanley would agree with me in this...I feel that the best thing for you right now is to be sent to the rear for a few days rest--"
At the chaplain's words, Saunders stiffened immediately, and he whirled on the officers. "Nobody's sending me back! You got that!" He glared first at Fox, then at Hanley.
"Saunders, are you sure?" Hanley asked, worried. "Nobody expects you to--"
"I expect me to, Lieutenant." And Chris expects me to, Saunders added silently.
Seeing a familiar stubborn set to the noncom's jaw, Hanley nodded in acquiescence. He had seen that same grim look of determination in Saunders' eyes often enough, usually to the detriment of the Germans, to know better than to argue with him.
Feeling suddenly empty inside, Saunders turned away. Leaning on the door, he pressed his forehead against its cool, rough surface. "Lieutenant?"
"Yes?" Hanley was immediately behind him, his hand on his friend's shoulder.
Unable to articulate his feelings, Saunders said, "Thanks," and walked out.
The two officers stood, momentarily staring at the closed door. Finally, Major Fox turned to Hanley. "Lieutenant, I strongly recommend that you send that man to the rear. He is no condition for combat."
Feeling in his gut that Fox was right, Hanley nevertheless defended Saunders' decision. "He's a grown man, Major. He knows the risks...just like the rest of us." And I'll be right there next to him each step of the way.
Saunders slouched against a tree, a respectful distance from the gathered faithful. He removed his camouflage-covered helmet and tucked it under his arm. He was impatient to move out. His eyes critically studied the pink and gold horizon, announcing the coming day. He checked his watch--0545 hours.
How long would the chaplain continue to talk? He'd already petitioned the All Mighty for just about everything except weapons that fired straight and true. Maybe asking the Heavenly Father to assist in the killing of another human being was not construed to be in good taste by The Powers That Be.
Saunders shrugged. Personally, he thought they were wasting time. They could have been halfway to their objective by now. His hand went unconsciously to his right hand pocket, and he drew out a crumpled cigarette packet. About to take one out, he suddenly remembered himself. Whether he thought the prayer service was a waste of time or not, most of the men appreciated the chaplain's efforts.
Grimacing, Saunders shoved the pack of Lucky Strikes back into his pocket. He was about to walk away, when Major Fox's soothing voice brought him up short.
"The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?"
Saunders felt as if he'd been sucker-punched. The Psalms had been as much a part of his childhood while growing up as Sunday school, dunking for apples at the Halloween carnival, and the family's annual Christmas carol singalong.
He remembered his hometown of Cleveland, Illinois as a tight-knit, God-fearing community, built along the banks of the Rock River. It lay just east of the Illinois-Iowa border, and boasted a population of slightly under a thousand. Everyone knew his neighbor, and no one ever locked his door.
Every Sunday for as long as Saunders could remember, his family had sat in the second pew at church during worship service. Furthermore, he recalled how this particular passage from Psalm 27 had been his father's favorite...
"...Though a host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear: though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident."
Major Fox's voice blended with Saunders' memories of his father, leading the family in Sunday evening prayers...
"...Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord. Amen."
The chorus of "Amens" from the gathered assembly brought Saunders back to the present.
"'My light and my salvation,'" Saunders muttered bitterly. Where were You when Chris needed You, huh? And what about Dad? He loved You! Believed in You! So did Mom...even after You took her husband. But You weren't satisfied, were You? No...You had to take one of her sons! Well, why didn't you take me? I'm the oldest! Why Chris? He was just a kid...You never even gave him a chance.
Feeling his emotions spiraling out of control, Saunders took out a cigarette, his hands shaking. Jamming it between his lips, he struggled to light it, flicking his Zippo several times before finally succeeding. At this point, he was beyond caring whether he offended anyone. Inhaling a lungful of smoke, he blew out a long, unsteady stream. After a few minutes, he felt as if his nerves were finally under control.
At least, his hands weren't shaking anymore.
Hanley's eyes scanned the terrain in a steady, systematic sweep. An hour earlier, the platoon had been dropped off a mile from its objective, and thirty minutes later, the four squads had split off toward their respective objectives. Hanley opted to remain with first squad.
Saunders had given his platoon leader a stare devoid of any expression. If he suspected that Hanley was "mother-henning" him, the noncom showed no indication. Instead, he called out, "Caje, take the point. Nelson, take the rear. Everybody, keep your eyes open. Remember...avoid direct contact."
At his soldiers' nods, Saunders waved his arm in a casual forward motion and ordered, "Move out!"
Thus far, the patrol had been without incident. If Hanley didn't know better, he would swear that the Germans had up and left the area. However, he did know better and, therefore, continued his methodical sweep of the woods around them. Still, Hanley's mind was never far from Saunders. He studied his friend's back, gauging his posture in an attempt to get a read on him.
Hanley had to admit that Saunders seemed to be doing his job without any problem. The experienced officer would never go so far as to say that the sergeant was taking the news of his brother's death in stride, but he did not seem to be letting his personal loss affect his performance.
The lieutenant's private musings came to an abrupt halt when Caje suddenly appeared ahead. The scout waved and then signaled, "Enemy spotted."
Saunders immediately waved everyone into cover and ran toward Caje to investigate, Hanley following closely at his heels. Caje silently led them to a point where they could observe the enemy without being seen themselves. Both Hanley and Saunders took out a pair of binoculars and studied the situation.
Hanley quickly spotted a machinegun emplacement at their ten o'clock. It was dug in at the base of the hill just ahead and had a clear field of fire that included the trail the squad had been on.
Caje pointed out a second machinegun located at their two o'clock. Hanley sighed. The guns' fields of fire intersected neatly. If the squad had wandered into that, he reflected, they would've all been cut to pieces in the crossfire.
Hanley felt a tug on his sleeve and looked questioningly at Saunders. The sergeant was pointing approximately fifty feet up the slope at a heavily wooded area that seemed devoid of activity. Hanley studied the location for what seemed a long time, but he finally spotted what Saunders had indicated: a third machinegun emplacement.
Saunders handed his field glasses to Caje who took a good, long look at the well-camouflaged gun. The scout sighed and shook his head. He had not spotted it earlier. Taking back the binoculars, Saunders signaled they should head back.
When they returned to the rest of the squad, Saunders was immediately bombarded with whispered questions.
"What's up, Sarge?" Kirby.
"How many?" Nelson.
"What are we gonna do?" Doc.
Saunders held up a hand to forestall any further questions. He looked at Hanley first to see if the lieutenant wanted to take charge. The noncom and platoon leader held each other's eyes for a moment. Finally, Hanley nodded at Saunders to proceed.
"Okay, here's the situation," Saunders began and quickly outlined the problem before them.
"Three machineguns?" Kirby hissed. "We're not gonna--?"
"Shut up, Kirby!" Saunders snapped. "We don't have a lot of choice. We'll have to take them out. Our only chance will be to flank them from two different directions and come up behind them in order to get some grenades in."
"But, three--?" Kirby protested. "Sarge, it's suicide!"
Saunders fought a sudden urge to deck the BAR man. He didn't have time for debate! Lives were at stake! They had yet to spot the enemy's movement and time was running out. He was about to tell Kirby to shut up again, when he was beaten to the punch by Caje.
"Kirby, it'd be suicide to leave the machineguns there. If we try to bypass them, they might spot us." Caje held up his hand before Kirby could make a comeback. "We'd be cut down for sure then."
Kirby grumbled something unintelligible but nodded grudgingly. At the BAR man's acceptance of the inevitable, Saunders began to outline his plan of attack.
"Kirby, Nelson...you two will give us covering fire. Caje, Littlejohn...you'll take the gun on the right flank. Hummel...you're on me. Baum, Lieutenant?"
Hanley raised his eyebrows. "Yes?"
Saunders hesitated, obviously uncomfortable with giving his platoon leader orders. "Saunders, this is your patrol. You're in command. I'm only along for the ride."
Nodding, Saunders said, "Lieutenant, you and Baum will move out with us and take a position behind the gun on the left flank. Hummel and I'll move on up the slope to the third gun. Doc?"
"I know," Doc said with a long-suffering sigh. "I'll take a position behind Kirby and Billy."
Saunders gave him a sympathetic smile before he turned to Kirby and Nelson. "Once we drop you off in position, you'll give us ten minutes. Then you'll open up with all you've got. Any questions?"
"Yeah, where do I send my Last Will and Testament?" Kirby asked sarcastically.
At Kirby's words, Saunders reacted as if he had been slapped. Then, to the squad's astonishment, the usually imperturbable sergeant spun on his heel and walked off. He almost stumbled against a tree and leaned on it for support.
"What'd I say?" Kirby looked at the others in wide-eyed shock.
"Shut up, Kirby!" Hanley snapped. He waved the men to again take up positions along the trail they had been on and walked toward Saunders. Unsure of what to say, Hanley stood awkwardly behind his friend. Not for the first time, he cursed the need for military discipline and the wedge it maintained between them. Struggling for words, Hanley spoke in a soft voice. "Saunders?"
"Maybe he's right, Lieutenant," Saunders murmured. "Maybe I am just sending them all to their deaths." He whirled suddenly. "Well, I can't do it! I won't!" He took two steps away. "I'm sick of sending buddies to get their tails shot off, d'you hear? I'm sick of writing letters to their families, and telling them that their son is dead, and it's my fault!"
