Susan M. Ballard
Saunders had had a major blow-out that morning over the fact Saunders
believed Hanley was being too hard on the men, pushing them past their limits - pushing them to the point of breaking. Lieutenant Hanley knew that Sergeant Saunders was right. God how well he was aware of that fact! But there was nothing he could do about it. Not one damned thing and that ate away at him. He could feel the burn in the pit of his stomach and he bore a rotten headache and stiff neck like some atonement for his sins.
Saunders had confronted him after breakfast, if breakfast it could be called - reconstituted eggs and watered down coffee. But at least both had been warm if not hot.
The sergeant was so angry he could barely speak. The anger was exacerbated by a wound in his foot which, although not life threatening, caused lightning bolts of white pain to shoot up his leg every time he put his foot down. For an infantryman, it was a hell on earth. He had refused a stay in the field hospital even though Doc had insisted
Now he stood before Hanley and read his superior the riot act. Naturally the officer put up with that only so long. Wounded or not, the best sergeant in the company or not, order and discipline would be maintained.
"You're pushin' 'em too hard, Lieutenant! Hell, Kirby's halfway down the road to a Section 8 right now! One more patrol on top of the last one without decent sleep or even a real hot meal and you'll be responsible for the outcome! You...!"
"That's enough, Sergeant!" Hanley bellowed, his voice so loud that every soldier sitting around enjoying his 'breakfast' looked up in alarm. A couple men sitting on the bumper of a nearby truck jabbed each other in the ribs, one chortling, "bet ya five bucks Saunders takes Hanley in a fight!" His partner stuck out a grimy hand which the other man took, shaking on it to close the deal. "You're on!"
But the men of Saunders' squad weren't amused. They were dog damned exhausted and that was all there was to it. Had the non-com and the officer gotten into a knock down drag out free for all, not a man would've had the energy to turn his head to look.
"I don't ever explain myself to you! Is that clear, Sergeant?" Hanley was bent over so that he was at the shorter man's eye level. His face had gone beet red and his eyes were bloodshot, the lids drooped from exhaustion.
Saunders' chin stuck out stubbornly but in a moment he backed off, but not down. Never down. Not when his men's lives were at stake.
"I take out the patrol," the sergeant insisted. But Hanley was adamant on that.
"No way. You're off that foot and now. If I have to escort you to the field hospital myself and see you sedated I will and I'm just the fellow for that job."
Angry, flushed to the roots of his blonde hair, Saunders looked around and found the man he knew had to be close by. Doc, the medic, had given him away to the lieutenant. Saunders felt betrayed and the look he gave Doc telegraphed every bit of that betrayal. The medic couldn't hold the gaze and turned away.
His attention back on the officer, Saunders met his unflinching gaze. "Yes, Sir."
Hanley nodded and the sergeant turned, slowly limping over to where the medic stood. Words were exchanged, softly, and Hanley watched as Doc slipped an arm around Saunders' waist and assisted the wounded man over to where the field hospital sat, a large squat tent backed up against a grouping of ancient trees. In summer the leafy canopy would've provided much needed shade and a respite from withering heat. Here, now, in the early winter, the leafless branches provided nothing aside from a gently soothing rustle as the wind tagged the drying leaves from limbs and shuffled the fallen across the ground.
Hanley knew Saunders wouldn't rest easily, but at least he would rest.
At the head of the column, the lieutenant rubbed at the perpetual stiff neck. Retrieving several aspirin tablets from his pocket he chewed them, swallowing the grainy bitter residue without benefit of water. Almost before the aspirin had a chance to reach his stomach he felt the burn. Reluctantly he pulled out his canteen and took a long uninterrupted drink. While his attention was diverted, the patrol came under enemy fire.
Hanley threw his body forward onto the frozen ground, his canteen skittering away as he brought his rifle up to fire. Behind him he could hear Kirby open up with the BAR and in front the sound of several rifles responded to the German attack.
Bellying forward he found a bit of cover among some fallen logs and debris. All he could see of the German patrol was an occasional muzzle blast. He fired toward that and prayed. Dirt kicked up directly into his face effectively blinded him. Frantically pawing the stuff from his eyes with one hand he continued to return fire with the other, the rifle propped on the log in front of him. Suddenly there was a blinding flash of intense light, then nothing.
When he woke, darkness had fallen. His head ached worse than usual and he'd never thought that possible. Trying to lift it accomplished nothing and so he listened, for anything, any sounds, of the movement of troops, of men talking, of anything. But all that come to him was the wind in the naked trees, moaning and lonely.
Waking with a start that sent pain arcing through his skull, Hanley lay still, panting, not from exertion, but from fear. When had he fallen asleep? To his horror someone sat beside him and when the shadowed figure noticed the lieutenant was awake, a cup was held to Hanley's mouth and he was urged to drink. Whatever was in the tin container was bitter as gall but the hands refused to remove the cup until the contents had been drained.
