I originally wrote and posted this story to my website back in 1999, but figured today might be a good day to put it up here, just in case there's a "Combat!" fan who hasn't yet read it! Happy Thanksgiving to all!
Trying to give Saunders something else to occupy his mind, Caje talked as he worked, rambling on about whatever came into his head. Then, almost as an afterthought, almost like it surprised even him, he added, "Sarge, the day after tomorrow is Thanksgiving!"
Fleetingly, the memories of Thanksgivings past flooded over Saunders - the feelings of home, love, friendship, hope - fleeting - gone.
That had been yesterday, moments after the Company had been caught in a withering crossfire. The squads had broken apart. The situation quickly became every man for himself; get out, survive! The din had been deafening, the screams terrifying.
Today, Saunders lay on his back gazing upward at the late November sky. Snow threatened to fall; the scent of it clean in the cold air. Dark clouds ambled by, dragging great gray tails resembling trailing soot which eventually reached the ground not as snow, but wet sleet. It fell upon the unprotected soldier, adding to his misery.
Caje had been gone for only a couple hours, but to Saunders it seemed time stood still. One hundred twenty minutes, give or take, felt like days. In his present state of near immobility, the sergeant had little to do but give in to the pain that washed over him at very regular intervals, that and the cold, or occupy his mind with other things. Being the man he was, not one to give in to anything without a fight, Saunders thought.
He pondered the fact that time was creeping by, snail-like or standing still altogether. Why was it when you were doing something that brought you great pleasure, or sublime peace, the minutes flew past? Yet, when you were waiting, as he was now in the cold, wet dull of a late November day, trying your damnedest to keep pain and despair at bay, time stood stock still? Why? For the life of him, Saunders could figure out no answer. If only he could sleep, time would at least pass and he would be unaware of how slowly it dragged along. But he couldn't sleep. He was afraid. In the cold he might not wake, and then time would hold no value whatsoever, for him.
The other thought that kept intruding into the young sergeant's mind was not so much a thought as another question; what did he have this year, this day, this very moment to be thankful for? Back home in Illinois, Thanksgiving had been his favorite holiday, enjoyed more even than Christmas. What was there to be thankful for now? What indeed! He closed his eyes and drifted.
Waiting the endless hours for Caje to return, Saunders became aware of the smell. It verged on nauseating, sort of a rotten smell. Not as bad as the time they'd found a dead mouse behind the canned goods in Grandma's pantry. The tiny rodent had fallen into a narrow-necked bottle and had been unable to climb back up again and escape. Not that bad, but close to the time Mother's little spaniel had dragged a half devoured chicken carcass she'd found in the neighbor's garbage merrily, and without remorse, down the hallway and through the kitchen before Chip could wrench the stinking thing from between her strong jaws and dispose of it. Yes, very nearly that bad. To his horror, Saunders realized the smell was coming from him!
He'd been wounded nearly thirty-six hours earlier, a bullet through the shoulder. Blood had poured from him, soaking his wool shirt and the t-shirt beneath before Caje had gotten the bleeding stopped, or nearly so, through direct pressure and sheer force of will. The wound continued to seep. His shirts stayed damp. The odor produced by the old blood came close to gagging him. Just one more tribulation he had to try his best to ignore.
Near dusk, Caje returned, out of breath, cheeks colored from the cold and his exertion, but smiling as he knelt at the sergeant's side."Had to wait forever for a kraut patrol to leave the area before I could get back, Sarge. Sorry it took me so long." As Caje spoke, he checked Saunders' bandages and pulled the jacket closer around the wounded non-com.
"Found a house, about two miles from here - big, stone, looks like a small castle or somethin'. Can't imagine why it wasn't marked on the map. Anyway, there was smoke comin' from the chimney. I waited to be sure it was clear, then made it to the door." The Cajun paused to pull a cigarette out of his jacket. Lighting it, he took a drag and offered it to Saunders, who took a couple quick puffs, refusing more. Caje inhaled deeply, blowing the smoke out and away from the sergeant. "Haven't had a smoke all day. Krauts were too close." Satisfaction suffused his drawn features.
"A lady answered," he continued. "I told her about you. She looked plenty scared, but said it was okay to bring you there. So, come on, Sarge, let's go before it gets too dark."
Caje hauled Saunders to his feet. The sudden change of position and the blood draining from his head made Saunders very nearly pass out. He groaned and slumped against the slender scout whose slim build belied a wiry strength. Slinging his rifle and Saunders' Thompson, Caje supported the sergeant with an arm around his waist. Two miles was going to be a rough go.
By the time the GIs made it to the stone house, Caje had been carrying Saunders over his shoulder for the better part of the last half mile. His slender body trembled with fatigue and he was afraid - afraid Saunders was dead. He couldn't stop to check. If he put the sergeant down, he knew he'd never be able to pick him up again.