"Saunders!" Hanley's sharp, no-nonsense voice was full of authority, brooking no argument. "This isn't the time, Sergeant!" He took a step toward his friend and lowered his voice. "Saunders, your plan is sound. It's the only chance we have." Saunders kept his face turned away, refusing to listen. Hanley sighed. "Sergeant, are you relinquishing command of your squad?"
At Hanley's words, Saunders visibly shook, struggling with his inner turmoil. He slowly clenched his right hand and brought it up midway. Taking a deep breath, Saunders shook his head.
"No sir...I'm not." Straightening his shoulders, Saunders pushed his helmet low over his eyes, and taking a tighter grip on his tommygun, headed back to his men. "Saddle up. We're moving out."
The squad obeyed his orders automatically; however, they could not help but cast worried glances his way. What had just happened? They wondered. They looked toward Hanley for reassurance, but he purposely kept his expression neutral.
Like he had told Saunders, now was not the time.
Saunders and Hummel moved quickly through the silent, shadowy woods. The two men easily leapfrogged from tree trunk to low-lying brush to dead log, their movements smooth and certain. When Hummel had first joined the squad, Saunders had been unsure about the young soldier. The fact that Hummel reminded him so much of Chris had initially led the NCO to being overly protective. However, once the seventeen-year-old had proved his mettle, Saunders treated him with the same trust and respect as the rest of the squad.
For his part Hummel had shown the others that his relative youth had nothing to do with being dependable in a firefight, nor with demonstrating uncommon bravery when there was a need for it. Since that time, Saunders had rarely given Hummel's age any further consideration. That is, until today...now, in fact!
When they reached their objective, just to the right and behind the third machinegun nest, Saunders gave Hummel a hand signal, indicating that he wanted him to lie low until further notice. Saunders also signaled that he was going to crawl even closer to the enemy position.
As Saunders turned to go, Hummel grabbed him by the arm and made it clear that he did not understand his orders. From this location--almost thirty meters away and with no clear field of fire--his M-1 would be useless. What if Saunders needed help? Hummel would not be able to provide adequate supporting fire. Therefore, his eyes clearly expressed his disagreement with Saunders' judgment.
Saunders glared at the soldier, his cold blue eyes cutting through him like a surgeon's knife. Without words or hand signals, the veteran sergeant let the private know in no uncertain terms that he was to obey his orders or else.
Unable to hold his squad leader's icy stare, Hummel soon dropped his eyes; however, his jaw clenched at this abrupt, lack of confidence on the part of Saunders. He could only wonder at what he had done to earn Saunders' sudden distrust. Swallowing, he watched as his squad leader moved forward. Taking a deep breath, Hummel shook his head and brought his M-1 up to provide cover.
"For all the good it'll do," he muttered.
Satisfied that the boy would obey his orders (and that was all Hummel really was, wasn't he, a boy?), Saunders began the final approach to his objective--a fallen log approximately five meters from the machinegun nest. Just as he settled behind the log, Kirby and Nelson opened up. He was glad when they did, because he had just started to regret leaving Hummel behind and was about to wave him forward.
As it were, as soon as Kirby and Nelson started firing, the Germans responded in kind. The woods rang with the sharp, staccato notes of heavy machinegun fire and the rapid discharge of semi-automatic weapons. Bringing his tommygun up to bear, Saunders sighted quickly and fired off a short burst. Behind him, Hummel's M-1 fired sporadically.
That's because you tied one hand behind his back. Saunders berated himself silently. The kid can't hit what he can't aim at. Then again, Saunders added, if he can't see them, maybe they won't be able to see him.
Saunders ducked as a sudden fusillade raked his position. That's right, you lousy Krauts! Shoot at me! Leave the kid alone! Risking a glance back toward Hummel, Saunders dared hope that maybe he would be able to get this one home. It was the least he could do for his brother.
Rolling on his back, Saunders took out two grenades, and laid one down carefully in front of him. Pulling the pin from the other, he reached his arm back as far he could, released the handle, counted to three, and threw with all his might. Ducking behind the log, he curled into a ball, held his helmet tighter over his head, and waited for the explosion.
With debris still raining down on him, Saunders was about to repeat the process, when a sudden cry from behind him caused him to spin around quickly. As he did, Saunders was forced to stare into the very depths of his own soul. Hummel gaped back, his eyes wide with disbelief.
"Sarge...?" he whimpered.
Saunders froze in place, unable to look away from the growing scarlet stain on Hummel's chest. A heartbeat later, the young private's eyes glazed over. Saunders slowly shook his head. This could not be happening, not again. Not now. As if from a great distance, Saunders heard the sound of battle roaring all around him.
First Chris, he thought dully. And now Hummel...
The words of the chaplain's sermon rang in his head: "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid...?"
Something snapped inside him.
Tearing his eyes away from the dead soldier's accusing glare, Saunders jumped to his feet and ran headlong toward the machinegun nest. Firing blindly with his Thompson, he swept the fortified position with a long, angry burst, taking any enemy soldiers that his grenade had missed earlier. When he emptied the clip, he quickly reloaded and fired another long volley.
Somewhere, something registered in the numbed recesses of his brain that his tommygun was jammed. He was about to perform the necessary steps to clear the weapon, when the sharp, syncopated report of heavy arms fire coming from the left and right caught his attention. Hanley and Baum were pinned down to his right, while Littlejohn and Caje were exchanging fire with the enemy to his left.
Glancing around wildly, his eyes fell upon the abandoned German machinegun. Not taking time to think, Saunders tossed aside his useless Thompson and hurriedly picked up the heavy weapon. He inspected it with a calm self-assurance, checked the safety, and the ammo link for proper feed. Satisfied, he swung it around, sighted down the barrel and fired at the enemy gun crew that had Hanley and Baum pinned down. His actions gave the two men the opening they needed to throw a couple of grenades and take out the gun.
But Saunders had already turned to the other machinegun emplacement. Sighting down the barrel, he realized that a tree stood in his way, blocking his field of fire. Grimacing, Saunders climbed out of the dugout position and picked up the machinegun. Firing the weapon from the hip, Saunders ran toward the last emplacement, disregarding any danger to himself.
Of course, the Germans did not expect to be caught in enfilade from their rear. Therefore, the battle was over even before Saunders ran out of ammo. The enemy soldiers were dead long before the last of the ammo was expended, but when the smoke finally cleared, Saunders could not remember firing the weapon, much less why he was holding it.
For the rest of his life, Saunders would never be able to clearly recall the events of the past few minutes. Whenever the matter was brought up, his men would speak of their squad leader's act of valor in hushed tones. As for Hanley, the platoon leader took Saunders aside and locked his heels. He then proceeded to chew him out until he ran out of sufficiently descriptive expletives to explain just how stupid, how irresponsible, the supposedly intelligent noncom had acted.
"Were you trying to get yourself killed?" Hanley roared. Not waiting for an answer, he added, "I ought to have you court-martialed! Of all the crazy, imbecilic stunts...!"
Saunders' stance, little more than a slouch, did not project an appropriately respectful note. Of course, this only made Hanley all the angrier. Worse, Saunders appeared not to be listening to his platoon leader's tirade. If Hanley had taken a moment to closely inspect Saunders' eyes, he might have realized that the young sergeant was in shock. Hummel's death had finally brought home to Saunders the death of his own brother.
He had associated Hummel with Chris from the start, and losing both boys for all intents on the same day had taken its toll. Saunders was near a state of total collapse and his body was simply shutting down.
Thus, Hanley's words were lost to Saunders much like the chaplain's had been. Saunders saw Hanley's mouth move, but try as he might, he was not able to make out the words. As the darkness began its slow descent to claim him, Saunders' only awareness was that of Hummel's accusing stare. In his mind's eye, he could still hear the mournful echo of Hummel's last cry.
"Sarge...?" To Saunders, the single word rang with condemnation.
Pitching forward into his startled platoon leader's arms, Saunders' world at last faded to black.
Chip sat in Mr. Logan's eighth grade English class. More athlete than scholar, Chip nonetheless enjoyed reading. Besides, Mr. Logan somehow made even Charles Dickens sound interesting. As Chip listened, Mr. Logan clarified a point that another student had raised.
"...By stating that these were 'the best of times and the worst of times,' Charles Dickens is saying that..."
Chip leaned forward on his desk. He had not entirely understood the opening lines to A Tale of Two Cities, but had felt a kind of discernment at an instinctive level.
"...The revolution was a result of the oppressed population's desire for freedom and democracy. Thus, it was the best of times," Mr. Logan explained. "On the other hand, it ended in the bloody aftermath of the Reign of Terror--the worst of times."
As Mr. Logan spoke, Chip nodded slowly, coming to a new understanding. There were times that even the best intentions resulted in tragic consequences. As he dutifully took notes, Chip's thoughts inexplicably turned to Chris. Trying to concentrate on his work, Chip's handwriting became shaky. He felt a sudden, cold fist squeeze his intestines and his breathing became rapid.
Feeling as if he were going to be sick right there in the middle of class, Chip dropped his pen and brought his hand up to his forehead. It was beaded with sweat.
What was wrong with him? One minute he was minding his own business taking notes in class, and the next he felt as if someone had just walked on his grave. He suddenly froze in place as if listening.
Without having to be told, Chip knew his little brother was in trouble. Jumping out of his seat, the boy headed out of the classroom.
"Chip!" Mr. Logan called sharply. "Where do you think you're going!"
But Chip was already gone. He ran down the school's main corridor. Without bothering to stop, he slammed through the outer doors and dashed madly across the playground.