The voice was male and deep and the words were whispered close to the lieutenant's ear. Having little choice in the matter, Gil swallowed until nothing remained.
A small flashlight was panned into his eyes and he moaned and attempted to turn away from the agonizing pain it produced. But the hand that held his head in a vise grip was relentless. Though the flash was turned off quickly, it was not nearly fast enough for the lieutenant. He passed out.
When he woke again daylight was coming, sluggish and slow in shaking off the cold night, nevertheless it advanced. Through blurred vision Gil could see the man who sat near him. The fellow had the looks of a vagabond or gypsy. His clothing was a mishmash of French farmer's trousers, a German wool shirt and over that a GI issued field jacket. A beret sat at a jaunty angle on a head shorn of hair. Stubble was all that remained.
His voice was just as much a confusion of accents as his clothing was of styles. Hanley just couldn't place it; not exactly French, nor German either, Dutch perhaps? His English was good, however, and easily understandable despite the unfamiliar accent.
"We gotta get outta here. They'll be back," the man hissed. As when he'd spoken to Hanley the first time, the man bent low and whispered into the American's ear. Upon close inspection, Gil was surprised to see the man was quite young, very early 20s at the most.
Not waiting for Hanley to reply the man grabbed the officer by the front of his coat and literally dragged him to his feet. Hanley's head felt as if it might explode and black spots distorted his vision. Legs sagging he felt himself passing out.
The stranger bent his knees and getting a shoulder up under the unconscious American, he hefted the big man over his shoulder. The going would be rough, but the distance was short.
His home, nothing more than a lean-to deep in the woods was perfectly camouflaged by deadfalls, twisted vines and leaves. A floor of sorts had been dug into the ground when it had still been soft and workable and allowed for a bit more headroom. Laying the GI down outside the entrance, the crept inside, tugging the man in after. Leaving Hanley on the floor, he again went out and swept away any signs the dragged body had left.
When the lieutenant woke again, he felt some better. His vision had cleared and the headache, though there, was bearable. A bandage wrapped his head and beneath the wrap, the scalp itched ferociously. Reaching a hand up to scratch, Gil felt it grabbed and held, preventing it from reaching its goal. The stranger placed the offending hand back against Hanley's chest and shook his head in the negative, frowning.
"My men?" Gil's voice was hoarse and he was thirsty. It actually hurt to talk, but he had to ask, had to know.
The stranger again shook his head, then shrugged. Turning away for a moment, he reached over for the canteen, unscrewed the top and offered it to Hanley. Gil took the water, realizing it was from his own canteen he drank. Glancing around the hut he noticed many things. Obviously the man was a scavenger. German items were well represented, as were American, English and other things there was no way to identify. Weapons included guns, knives and grenades; clothing too and keepsakes such as flags, insignia and jewelry. The place looked like a pawnshop back home in New York.
Bread and a sausage were produced from among the detritus that cluttered the room and sliced. Bread was held out to Hanley but his stomach turned at the sight of the food.
"No...thanks," he whispered, attempting to keep the sudden nausea under control.
The man ate, a bite of bread, then one of sausage, interspersed with sips from Hanley's canteen. When he was through, he wiped his mouth across the sleeve of his jacket and sat back.
"What should I do with you, Lieutenant? Should I give you over to the Americans, the British or maybe the Canadians? What would they pay to have an officer back, I wonder?" Looking thoughtful it was a moment before he continued. If he was surprised by the shocked expression on Hanley's face, he didn't let on.
"Oh, not money maybe, but trade stuff. Money is small use to me out here. Then there are the Germans. I don't like them lousy Krauts, but they pay better. They're users and takers but they understand trade. Where ever you go has little meaning for me. I survive and that is all I care about in this goddam place in this goddam war."
"You're not French?" Hanley questioned and the stranger looked at him with undisguised disgust.
"No, not French! Belgian. This is not my home."
"You take no sides then?" Hanley continued.
"The only side I take is my own."
The officer knew it would've been no good to question the man about patriotism. It was obvious he cared only about his own well being. In a war like this, in times like these, Hanley did not believe such a person could exist. Let alone that he'd ever meet him! It was almost inconceivable.
Hanley also knew his fate was in this man's hands. Prospects did not look promising.
"You helped me because of what you could get for me, trade for me. For no other reason."
Again the shrug which Hanley was beginning to hate and a nod. "Rest now. Sleep if you can. I'm not dragging you around anymore. You leave here it'll be on your own two feet."