Caje knocked on the heavy oak door, timidly at first, then, when there was no response, pounding with his fist. Long moments passed. Sweat ran down under Caje's helmet to dampen the neck of his shirt, the sweat of fear, of anxiety. Something wasn't right. Even though the windows were shuttered, faint light crept out from beneath the thick door. Someone was home. Someone would answer.
Finally, the door opened, a hair, then a crack, then enough for a woman to peer out. "Go away!" Her whisper was urgent, her voice quaking. "You must leave now!" Her gaze darted from Caje to the body slung over his shoulder and back again.
"You said I could bring him here." Caje's voice automatically muted in response to her whisper, but he was becoming frantic. "You said you'd help him!" His steady gaze held hers; he wouldn't allow her to look away, to escape.
She hesitated, but before she could respond, Caje pushed the door in and the woman stepped back out of the way. There was no furniture in the spacious room, but a fire burned in the huge fireplace at its center. Several blankets were laid out on the floor before it. As gently as possible, Caje laid Saunders on the blankets. Blessedly, the sergeant was still breathing.
The woman appeared suddenly, seeming ready to help now, a bowl of steaming water and some toweling in hand. Before any help could be rendered, a bellow broke the silence and caused Caje to reach for the Thompson lying by his knee. He brought the weapon up into his arms.
A huge, bull of a man lumbered toward the small group from a far doorway. In his hands he held a shotgun of equally massive proportions, long-barreled and large-bored. "Get out of here! Go now! We don't want you here!" The giant roared. "GET OUT!"
Caje's finger tightened on the Thompson's trigger. Was it worth Saunders' life to take this man's? His finger continued to apply pressure. Before he had a chance to make that split second decision, a child appeared in the doorway behind and to the left of the big man. Caje moved his finger off the trigger. Keeping his movements slow and deliberate, he slung the Thompson. Picking up the Garand, he slung it as well.
The woman made no sound; clearly she was cowed by this huge man, her husband, cowed and submissive. She remained kneeling and silent, not even acknowledging the little girl who continued to stand in the doorway as silent as she.
Soundlessly, the Cajun gathered the semi-conscious Saunders from the blankets and half carrying, half dragging him, left the way they'd come, with nothing to show for a two mile forced march except bitter disappointment and utter exhaustion.
Full morning found the two men in a shelter provided by a small cave dug back into a hillside. The walls were shored up by hundreds of flat rocks, while the low doorway consisted of a stone-reinforced arch. It was a shelter for sheep, but the animals were gone now, long ago slaughtered for food by the farmer, the enemy and the allies. It was a decent structure though, solid and lined with straw, fairly overgrown on the outside. A minor miracle had allowed the bleary-eyed, exhausted Caje to stumble upon it in the pale pink light of the new day. He'd had to crawl in first, dragging Saunders in after. An hour's sleep and Caje was off again. Sheep meant shepherd, shepherd meant farm, and farm meant food even if it had to be 'confiscated.'
Saunders woke in near darkness, but no, it wasn't totally dark; meager light seeped in through a small portal. His chest was wrapped in clean, rough bandaging, his stinking shirts having been cut away at some point between now and when...yesterday? All he smelled now was hay and it was sweet and pleasant.
Vaguely, he remembered a stone house, the shouting, and being turned out into the cold. He remembered Caje mostly carrying him though the endless night, the two of them like homeless gypsies.
A sudden rustling of hay and Saunders realized he wasn't alone in the shelter - Caje was there. The scout seemed leaner than ever, with dark shadows beneath light brown eyes and cheeks deeply hollowed by hunger and lack of sleep. But still there was a smile on the dry, cracked lips.
In one hand Caje held a mess cup. Saunders discovered it contained goat's milk - fresh if not still warm. Carefully, the scout helped Saunders to drink. "Have it all, Sarge. Go on. I drank my fill already." Saunders did as requested and for the first time in several days he had more in his stomach than water and memories.
Urging Saunders to finish every drop, Caje grinned in satisfaction. "There's plenty more where this came from, Sarge and I found a few things we could use outta that barn, too - a blanket, some clean sacks for bandaging, and if I play my cards right, an egg or two for dinner. Might not be such a bad Thanksgiving after all!"
"Today?'' Saunders questioned.
Caje nodded. "Today."
Saunders closed his eyes and allowed his mind to wander back to when Caje had first reminded him that Thanksgiving was coming. Then, he questioned what he had to feel thankful for. Old memories had flooded back and the future had seemed non-existent, but that was then. What did he, Sergeant Chip Saunders, have to give thanks for now, today? He fingered the clean sacking which bandaged his wound and let his hand rest against the scratchy warmth of the wool blanket that covered him. He looked up at Caje, worn and tired, yet determined and tireless in his efforts. What indeed!