Spotting a crowd of first graders gathered around the monkey bars, Chip sprinted in that direction. Shoving his way through the crowd of smaller children, he searched vainly for his brother.
"Chris!" he called. "Chris!" He grabbed one of Chris's classmates. "Where's my brother?" he demanded, shaking the smaller boy.
"Over there." Although rattled by the shaking, the boy managed to point toward the monkey bars. "He fell. I think he's dead."
Pushing the boy aside, Chip hurried forward. By then the principal Mrs. Johnson and the school nurse were also pushing their way through.
"First Grade!" Mrs. Johnson called. "Children, I want you to line up quietly outside of your classroom." Seeing no one move, she added sharply, "Now!" Instantly, the children began moving away.
"Chris!" Chip called, his voice rising in panic. "Chris!" At last, he broke through the front and found his brother lying deathly still at the base of the monkey bars. Chip swallowed. Without having seen what happened, he knew. The week before, Chris had stood and watched as Chip showed off on the bars before a group of friends. He had performed handstands, flips, and other feats of daring do. Swaggering, Chip had then warned his brother to stay off the bars. "It's too dangerous," he'd said.
I might as well have dangled a carrot in front of him, Chip rebuked himself. Feeling tears coming dangerously close to the surface, the older boy dropped down on his knees next to his brother. Nurse Mason was gently examining the unconscious boy.
"Chris?" Chip whispered. "Please wake up. Come on, Chris...wake up." Chip's voice shook with fear. "Chris...please?" Tears coursing down his cheeks, Chip felt the walls that he had carefully built around his emotions since his father's death begin to crumble...
Knowing that the end was near, Chip's father had exhorted him to look after his mother, two brothers and baby sister. "You're the oldest," his father had reminded him, each word and breath a struggle against the deadly killer that was eating away at his lungs. "You'll be the man of the house." The elder Saunders closed his eyes against the strain, his chest rising and falling in short, shallow breaths. "You're a born leader, son. But you can't do it alone. Joey's a good kid...dependable. Treat him fair and he'll mind you..." He paused, gasping for air. Eyes closed, he grabbed Chip's wrist with a vise-like grip. "The younger ones--Chris and Louise. Son, they just need to be loved. Please...love them for me..."
Wiping his tears with annoyance, Chip felt a new resolve building within him. "Chris!" he called sharply. "Now you get up this instant! You hear me? Dad left me in charge, remember? You're supposed to mind me!" Chip paused to once again wipe the tears that wouldn't stop coming. "Chris, please! You've gotta wake up. We need you! Who's gonna help the Brat say her prayers? You know how she can't say 'em without you holding her hand. And anyway, it's your turn this week to watch her. And don't think for one minute that you're gonna worm your way out of it!"
When Chris failed to respond to his pleas, Chip felt his newfound resolve begin to falter. Hesitantly, he lightly brushed back Chris's gold bangs. "Come on, Chris. You've gotta wake up. Please, Buddy...I need you...!"
Eyes clenched shut, Chip's shoulders shook with silent sobs. He'd given Dad his word that he would take care of his family and he'd failed. Chris would never have tried the monkey bars if Chip hadn't shown off in front of him. This was all his fault.
Startled by the soft murmur, Chip looked down at his brother. Chris's eyes were open but unfocused.
"Daddy?" Chris repeated.
"Chris, it's me, Chip." Chip spoke in a low voice. Forcing a smile, he added, "You really gave me a scare there, kiddo."
Chris blinked, focusing on his older brother. "Chip?"
"I-I thought I heard Daddy's voice. He called me 'Buddy' like he used to." Chris looked sad as a sudden realization hit him. "I guess I must've dreamed it."
Remembering that in his moment of desperation, he had called Chris by their father's pet nickname for him, Chip only said, "Yeah, Chris...I guess you must've."
"I really miss him, Chip."
Showing no outward sign of the torrential storm whirling within him, Chip nodded. "Yeah...me, too."
"Chip...?" Chris's clear blue eyes gazed steadily at his older brother. "I'm sure glad that you're my brother." With those words, the youngest Saunders boy closed his eyes.
Mrs. Johnson laid a hand on Chip's shoulder indicating that it was time to go in. Not daring to speak out loud, Chip again nodded. Mr. Logan, who had been summoned by a student runner, made a move to pick up Chris, but Chip shouldered him out of the way. Lifting Chris in his arms, he gently nuzzled his brother's cheek with his own and carried him inside...
A single tear dropped silently out of the corner of the sleeping sergeant's eye. "Chris," he whispered.
His sense of touch returned first, much to his annoyance. Someone was slapping him on the face, lightly at first but with growing insistence. Feeling peevish, he swatted ineffectually at the offending hand.
"Sarge! Sarge, wake up!"
There was certainly nothing wrong with his hearing, either. Why couldn't they leave him alone and let him sleep? He was so tired. The darkness beckoned to him, promising to warmly embrace him like one of his mother's homemade quilts on a cold, wintry morning.
He turned away in protest, but the voice followed him with increased urgency. At last, the irritating slaps combined with the persistent voice succeeded in yanking him back from oblivion.
When he opened his eyes, Saunders came to immediate awareness. Doc's look of concern instantly changed to one of relief.
"Boy, you sure had me worried there, Sarge," he said with a smile. "Glad to see you're still with us."
Saunders sat up, mentally checking his physical condition. Nothing hurt. Nothing broken. No blood. No bullet holes.
He looked questioningly at Doc.
"You collapsed from exhaustion," Doc said with his usual matter-of-factness. He looked like he was about to give Saunders a lecture, but settled for giving his squad leader a disapproving scowl and shake of the head.
Saunders ignored the silent rebuke. He looked around and spotted a couple of makeshift stretchers. Scrambling to his feet, he instantly regretted it, forced to fight off a sudden attack of vertigo. Luckily, Doc had been ready for just such a contingency and caught him before he fell.
The still shaky noncom reluctantly allowed Doc to help him over to a poncho-covered, still form: Hummel. The dead soldier lay under the poncho, waiting for transport by Graves Registration. Nelson rested quietly a few feet away. He had suffered a wound just above the knee during the battle.
Saunders felt a sudden twinge at the sight of the pale form. If Hummel had reminded Saunders of his youngest brother, Nelson reminded him of the all-American boy-next-door. A veteran of D-Day, the young man had nevertheless kept his boyish innocence. Kneeling next to Nelson, Saunders automatically ran a hand through his already disheveled hair and gave him a wry smile.
"How're you doing, Billy?"
"Not too bad, Sarge," Nelson said with a shrug. "I've been hit worse." He gave Saunders a look that showed relief, gratitude, and admiration all at once. "I'm sure glad to see you're okay. The lieutenant was really worried."
"Oh?" Saunders cocked a single eyebrow.
"And how!" Nelson gave an emphatic nod. "I mean--Boy! After the way he chewed you out for saving our lives!" He shook his head. "I guess he felt kind of bad...I mean, after you fell on him and all."
Saunders shook his head. "Fell on him? What d'you--?"
Nelson opened his mouth to respond, but Doc beat him to the punch. "Sarge, like I said...you collapsed from exhaustion."
"On Lieutenant Hanley." Saunders made it a flat statement. At Doc's nod, Saunders sighed. He owed his friend big time, first for his breakdown back at the platoon C.P. and now here. At this rate, Hanley probably thought he would be holding his squad leader's hand until the end of the war.
And I sure wouldn't blame him. Shoulders slumping, Saunders ran a hand through his thick, blond hair, making it stand on end.
"Sarge, it wasn't your fault," Doc said quietly. "You shouldn't even be out here. A man can only take so much--"
"Save it for the chaplain, Doc!" Saunders snapped, standing up suddenly. "I'm not the first soldier to get bad news from home, and I won't be the last!" He glared at the medic, but after the briefest of moments, glanced away. "I'm sorry, Doc. I shouldn't take it out on you." He paused. "How did you know?"
"The lieutenant told me before they moved out. No one else knows, Sarge." Doc took a step closer to Saunders in order to speak in low tones. "But don't you see? Sarge, you've gotta let it out somehow! A thing like this will only eat away at you from the inside!"
Saunders shook his head. "Like I told Caje once before...there's nothing outside of this--!" He looked around, somehow taking in the war, the platoon, and the squad. "The only way we'll win this war is to concentrate on the job at hand and on each other. Nothing else matters. Nothing else can matter."
"And what about Chris?" Doc asked softly. "Doesn't he matter? His memory?" Doc stood so close to Saunders that he was barely speaking above a whisper now. "And what of you? You were more father to that boy than brother. Don't you matter? Don't you have a right to grieve?"
Saunders shook head. "No, Doc...I don't." And if I concentrate hard enough on my job and the squad, then I won't think about Chris. And I won't have to remember that he's never coming home. Turning away from Doc, Saunders walked back to Nelson's side and knelt. "Need anything, Billy?"
Nelson shook his head. "Uh-uh."
"Think you can handle your rifle?"
Nelson nodded. "Sure! Like I said...I've had worse."
"Okay, Billy. Why don't you get some rest?" Saunders asked softly, removing his own field jacket and settling it over the soldier.
"'Kay..." Billy whispered, closing his eyes.
Saunders looked worriedly at Doc. "How is he, Doc?"
Before answering, Doc checked Nelson's dressings and ensured his legs were elevated to prevent shock. He gave a slight shrug. "He's as well as can be expected," he said, sounding tired, "for someone with a bullet hole in him. We need to get him back as soon as possible, Sarge."