Gil's head hurt too much to do much in the way of deep thinking but as he began to drift off he wondered why this guy had been so concerned about moving him from where he'd fallen. "They'll be back," he'd said. Was he afraid the Krauts would've just put a bullet into his brain and this scavenger would get nothing? Maybe the prize had to be walking and talking for barter to occur. It made sense, he thought. But did it? Head buzzing and throbbing, Hanley dropped into a troubled restless sleep.
Hours passed. Night came and went and it was again dawn. The stranger had grown tired of waiting for Hanley to wake and he nudged him, roughly.
Gil rubbed the sleep from his eyes. They felt raw, dry and his vision was still blurry. And the headache was little improved. Given some water and the offer of food, he accepted the water but again disdained the bread. Just looking at it, smelling the yeasty odor of it made his stomach lurch. Pushed and prodded to the outside of the lean-to, Hanley struggled to make it to his feet.
"There's a patrol near by and the time has come for the trade. Let's go." Looking down, Hanley realized the man held his .45 automatic and it was pointed at Gil's back. The weapon was cocked.
Stumbling, holding his head with one hand, the other out in front to push away branches and bracken, the officer moved slowly. Minutes dragged by. Falling to his knees he was dragged to his feet by the scavenger who held him still, gesturing with the pistol to where a group of soldiers sat in a small clearing, smoking and talking quietly among themselves. They were British.
The scavenger called out to them in English and pushing Hanley before him, they ventured out.
Relief washed over the American officer as he stood on long unsteady legs, swaying, barely upright. Hands reached out to him, lowering him gently to the ground. Water was held to his lips.
Harsh words were exchanged between the Brits and the scavenger. They were angry, very angry and all Hanley could make out was the venom in the tone of the voices.
Suddenly a pistol cracked, then a rifle and there was silence. Moments later cool hands checked Hanley's bandaging and gave him more water and then a sip of wine. Something soft was placed beneath his head and he felt the cover of a blanket tucked around him and a safeness settled down and he slept. When he woke it was to an unfamiliar face and an unfamiliar voice, the cockney accent so thick Gil really had to concentrate to understand what the corporal was saying. But ultimately he got the drift.
It seemed the scavenger's checkered past had not gone unnoticed. His bartering and selling of human flesh had gotten him into one situation he couldn't back away from. The leader of this patrol, a sergeant, had recognized the young Belgian as the same man who had sold their major to the Krauts. He'd witnessed it first hand but had been unable to do anything to help the officer, he being one of only two men and the Germans numbering a platoon. It was this self-same patrol that had come upon the major days later, beaten to death for whatever information he'd been privy to.
When confronted with the knowledge of his previous deed and the consequences it had produced, the scavenger fired off a shot, then turned and ran. He didn't get far. His body lay in the clearing, legs in a tangle, head to one side, eyes open and staring. No one had bothered to cover it.
When the lieutenant had been delivered back to the American field hospital and put into a cot beneath the dingy gray cover of the tent, he found himself among friends. Half the squad were his roommates. Injuries ranged from a simple flesh wound to the arm as in the case of Littlejohn, a torn Achilles tendon in the case of Kirby and no surprise there, Kirby being less than light on his feet, to Caje with a serious chest wound. The Cajun scout was to be transferred to a hospital at the rear that afternoon.
And then there was Saunders....so worried about his men he had neglected himself. The less than life threatening wound to his foot had become badly infected. He was lucky penicillin was available. He'd keep his foot and his life.
Hanley was lucky as well. He'd sustained a fractured skull, but a minor one as far as injuries of that nature went. He'd be leaving in the same ambulance with Caje.
Hobbling over to the lieutenant's cot and easing his body down onto the stool reserved for nurses and doctors, Saunders watched Hanley sleep. He watched for a good hour before the lieutenant came awake and gazed up at him through a hazy drug induced veil.
"How's that headache, Lieutenant? Saunders asked, smiling. As he waited for a reply he lit the last cigarette in a pack of Lucky's and offered Hanley a drag. Gil took one, inhaling deeply but refused another. Crumbling the package, Saunders stuffed it into his shirt pocket before taking a deep drag from the cigarette, blowing the smoke away from the lieutenant.
Long moments passed as the officer tried to understand the question and then form an answer.
"Headache? I haven't got one," he slurred and for the first time in weeks he realized that was the truth. At least one good thing had come out of that damned patrol. No, maybe two things. The scavenger, the vulture in human form that preyed on his own kind, he was gone. Gone and Hanley had never known his name and for that he was grateful.
Through eyes still blurred by exhaustion and drugs Hanley watched Saunders watch him. Concern was there on the sergeant's face; concern and friendship.
Three good things had actually come out of the patrol. He'd been forced to compare the natures of men and though some came up lacking, others made up for the loss. To Gil Hanley, it was more than a fair exchange.