"We will, Doc. We will." Standing, a look of determination settled on Saunders like a mantle. "Doc, why were you left out here alone with the wounded?"
"I'm not alone, Sarge. You're here." As usual, Doc's voice took on an ironic tone when pointing out the obvious. "Lieutenant Hanley said that once you were up to it, we should take Billy back to the rear."
"Aw, Doc...Sarge doesn't need to hold my hand." Nelson gave Saunders and Doc a tired grin. He had obviously been listening instead of sleeping. "Like I said--"
"I know," Doc interrupted. "You've had worse."
"Well, I have!" Nelson protested.
Saunders crouched next to him. "Billy, are you sure?"
Nodding, Nelson sat up and reached for his M-1. His usually fluid movements were slightly hampered from pain and weakness, but he demonstrated that he could effectively handle his weapon.
A slight smile softening his features, Saunders reached across and gripped Nelson's shoulder in a gesture of approval. "Carry on, soldier."
At Saunders' words, Nelson beamed with pride, his chest swelling by a few inches. Praise from Sarge was rare enough to warrant the sudden flush burning his cheeks.
Saunders stood, and ignoring Doc's gaze, picked up his tommygun, which lay next to where he had lain while unconscious. Someone had thoughtfully carried it here from the battle site. He quickly inspected it and discovered why it was jammed. Working fast and efficiently, he soon had it cleared. Pointing it at the empty woods, Saunders dry-fired to test its action. Satisfied, he slapped a full magazine in, shouldered the weapon, and faced the medic.
"Which way, Doc?" Saunders gave him an expectant look.
Doc knew Saunders was asking which way the rest of the squad had gone, but he decided to be deliberately obtuse.
"Which way? Well, I think if we go back the same way we came, we should make it back all right."
Saunders gave the medic a glare that had been known to turn loudmouthed braggarts into blubbering idiots.
Doc shrugged it off. After all, Saunders was his patient, and technically, this meant that the medic was in charge. Returning Saunders' stare for stare, Doc finally gave a mental sigh and conceded that Saunders would go his own way. Knowing he would regret it later, he pointed straight ahead.
"They went thataway!" Doc said dramatically. He turned to gauge Saunders' reaction, but the noncom had already disappeared into the surrounding forest.
Saunders jogged along the uneven trail through the thick foliage. Brambles grabbed at his trouser legs as he scrambled up a short rise. Gripping his Thompson in his right hand, he used his left to grasp a small tree and haul himself up. As he reached the top of the rise, he immediately tripped over something long and hard--a branch, he thought--and fell headlong, his ankle twisting under him.
"Swell!" he muttered, annoyed at his clumsiness, afraid that he might have sprained his ankle. Checking it for swelling, he was satisfied to find that he had not injured it. About to get back on his feet, he stopped abruptly and reached for the 'branch' that he had tripped over.
Curious, he picked it up and held it in both hands, closely scrutinizing it. The offending object was in fact an M1918A2 Browning Automatic Rifle, probably one of the finest infantry squad weapons ever manufactured by the U.S. And he knew that this particular BAR happened to be the personal, assigned weapon of one Private William G. Kirby.
Saunders recognized a still-fresh groove along the weapon's walnut stock, the result of a recent German bullet. Laying the weapon down, Saunders stood slowly, his eyes sweeping the area, searching for any hidden enemy. Thompson firmly in-hand, Saunders stepped carefully, placing each foot down toe to heel. The veteran sergeant moved noiselessly through the hushed woods, just another shadow in the stillness.
As he made his way cautiously through the overgrown terrain, Saunders spotted additional signs that his squad had met with some dire circumstance, possibly captured. Weapons, ammo belts and bandoleers, even helmets, K-rations, and other personal items lay discarded where they had been hurriedly tossed--all further evidence that his men had been thoroughly searched by their captors prior to being taken prisoner.
Saunders wheeled toward the sound. Barely above a whisper, the soft entreaty sounded like a shout in the surrounding calm.
"Help me...!" The cry for help came from a heavy thicket that grew a few feet along the lip of the low ridge. Before the helpless plea died out the second time, Saunders was sliding to a halt directly beneath the thick shrubs and searching for whomever might be lying hurt there.
Reaching in, Saunders found the injured man and grasped him by the collar, pulling him out into the open.
"Baum!" Saunders hissed. He quickly examined the wounded man, wincing at the extent of the injuries. Baum had been hit in several places--the shoulder, abdomen, chest area, and upper thigh. There was so much blood! Saunders wondered how anyone who had lost as much blood as Baum could still be alive. From the looks of his condition, it was doubtful that he would live much longer.
Saunders jumped up, and searching the area where he had spotted the discarded military items earlier, he quickly found a myriad number of abandoned web belts. Grabbing them, he hurried back to Baum. Kneeling next to the badly wounded soldier, Saunders pulled out whatever bandages and packages of sulfa powder that he could find.
He frowned, worried by the sickly, gray tinge that Baum's pinched face had assumed. Similarly, the wounded man's rapid, shallow breathing was now accompanied by a wheezing sound that had the sergeant concerned. Steadying himself, Saunders was about to get to work on the worst of the wounds, when Baum weakly grabbed his hands.
"Sarge..." Baum murmured. "No time..." Eyes closed, he grinned slightly. "Too late, y'know...?"
"Baum..." Saunders murmured, his eyes filled with pain, knowing that the man was slipping fast. He blinked hard to fight back the tears that were threatening. "I'm sorry. I should've been here--!"
Baum shook his head. "Not your fault..." He coughed slightly. "You're...a good man...the best..." He coughed again, a bit more violently. Saunders lifted Baum by the shoulders to ease his suffering a bit.
Once the coughing fit passed, Saunders shook his head. "No...It was my responsibility! My fault--!"
At Saunders' words, Baum's eyes suddenly focused, his expression hardened. "There was nothing you could've done, Sarge," he rasped. "It was just my turn." He grimaced as a sudden spasm of pain shot through him, his hand tightening on Saunders'. "The others...you've gotta help..." His voice died out.
"Baum!" Saunders called. "Baum!" He quickly checked for a pulse. There! Weak, but it was still there. He sat back on his heels, uncertain about his next move. He could not abandon the man to die alone. He suddenly thought of Chris. Had his brother been alone when he died? Saunders shook his head. "No..." he whispered, unable to bear the thought.
Startled, Saunders looked down at the dark, unfocused eyes. Taking one of the bandages that lay unused next to him, Saunders quickly wet it with his canteen and gently touched it to the dying man's forehead. Baum gave a small smile of gratitude.
"Thanks...feels nice..." Baum's eyes fluttered momentarily. He looked like was about to lose consciousness again, when at the last second, his eyes cleared once more. He held Saunders' gaze. "The others, Sarge. I overheard the Krauts..." He paused, struggling to maintain control. "They mentioned an SS General by the name of Weir--!" He stopped suddenly, gasping at another shockwave of pain.
"Take it easy, Baum," Saunders soothed. "Don't talk anymore...just rest easy now."
"No...! Listen...!" Baum insisted weakly. "The Krauts that took our guys...they said...something about...advance guard...213th SS Panzer Division..." At these last words, Baum's eyes glazed over. He was gone.
Saunders gently closed the sightless eyes.
Of German heritage, Baum had spoken the language fluently. He had once told Saunders that he felt it his duty to use his ability to help bring down Hitler. Reaching under Baum's tunic, Saunders pulled out the dead soldier's dog tags and removed one. Standing, he stuffed it inside his right breast pocket and stared sadly down at the still form.
"You did your duty, Baum," Saunders said softly. "Rest easy now, soldier."
Saunders crept on all fours to the edge of a low ridge that overlooked a well-traveled, well-concealed dirt road that ran in a northwest-southeast direction. The road cut through an area of forest where the trees and undergrowth had been thinned out to allow considerable space between them. To Saunders' experienced eyes, the road and the distance from one tree to the next appeared wide enough to handle both large trucks and possibly tanks.
Looks like this is where the Krauts are assembling prior to their big push through our lines.
Studying the road a moment longer, Saunders unexpectedly felt the earth begin to vibrate directly underneath him. Shortly thereafter, he heard faintly at first, and then with increasing volume, an ominously familiar clanking sound. Quickly, he shifted his field glasses up the road to where it bent and disappeared into the trees.
Saunders' heart nearly stopped. Rounding the bend, a German Mark IV battle tank rumbled into view, the first of four. Edging instinctively back from the ridgeline, Saunders watched as the four tanks were backed, one-by-one, into the protective cover of the trees. Taking out his map, Saunders scrutinized it in order to mark the enemy assembly area.
Funny...the map doesn't show a road of this size.
Saunders located the coordinates where the road should be; however, only an insignificant, narrow trail--little more than a footpath--was shown. The noncom shook his head. Apparently, the enemy had widened and improved the trail under the very noses of the Allied air recon patrols that flew daily over the area. Saunders had to admire the enemy's unmitigated audacity in accomplishing such a task in the face of overwhelming odds.
Didn't the last report from G-3 'confirm' that we were winning?
Saunders shook his head, and wondered facetiously about where the division operations staff got its information. Slowly, he scanned the assembly area below him, astounded by the sheer volume of men and materiel present.
I'd sure hate to think what the Krauts would look like if we were losing.
A staff car with regimental markings, parked next to a large tent, caught his attention. Zooming in with his glasses, Saunders made out the unit markings on the vehicle's bumper: 213. Perhaps he could not read German, but he could understand numerals in any language. Baum was right. The squad had run smack into the advance guard of the enemy main thrust--the 213th SS Panzer Division.
I've gotta get word back to our lines.
Saunders swung the glasses back to the tent and studied its layout. It had two entrances, front and back. Outside each entrance stood a single, armed guard, weapon held at port arms. Zeroing in on one of the guards' collar insignia, Saunders easily recognized the familiar SS markings, yet another confirmation of the dying Baum's final report.
Panning back to the tent, the center pole caught Saunders' attention. Focusing in closer, he made out a thin filament that extended about three feet above it. An antenna, he realized.
Every few minutes a runner hurried in or out of the shelter, engrossed on some important errand. From the centralized location of the tent and the amount of activity being generated from it, Saunders surmised that this was probably the German command post.
Sweeping the field glasses across the assembly area, Saunders froze when his eyes fell on several additional tanks hidden just inside the tree line. Their turrets were pointed out towards the road, ready to roll at a moment's notice. Saunders stopped counting at fifteen, which were all he could see. There might be more concealed farther down the road.
At least a light panzer company in strength, Saunders estimated. With plenty more to follow when the main body arrives.
Next, he spotted three armored personnel carriers, realizing that if there were more, they were well hidden. The APCs suggested that the panzers were being supported by at least a platoon of panzer grenadiers, enemy ground assault troops. In addition, the late afternoon sun reflected briefly off the 47mm anti-tank gun of a Panzerjäger tank destroyer. Its name, Saunders knew, literally meant 'tank hunter.'
"Oh, this just keeps getting better," Saunders muttered darkly.
He was about to back off his vantage point, when he caught sight of several, neatly stacked rows of metal drums. They were protected from air reconnaissance by the heavy canopy of trees overhead, and also, forest-patterned camouflage nets. A fuel dump, Saunders concluded. Furthermore, he saw NCOs directing soldiers through various tasks around the bivouac area, breaking down tents, loading trucks, and packing field gear.
"Hey! Where's everybody going?" Saunders murmured in mock protest. "I just got here!" He was about to turn away and head back to where he had left Doc and Nelson, when shouts from below and to his left caught his attention. Zooming in with the binoculars, he focused on a violent scuffle near another tent.
Saunders' swallowed against a sudden tightness in throat. Caje! The furious Cajun was yelling a string of French epithets at his German captors. Saunders winced when he recognized one as being particularly foul.
You'd better hope those Krauts don't speak French, Caje ol' buddy.
A German with lieutenant's insignia walked up and spoke sharply to the guards. They immediately tightened their hold on Caje, effectively rendering him harmless. Only then did the officer approach the American, ranting and gesticulating wildly. The next moment, he backhanded the helpless prisoner several times and followed through with two solid punches to the stomach. Caje grunted as he doubled over in pain, but still managed to utter a few more curses in French.
His anger increasing, Saunders bit his lip, wondering at the Cajun's recklessness in continuing to infuriate his captors. I thought I taught you better than that.
The situation abruptly took on an even darker turn when Saunders spotted the reason for Caje's fury. A badly injured Lieutenant Hanley lay curled up in a fetal position on the ground, his hands bound behind him. Outraged, Saunders was forced to sit back and watch as two of the SS guards viciously kicked the defenseless American officer while another struck Caje in the small of his back with a rifle butt. Seeing his friends being so savagely beaten filled Saunders with a sudden, cold rage.
Checking the magazine clip in his Thompson, Saunders aimed and was about to squeeze the trigger, when common sense prevailed. What would he accomplish except get everyone killed? Besides, in the back of his mind, Saunders knew that his first duty was to head back to friendly lines and report the location of the enemy assembly area.
His gut instantly rebelled at the thought of abandoning his friends. Instead, he stayed in place and watched as Caje and Hanley were hauled into the second tent. Although weak from pain, Caje fought with his captors every step of the way, attempting to reach the barely conscious Hanley. The officer, on the other hand, remained unaware of his surroundings and was dragged, unresisting into the tent.
Hesitating over what his next move should be, Saunders remained in the same position long after the Americans had disappeared from sight. Caught between conflicting needs, he somberly reflected on the past twenty-four hours. Admittedly, it had been a day of heavy loss and unbearable suffering.
He thought of Caje and Hanley, even now suffering at the hands of their captors, monsters that derived pleasure from torturing others. And what of Littlejohn and Kirby? Where were they?
Saunders' thoughts then turned to those who would never go home again.
He forced himself to recall the faces of the men he had lost: Daley, whose first name he still could not remember; Hummel and Baum, two men who had somehow become friends, but who would never see or hold their loved ones again. Would medals and the condolences of a grateful nation comfort their families through their grief?
Saunders seriously doubted it.
He thought of Nelson, ironically the 'lucky one,' lying wounded half a world away from home, a bullet hole in his leg, having miraculously survived to fight another day. Some luck.
Unbidden, the words from the prayer service echoed softly. "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?" As if a dam had suddenly burst inside him, all his pent-up emotions and memories of Chris surged forth in a flood.
Saunders closed his eyes against the deluge of pain that crashed down on him. At first, he fought against it, struggling to regain control. He held the stock of his weapon with a white-knuckled grip, warring against the crushing despair that threatened to cripple him.
Summoning a lifetime of self-discipline, Saunders battled with fierce determination and somehow succeeded in holding the darkness at bay. However, exhausted from the inner conflict, the veteran sergeant was finally ready to come to terms with his grief.
He softly repeated the words of the much-beloved Psalm, thus calling to mind his father's dual legacy of love and honor. Saunders remembered his father holding him close one last time to say goodbye...
"Chip, I know that when I'm gone, you'll have to take time to mourn. But don't forget, you should also take time to celebrate."
At Chip's look of bewilderment, the elder Saunders smiled. "Son, I'll be in heaven with my own folks. And believe me...I sure have missed my ma's rhubarb pie." He gently stroked his son's cheek. "Chip, I promise...I'll be watching over you, waiting to greet each of you when your own time comes."
He had then placed his finger over Chip's heart. "If you keep me in here, Son...I won't be really gone." As the eldest, Chip strove to pass this simple legacy on to his brothers and sister. It was all that remained of their father's devotion...
Memories of home began flowing peacefully through him. Saunders recalled the first smile he had been able to coax from his mother two weeks after his father's funeral.
He remembered skipping stones across the Rock River with his quiet, middle brother Joey. The memory, a scene straight out of Tom Sawyer, quickly changed to the black days of little more than a month ago when Joey was reported missing in action in the Pacific Theater. Happily, he had walked out of the jungle safe and in one piece.
Saunders' face softened to a sad smile when he next called to mind the out-of-control, ear-splitting giggles of Chris and The Brat during one of their many tickle fights when they were still kids.
From somewhere, Saunders heard Chris's infectious laugh again. Soon, he felt himself falling victim once more to those piercing blue eyes, so like his own, that could always melt his heart. Before long, his shoulders shook as cleansing tears were at long last allowed to fall.
Saunders finally accepted that it had simply been his brother's time.
Saunders pictured his father and brother standing close together, his father's arm draped casually over Chris's shoulder. Closing his eyes, Saunders took a deep breath and let it out slowly. A brief, sad smile crossed his features. He could feel them watching over him and the rest of the family.
And Chris...he isn't really gone. Like Dad said...as long as I keep his memory in my heart, Chris will live on.
Having painfully examined the facts, Saunders easily saw where his duty lay: Down in that tent with his men. Unhesitatingly, he rolled away from the ridgeline, standing only when he knew that he was no longer exposed to the enemy below.
The war will just have to wait a while longer, he thought defiantly. Then, he added ruefully, "After all, I happen to have it on good authority that I shouldn't even be out here."
Saunders checked his watch, surprised at the time. It was only then that he noticed the encroaching shadows, which announced the coming of dusk. He visualized the tent that Caje and Hanley had been dragged into, and worried that he had yet to catch sight of Littlejohn and Kirby. Were they also in that tent? It was an assumption that if correct might save their lives, but if wrong would come at a high cost.
Hearing the sudden whining coughs and spurts of diesel engines being started, Saunders knew that he did not have much time. He had to get his men out of there in time to warn their lines of the Krauts' advance party. Stuffing the binoculars back in his shirt, Saunders checked the equipment he had taken from the discarded web belts--extra grenades, bandages, and a bayonet--and took off into the deepening shadows.
Obergefreiter Kurt Mueller hated his lieutenant. He hated the army and he hated the war. More than ever, he felt that he would not live to see his mother and father again.
Mueller arrived at this conclusion while he checked his men. His squad was responsible for guarding the division fuel depot, ensuring that it remained safe from any 'midnight requisitions,' overeager men who wanted to top off their vehicles prior to moving out. Petroleum was in such short supply and high demand across the Reich that his men had orders to shoot to kill anyone attempting to take any fuel without proper authorization.
Shoot our own men, he commiserated. So this is what we've come to.
Of course, Leutnant Richter, his platoon leader, had all but relished the order when he had given it. Mueller scowled in disgust as he walked a steady if reluctant pace, checking that his men were properly positioned for the night.
"/Need anything, Adler? Baer/" he asked the two men on watch.
"Nein," Adler said with a shake of his head. "/At least, nothing a pretty girl wouldn't cure, eh, Baer/"
"Ja, Adler," Baer grinned. "/And as much as I like you, Corporal Mueller, you're much too ugly for my tastes./"
Privately amused, Mueller frowned outwardly at their familiar teasing. Adler and Baer were the comedians in the squad and tended to forget their place at times. Not that Mueller minded, but as their squad leader, it fell on him to remind them on occasion. "/Is that a fact? In that case, you two clowns have just volunteered to guard our precious petrol for two watches instead of one./"
At their confounded looks, it was all Mueller could do to hide his grin until he was walking away. He felt grateful to them for lifting, if only temporarily, his glum spirits. Satisfied that his men were properly emplaced for the night, Mueller's thoughts returned to his platoon leader.
Richter was a relative newcomer, assigned to the unit for less than three months. He had arrived following the death of Mueller's first platoon leader, Leutnant Fischer. Whereas Fischer had been a fair leader who cared about his men and their welfare, Richter was cruel and vindictive, a fanatic Nazi. He did not care about the men, driving them relentlessly--all for the Glory of the Third Reich.
Also, Richter enjoyed inflicting pain on others, as Mueller witnessed earlier that afternoon. Richter had made it his personal duty to 'interrogate' the American prisoners. He had obtained no new information, but had practically salivated while he had stood and watched his handpicked men repeatedly beat the helpless men. Mueller could only look on in disgust.
Sadly, Mueller's thoughts turned to home. He missed his family's house--little more than a cottage with no modern amenities--in the picturesque, walled town of Dinkelsbuhl. Funny, while he had been growing up there, he had not appreciated it. He had felt ashamed of the lack of electricity and running water, embarrassed by his family's poverty.
In addition, he had felt stifled by what he considered the town's provincialism, and as soon as he had come of age, had enlisted. Mueller remembered how proud he felt when he informed his parents that he had been accepted into the SS-Panzer Grenadiers, an elite force that served as a spearhead for a panzer division. He recalled his parents' anger and disappointment in him. They had said things that Mueller's Hitler Jugend leaders had taught him to be treasonous.
To his shock, his parents claimed that the Fuehrer had betrayed Germany and was leading it to its doom. Then, they continued their traitorous comments with the ridiculous idea that the Allies would never stop until Germany was destroyed and all her young men either killed or wounded. Hurt and ashamed of his parents' disloyalty, Mueller had left home without a backward glance.
That had been more than two years ago. Since then, Mueller had lived the veracity of his parents' words. Most of the young men with whom he had trained were gone, killed in North Africa or in the Italian campaign. With each defeat, the once mighty 213th SS-Panzer Division had given away a little more ground. And now, they were fighting to maintain a foothold in France, desperately struggling to keep the invading Allied armies at bay.
And look at me, he thought wryly. I am in the middle of nowhere, guarding a bunch of silly cans of petrol. General Weir thinks that we're going to stop the Allies and push them back into the sea. He even thinks we'll be able to pull victory out of certain defeat.
Mueller shook his head, wondering just where the German High Command got its information. Apparently the Allied victories were only 'minor setbacks' and the new replacements, boys younger than Mueller when he had enlisted, and men older than his father, were the new supermen tasked to hold back the inevitable tide.
He sighed, stopping just inside the tree line to light a cigarette. It was his last, he saw. He crumpled the empty package in disgust. The Reich worried about the scarcity of fuel, while the common soldier worried about the shortage of cigarettes and coffee. He smoked quietly for a few moments, savoring the peace and quiet that had settled on the encampment.
The tank commanders had run their engines earlier that evening to ensure that they were ready to move at first light. Most of the day-to-day equipment not needed while the unit was on the offensive had been packed and loaded on trucks. It would be held in reserve until the main body arrived.
Mueller took one final puff from his cigarette and turned to go. The next instant, he felt his knees suddenly give way. Something, his mind could not register what, held him immobilized by the throat. At the same time, a deep, burning sensation from his right side exploded in a white-hot wave through his entire body. Helpless, he reached out for support, attempting to call for help, but the relentless 'something' tightened around his neck, choking off what little air he could take in.
As a deep blackness claimed him, Mueller thought again of his parents and home. "Mutti..." he whispered. It was the last word he would ever speak.
As soon as Saunders felt the life drain out of the German corporal, he pulled out the bayonet from the man's side with a jerk. It was Caje's knife, which he had found along with the rest of the squad's discarded equipment. Wanting to return it in good condition, Saunders methodically wiped the blood off the blade on the dead German's uniform before he re-sheathed it.
He then dragged the dead man deeper into the woods, disposing of the body and quickly making his way to the fuel dump. With catlike grace, he bypassed the guard post undetected, having marked its location earlier, while watching the corporal make his rounds.
Coming up to the fuel depot, Saunders eased his way over a wire that had been strung knee-high around the depot's perimeter. He noted that tin cans were tied every few feet down the wire's length. Probably filled with pebbles, he thought. Any disturbance and the cans would rattle loud enough to sound the alarm.
Once inside the perimeter, he moved at a low crouch, stealthily slipping through the deep shadows thrown by the rows of stacked fuel drums. When he figured that he was about midway between the rows, Saunders stopped. He took out the bayonet and thrust it up to the shaft into one of the drums.
To his mild surprise, the bayonet sliced through the outer metal skin with little difficulty. Speeding up a notch, Saunders hurriedly slashed through several more of the upper stacks, just managing to avoid getting any of the gasoline on himself. Soon, he grimaced at the stench of spilled gas that surrounded him.
Satisfied that he had sabotaged enough drums, Saunders took out a bandage and dipped it in gasoline. Flicking his Zippo, he carefully set the soaked bandage on fire. Almost casually, he tossed it onto the flammable liquid and ran.
Within minutes the encampment was alive with cries of alarm. Men ran helter-skelter in all directions. NCOs and officers alike urgently shouted orders, pointing men in the direction of the spreading conflagration. Before long, a bucket brigade was formed, but Saunders saw that it had little chance of successfully putting out the fire.
The veteran sergeant took off in the direction of the POW tent. As he ran, evading groups of soldiers that passed him at the double time, Saunders came across one of the Mark IV tanks. Startled, he ducked behind a tree and studied the area, searching for the tank crew. After a few seconds, he emerged and moved tentatively toward the tank.
Behind it, and about ten feet to the left of the Mark IV, Saunders spotted another. By the light of the out-of-control fire, Saunders spotted several more tanks. Grinning suddenly, Saunders fingered the extra grenades that he had pocketed and quickly made up his mind. Running to the back of the first tank, the NCO climbed on and opened the engine compartment. Then, calmly pulling the pin, he dropped a grenade inside.
Scrambling off the tank, he ran to the next behemoth to repeat the action. By then, the first grenade had exploded almost immediately behind him. He dove under one of the tanks to avoid the sudden fallout of metal shrapnel raining down on him. Emerging from his hiding place, Saunders' brief respite was soon broken by the fuel dump erupting in a cascade of resounding explosions. The resulting shockwaves from the myriad detonations almost caused Saunders to lose his footing. As a result, he was forced to fight to remain standing.
As the explosions burst all around him, he realized that there was little time left before someone arrived to investigate the latest blasts. Therefore, he zigzagged through the rows of parked tanks, pulling pins and tossing grenades within the tank treads as he ran by.
If I can't destroy 'em, I can sure try to slow 'em down a little.
Before long, a machinegun opened up farther down the road. It was soon joined by another. Saunders stopped and took his bearings. Listening to the rat-a-tat coming from the distance, he realized that some trigger-happy Krauts were probably shooting at shadows. It didn't matter, though. He knew that the whole German army would soon be on his tail. After all, you did not blow up fuel dumps and main battle tanks in the middle of an enemy camp and not expect some type of retaliatory strike.
Almost as if to prove his point, the next instant Saunders ran headlong into a three-man enemy patrol. He had been so busy watching his back, he forgot to keep an eye out for what lay in front of him. His luck held, however. The Germans froze momentarily, caught off guard at his sudden appearance, and Saunders quickly exploited his advantage. He fired a long burst from his tommygun, sweeping it across the three men.
The firefight was over before it had started. Once again he had been fortunate. The continuous explosions from the fuel dump had drowned out the distinct sound of his tommygun. In addition, the ammo compartment of one of the tanks he had sabotaged had chosen that moment to explode, sending yet another shockwave through the compound, muffling whatever noises the brief conflict had generated.
Nevertheless, he knew that his acts of sabotage, though necessary, had further reduced the chances of rescuing his men. The Krauts would not rest until they found whoever had caused such damage. No matter. One way or the other, he was going to get his squad out of this hellhole.
Picking up the three weapons that the enemy soldiers had been carrying, Saunders threw them into the brush and disappeared into the trees.
At last, he spotted the two tents that he had watched earlier--the command tent and the POW holding area. The C.P. was alive with frenzied activity, messengers taking off in different directions every few minutes or so. Meanwhile, the lone guard outside the C.P. appeared anxious, gazing in the direction of the fire and explosions.
A junior officer emerged and yelled something at him. The guard saluted immediately and ran toward the POW tent. Saunders saw that the tent in which his men were being held had two guards in front and probably another one or two in back. Turning back to the German officer, Saunders' blood boiled when he recognized him as the same goon who had enjoyed torturing Hanley and Caje.
Saunders had to fight an overwhelming urge to shoot the man on the spot. He watched as the guards went inside the POW tent and dragged the prisoners out, pushing and prodding them with their weapons. To Saunders' relief, he saw Littlejohn and Kirby in addition to Hanley and Caje. Now he knew that all of his friends were still alive.
Squaring his shoulders, Saunders hurried to the back entrance of the C.P. Spotting a second guard, he lay his Thompson down and took out Caje's bayonet again. Steeling himself, he leaped onto the guard's unprotected back, and grabbed him in a neck lock.
About to thrust the knife into him, Saunders was caught off guard when the enemy soldier unexpectedly bent forward and threw him over his head. The American went flying and landed in a tangle of arms and legs, momentarily disoriented. The German moved in, swinging the stock of his weapon at Saunders' head.
Instinctively, Saunders grabbed the weapon, rolled onto his back, and kicked up with his powerful legs. Catching his adversary in the abdomen, Saunders' momentum pushed the guard up and over his head, where he landed in a heap. Bayonet in hand, Saunders dove on top of the guard, and in a swift, well-practiced move, drove it in just below his opponent's ribs. Saunders waited a tense moment, glaring into the guard's panicked eyes, until finally, he felt the air /whoosh/ out of German's lungs.
Feeling the man go still underneath him, Saunders rolled off him and knelt back on his heels, gulping in several lungs full of air. He wanted to lie down for a week, but shook his head and shakily regained his feet.
Stumbling back to the tent, Saunders took a position immediately next to the flap and looked inside, noting that most of the staff was missing. Probably putting out fires or helping search for saboteurs, he surmised. There were only two men left, a senior officer wearing red tabs--a general--and the cruel lieutenant.
Waiting tensely, Saunders was finally rewarded by the appearance of the guards prodding his men inside. Saunders scowled in anger when he saw that Hanley had to be practically carried by Littlejohn and Caje. Immediately, the German lieutenant walked up to Hanley and slapped him.
"You know who is responsible! Talk!"
Protesting, Caje instantly made a move to strike back. "We don't know what you're talking about!"
"Yeah!" Kirby chimed in. "And after what you done to the lieutenant, he don't even know his own name, much less what's goin' on!"
"Silence!" the German officer shouted. "If you don't tell me what I want to know, your lieutenant won't live to see the light of dawn!"
Saunders saw him wave at the guards to grab Hanley and decided that he had had enough. Rushing in, tommygun blazing, Saunders saw out of the corner of his eye Littlejohn and Caje shove Hanley out of harm's way. Simultaneously, Kirby slammed headfirst into the much-hated German lieutenant.
Seeing that he had clear shot at the two guards, Saunders quickly took them out with two short bursts. Less than an eye blink later, he was aiming at the general's belt buckle.
"Hande hoch!" Saunders ordered. The German officers both made a move for their sidearm. "Go ahead!" He waved his Thompson in a threatening manner. "I'd love an excuse to cut you in half!"
As he spoke, Saunders fingered the trigger just enough to take out the slack. A bit more pressure and the Thompson would kick into life. When both enemy officers reluctantly raised their hands above their heads, Saunders deliberately gave the lieutenant a knowing smirk. "I figured you for a gutless coward--"
Enraged, the officer went for his sidearm. Saunders calmly squeezed the trigger, killing the German before he touched the holster. Saunders turned to the general and gave him a disingenuous, wide-eyed stare.
"Well, what do you know? I guess he wasn't a coward, after all." He walked up to the general and removed his sidearm. "No, not a coward...just plain stupid." He glared at the general. "Are you stupid, too, General?" At the general's terse shake of the head, Saunders nodded. "I didn't think so." Turning to his men, Saunders snapped in quick succession, "Everybody, grab whatever weapon you can find!" Indicating the general, he ordered, "Kirby, on him!"
"Right, Sarge!" Kirby prodded the general with the muzzle of the weapon he had recovered. "Come on, Fritz...I don't want no trouble from you. Comprende?"
"Sergeant, I protest! I am General Albert Weir," Weir stated pompously. "I demand to be treated with the courtesies due an officer of my rank."
"Yeah...just like you treated Lieutenant Hanley." Saunders' voice dripped sarcasm. Nodding at the dead German officer's body, he added coldly, "Just remember, General. I don't need a prisoner."
Eyes going from one to the other, Kirby looked relieved when Weir's eyes widened at the implied threat. Smiling to himself, Kirby realized that he had just witnessed a general officer that did not have anything to say. Leave it to the Sarge to put the ol' scare even in a general. Kirby's silent musings were accompanied with just a dash of pride.
Seeing that the general understood his meaning, Saunders turned to his men.
"Caje! Littlejohn! Grab the lieutenant. We're getting out of here."
"We got him!" Caje said.
"Okay. Let's go!"
Two hours later they rejoined Doc and Nelson. Four hours thereafter, they linked up with their own lines.
"Doc?" Saunders indicated the two litters that they had all taken turns carrying. Neither Nelson nor Hanley had been in any condition to walk, but both protested mightily against being carried. However, Saunders had given neither a choice in the matter.
"Get 'em down to battalion aid," Saunders ordered. Nodding toward the general, he added, "I've gotta get down to the company C.P. and report in." Prodding Weir with his tommygun, Saunders jerked his head in the direction he wanted to head. "Come on, General. I have a feeling there's a few people who would like to talk to you."
Four days later found Saunders sitting under the protective shade of a centuries-old oak. A local had informed Caje that the tree had lived through Henry V's invasion and Napoleon's reign. This war would pass, too, the elderly Frenchman had claimed.
Saunders removed his camouflaged helmet and laid it next to him, considering the old man's words. If only I could be so certain, he thought. He stared at the blank sheet of paper on his lap. He had started a letter to his mother and sister several times, but he still did not know what to say. So far, whatever words he chose ended up sounding hollow.
He leaned back against the tall oak and closed his eyes. He thought back to four nights ago when he had reported to Captain Jampel, with SS-General Albert Weir in tow. Saunders had saluted, turned over his prisoner, and reported the location of the enemy assembly area...
"They looked like they were ready to start moving," Saunders explained tiredly, "so I figured--"
"--You figured that sabotaging their fuel dump and a couple of their tanks, not to mention taking their commanding general prisoner, seemed like a good idea," Jampel finished for him.
Saunders nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, sir...something like that. Only, about taking the general...well, he sort of fell into our hands. I mean...I hadn't planned to...well, you know." Saunders shuffled a bit, tired and wanting to go check on his men.
"Meanwhile, your men and Hanley were being held prisoner in the camp?" Jampel made this last a question rather than a statement.
Saunders cleared his throat and nodded. How could he explain that his men being taken prisoner had been his fault? That if it had not been for his emotional breakdown, he could have done something to prevent it?
"Yes, sir. But you see, sir...it was all my fault--that they got taken prisoner, I mean. So, I had to get 'em out...Do you see?" Saunders gazed quizzically at his company commander, wondering in the back of his mind if he was babbling. He had an uneasy feeling that he was. Then, remembering his military protocol, he added a bit lamely, "--Sir?"
Jampel stared long and hard at the exhausted NCO. He did not know exactly what had happened out in the field but made up his mind to question Hanley and the others as soon as possible. On the other hand, Jampel did know about Saunders' recent loss. Moreover, because he took pride in knowing the men in his command, Jampel surmised that despite his personal loss, this particular NCO would have kept pushing himself until the mission was complete.
Seeing that Saunders was almost dead on his feet, Jampel nodded toward the door. "Get some sack time, Sergeant. Report back at 1300 hours tomorrow. S-2 can debrief you then."
Almost too drained to salute, Saunders raised his hand in a half-hearted arm gesture, something midway between a salute and a wave, and trudged out...
That was four nights ago. Since then, Saunders had been thoroughly debriefed by the regimental S-2. Later that same day, the battalion executive officer ran into him near the field kitchen. As Saunders waited in line to be served, the XO joined him and essentially passed the time of day with him. He asked a few questions about the patrol, but nothing of consequence in Saunders' opinion.
He shrugged off the incident. Officers, he thought, especially field grade officers, were an odd breed. He then thought of Hanley and grinned in spite of himself. His friend would fully recover from his recent ordeal. Even now Hanley was complaining in no uncertain terms of his need to still be confined to the aid station. Saunders shook his head.
"And he says that I don't know when to quit," he murmured. He sat quietly for a few more minutes, enjoying the warmth from the late autumn sun. The peaceful sound of the tree's canopy soughing in the soft breeze caused him to look up at the cloudless sky. Overhead, a v-formation of geese flew in perfect alignment, heading south.
"The boys from the Mighty 8th Air Force could take lessons from you guys." He sighed suddenly, wishing that he could box the day and tie it in a ribbon. Looking down at still-blank sheet on his lap, he grimaced at the ordeal that his letter home had become.
Saunders turned at the sound of Kirby's voice behind him, annoyed at the interruption, yet glad at the same time. He raised his eyes in question.
"The captain says he wants to see you on the double." Kirby's voice sounded apologetic.
Saunders nodded and stood in a single, smooth motion. He shouldered his weapon in an easy, familiar move and folded the empty page, stuffing it in his right breast pocket. Without another word, he started toward the company C.P.
As always, Saunders knocked first and walked in without waiting for permission. He spotted Jampel in the midst of a platoon leaders' briefing, and to his surprise, saw Hanley standing among his fellow lieutenants. Saunders almost smiled, remembering the many times Hanley had nagged him to stay in bed and follow the doctor's orders.
What did his mother used to say about black pots and kettles? He was not sure, but he was certain that it fit Hanley's situation. He caught his lieutenant's eye and smirked.
Knowing exactly what Saunders was thinking, Hanley had the grace to look abashed.
By then Jampel had also seen Saunders waiting quietly in a corner. Turning to his platoon leaders, he dismissed them. "Gentlemen, that will be all. Gil, I'd like you stay."
Hanley nodded, and while the others exited, the lieutenant walked up to Saunders. "You have any idea what this is about?"
Saunders shook his head. "I was kind of hoping you'd tell me."
"Sorry, not this time, buddy."
When the others had finally left the room, Jampel turned to Saunders and Hanley. "Gil, Saunders? Over here, please." Jampel waved them over to the large operations map that hung from the wall. "I thought you might be interested in some of the intelligence that your General Weir gave us."
At his questioning look, both men nodded. Taking a pointer, Jampel proceeded to draw their attention to several locations on the map. Each was marked with a red flag, indicating enemy activity.
"Just as Saunders figured, Weir was leading the advance guard of the main attack. His panzer regiment, the 213th, was supported by the 210th Panzer Grenadiers. Their intention was to blitz our lines, take the ground that our own C.P. currently occupies, and then hold it until the main body arrived." He shook his head. "It was a bold plan and might have worked...if not for you, Saunders. Your quick thinking not only delayed their advance, it gave us the time needed to zero in with our artillery and bombers."
Hanley grinned, and in a most un-military manner, slapped his best NCO and friend on the back.
Saunders bowed his head in embarrassment, and almost turtle-like, seemed to shrug himself into his jacket. He shook his head. "I had a lot of help, Captain. Baum, for one...if he hadn't held out long enough to tell me what he overheard..." He paused sadly. "He died making sure I had the information." He walked to the window that overlooked the rubble-strewn street outside. "And Hummel? He's dead because of me--"
"That's nonsense, Saunders!" Hanley snapped. "Captain Jampel has been telling me how you think that everything that happened was somehow your fault. The Krauts killed Hummel. Period!"
Saunders shook his head. "I wish it were that simple, Lieutenant. If I hadn't placed him where I did--"
"If. Maybe. Perhaps!" Hanley said. "Saunders, you of all people know that soldiers die everyday in combat. It isn't something that we can take personally." He paused. "You taught me that. Remember?"
Saunders nodded, but kept his back to his two superiors. Behind him, the officers exchanged worried glances.
"And as far as us being taken prisoner," Hanley continued, "there was nothing you could've done to prevent it. In fact, if you'd been there, you would've been captured right along with the rest of us."
"He's right, Saunders," Jampel said quietly. "And if you had, then you wouldn't have been in a position to help them escape. In fact, I've recommended you for a--"
A sudden knock on the door interrupted him, and before Jampel could say 'Come in' or 'Stay out,' the door flew open. Chaplain Major Fox walked in, followed by two men, a lieutenant and a private.
"Lieutenant Hanley, Sergeant Saunders! I was informed at your platoon C.P. that we would find you here." Fox looked around, his eyes falling on Jampel, the pointer in his hand, and the operations map on the wall. "I apologize, gentlemen," he said. "I didn't realize that we were interrupting anything."
Jampel put the pointer down and shook his head. "That's quite all right, Major...I was just finishing."
"That's good, 'cause we can't stay long. Or rather, these two men can't stay long. Their company commander very kindly gave them a twelve hour pass so that they could come here and conduct business."
"Business?" Hanley echoed.
"I'm sorry," Fox apologized. "I'm forgetting my manners. Why don't we introduce ourselves first?" Not waiting for the others to agree, Fox proceeded to introduce himself to Jampel. Once he had gotten that small amenity out of the way, he indicated the two men with him.
"These two men are Lieutenant Reilly and Private Brady. Sergeant Saunders, Lieutenant Reilly was your brother's platoon leader, and Private Brady a fellow member of his squad."
Saunders looked like he had been punched in the teeth. In a daze he shook hands with the men. He knew that they had said something to him and that he had replied, but for the life of him, he could not remember what. Swallowing, he determinedly fought against the familiar feeling of displacement that had suddenly crept into his awareness.
Reilly was speaking. Saunders stared at the officer, concentrating in an effort to force his senses to start working again. At last, the cotton stuffing in his ears cleared, and he heard the lieutenant's words with crystal clarity.
"I know that whatever we say will probably seem like so many empty words." Reilly spoke softly, aware that Saunders was still in a very vulnerable condition. "But I wanted you know...your brother saved our lives...the entire platoon." He swallowed, remembering the harrowing artillery barrage. "If it weren't for Private Saunders, none of us would be alive today." He held Saunders' eyes. "Your brother was a real hero, Sergeant Saunders. I was privileged to serve with him."
Brady nodded. "Sergeant Saunders, I was with Chris when he died--" He stopped abruptly when Saunders' knees gave out suddenly. Hanley caught his friend and helped ease him into a chair.
"You okay, buddy?"
Saunders nodded. "Yeah...I'm fine." He looked up at Brady and slowly nodded. "Thank you for telling me. I was afraid that--" He stopped. He would not say it out loud. It was too personal, too raw. His greatest fear that his brother had died alone had just been put to rest. Nevertheless, it would take a while longer for the truth to finally sink in. "Go on..."
Brady looked at his platoon leader, unsure whether he should continue. At Reilly's nod, he began reciting the events of Chris Saunders' last moments on earth. When he described holding Chris in his arms as his life seeped out, and that the last word he had spoken was his brother's name, it was all the battle-hardened veterans could do to keep their composure.
Saunders was forced to look away, blinking rapidly. He took out a packet of Lucky Strikes and made a show of lighting up. Somehow he managed to hold his lighter steady through the entire ritual.
After a pause, Reilly again spoke up. "Sergeant Saunders, I just wanted you to know that I recommended your brother for the Distinguished Service Cross." As he spoke, he reached inside his field jacket. "And the regimental commander approved it." Reilly pulled out a decoration case and opened it, revealing the DSC inside. Gently, he placed the open case in Saunders' hands. "It was kind of a rush job," he added with a shrug.
Hands trembling, Saunders closely studied his country's second highest award for valor, marveling at its simple lines. Turning it around, he saw that the back was inscribed with his brother's name and rank, as well as, the date the citation was approved. Saunders fingered it a moment longer, and then almost tenderly he replaced it in its case and closed the lid.
"Saunders?" Jampel spoke quietly.
Saunders looked up.
Jampel nodded at the case Saunders was holding. "I was about to tell you that after reviewing what happened on the patrol, I recommended you for the DSC." He raised his hand to forestall any protest from Saunders. "It's too late to argue. I got word from the XO that the regimental commander has already approved it." He gave Saunders a wry look. "Like or it not, Sergeant, both you and our brother are heroes in my book, and it's high time we did something about it."
Standing at last, Saunders looked around and acknowledged each man with a nod. Unable to trust himself to speak, he walked out.
An hour later, Hanley found him under the same oak that he had been leaning against earlier. Walking up to him, Hanley sat down uninvited. Pulling out a bottle of wine from his field jacket, he popped the cork and offered the first drink to his friend.
"To absent friends," he said.
Saunders stared at the bottle for a seemingly long time. Finally, just as Hanley thought that he was going to refuse it, Saunders reached for it and brought it up to drink. Smacking his lips appreciatively, he nodded his thanks and handed it back.
"Good stuff, Sir. Where'd you get it?"
"R.H.I.P., Sergeant," Hanley smirked. "Rank has its privileges! If I tell you, I may have to kill you."
Saunders grinned at the old joke. "By all means keep your secret stash, Lieutenant." He turned back to his letter. "Of course, that means that I won't let you in on the chicken dinner we've got planned for tonight."
"Hey, now! Let's wait a minute here!" Hanley protested. "Why don't we work out a deal?"
"What kind of deal?" Saunders asked without looking up.
"What do say to inviting me to dinner, and I'll bring a case of wine. To help wash it down?" Hanley smiled at Saunders' sudden look of calculation. "Deal?"
"Just one case? I don't know, Lieutenant," Saunders hedged. "I mean this a real special chicken dinner."
"Okay, okay! Two cases, but that's absolutely my last offer!"
"It's a deal!" Saunders said quickly. "Dinner's at eight! Be there!" The two men shook. Handing Saunders the bottle, Hanley stood.
"Keep it." Suddenly feely awkward, Hanley looked away momentarily. Finally, he turned back, and both men locked eyes. "It's good having you back, my friend."
Smiling, Saunders replied simply, "It's good to be back." As Hanley turned to go, Saunders added quietly, "And Lieutenant? Thanks." Hanley nodded in acknowledgement and left. When he was finally alone, Saunders again turned to his letter and read what he written so far:
Dear Mom and Louise,
By now you know that Chris is with Dad. I know that it seems his was an unfinished life, cut short before he had a chance to really live, but this isn't true. Chris died doing something he believed in--fighting for freedom. I know that these words sound trite, even cliché--but they're not.
Thousands of young men and women have already given their lives for this same cause, and perhaps thousands more will be required in the future in order to bring this terrible war to an end. I know that Chris went the way I would wish to go, fighting alongside my buddies against the common enemy.
Always remember that Chris died so that others could live. His was not a useless death. I know that Chris and Dad are watching over us now, and each time I get a funny feeling to go either left or right, I'll know where it's coming from.
If you hear from Joey, give him my best and let him know that I'm all right. And stop worrying--I promise that I'm always careful. Take care, Mom, Sis. I love you both and hope to see you soon.
Your loving son and brother,
Folding the letter carefully, Saunders stood and left to rejoin his men.