By: Doc II
A gambler is nothing but a man who makes his living out of hope. ~William Bolitho
Acknowledgements: thanks very much to Jester and Thompson Girl for reading and beta-reading.
We open with Saunders, Caje, a badly-wounded Doc, and communications Sergeant Meider making their way across enemy territory. They take shelter in a barn where Meider suggests that they should leave Doc behind. A German unit arrives to set up an OP in the farmhouse next to the barn. German-speaking Meider overhears that a colonel will be coming along shortly to inspect the place. Saunders sees a golden opportunity to snatch the man as well as whatever documents he can get his hands on. Meider, who only minutes before was kvetching about schlepping Doc along, now points out that if they wait, Doc may not survive. What he means, of course, is that none of them may survive. (did I point out what a selfish son of a ----- Meider is?) In the end, they manage to grab the colonel and a staff car and hit the road back to the Allied lines only moments before a troop carrier full of angry Germans arrive. And that's it. The end. I felt there was more to the story. So here's one way it could have gone...
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Caje crouched in the back of the staff car, one knee braced against the front seat and the other folded painfully beneath him, absorbing the impact from every rut and hole in the bombed-out road. Narrowing his eyes against the swirling dust, the scout stared into the distance, hoping that they were outracing the truck filled with German infantrymen, but aware all the same that their chances were somewhere between slim and none.
"...In the next war, deliver me from crazy sergeants..."
Meider's words rang in his ears. He could relate to them, seeing as how he had two crazy sergeants to deal with. His loyalty lay with Saunders, but he'd had a difficult time resigning himself to the man's plan while Doc lay bleeding and alone in the farmhouse. He'd had no choice; there were prisoners to watch. But it had rankled him all the same. Caje knew that had the decision been Doc's, as ithad been many times, the medic would have fallen on the side of saving a life. Doc had spent enough time under enemy fire, hauling in their broken and bleeding bodies, to consider otherwise. And yet Doc had just nodded and agreed with Saunders. Caje had wanted to shake him by the scruff of his neck in that hayloft, but restrained himself by the thought that it might injure the man further.
The car swerved violently as Meider fought the wheel, swearing in both German and English as he coaxed a little more horsepower from the straining engine. Unfortunately the road wasn't more than a country byway, just like the ones at home in his Pennsylvania farming community. Except for the bomb craters.He smiled grimly to himself, fingers curling tighter around the wheel. He glanced across the German colonel at Saunders who was struggling with the map, folding and unfolding it inches at a time in an effort to keep it from blowing away.
"Got any ideas yet, Saunders?" His gaze flicked back to the road in time to avoid a particularly deep rut. "Or are we just out for a Sunday stroll while ole Doc bleeds to death in the back?"
Saunders snapped the map shut and shoved it into his jacket, shifting the Thompson from under his right armpit into a more combat ready position. Shoving his helmet back on his head, he mopped the sweat from his forehead on his sleeve, blinking as a few stray droplets slid into his eyes. "Knock it off, Meider, we just gotta make a few more turns. Go, ah, south in about a quarter of a mile, should be a track leading off that way."
"That's a left, right? I mean, I'm a communications man, not a navigator." Meider snickered, swiveling his head to make sure the German was enjoying his witty conversation. His grin lagged and slid from his face when he realized the man was staring straight ahead and ignoring the sparring American sergeants.
Saunders threw his left arm across the German, clawing for Meider's sleeve. Hooking his fingers into the fabric, he shook it, snarling at the man. "No, that's a 'left, correct!' For a communications guy, you're sure not very good at it." He sat back down and pulled out the map again.
Caje shook his head, astounded by the animosity between the two men. As the vehicle rocketed from side to side, he accidentally leaned onto the medic, eliciting a low moan. Caje quickly stowed the Garand on the floor of the staff car under one knee. He didn't have to pull open the medic's jacket to see the fresh spread of blood over the right side, saturating the fabric and turning it black in the dappled afternoon sunlight. Gripping Doc's wrist, Caje fought to separate the man's pulse from his own, both racing far faster than they should be. Doc's face was flushed, too, eyes shut tightly. A faint sheen of sweat coated his skin and slid in thick drops to his collar, his hair slicked with it. He'd been unconscious from almost the moment they'd made their escape from the farmhouse. How he had managed to put one foot in front of the other as Saunders and Caje maneuvered him into the vehicle was something the Cajun would never understand.
Courage wasn't always found behind a gun sight. Sometimes, Caje mused, it took more guts to NOT squeeze the trigger. He reached down and picked up the Garand again, his fingers sliding over its familiar contour. Shifting so his elbow didn't rest on Doc's belly, Caje resumed his watch on the rear. "Sarge?"
The men in the front didn't respond, shoulders still rigidly square. Saunders stared at the map, one booted foot braced on the running board, while Meider concentrated on the road.
"Sarge?" Caje tensed his muscles, blinking rapidly a few times then staring hard down the road. He leaned his upper body across the medic and rested his elbows along the top of the staff car's upholstered back seat, the Garand held at the ready. MERDE! "Sarge, they got us!"
The German squad sent to investigate the communications outpost appeared around the bend behind them, wheels churning furiously in the dry dust. The truck's huge tires bounced easily in and out of the ruts Meider was forced to avoid, making up the ground between them with terrifying speed. Helmeted heads peered over the cab and out the sides of the vehicle, rifle barrels rebounding in response to the rough track.
Saunders spun around, jamming his left knee into the seat back. "Dammit, Meider, you're gonna hafta go faster!" He glanced at von Stolzing, thankful that he'd taken the time to securely tie the man's hands together and then to the dashboard. A trace of a smile tugged at the corners of the German's mouth and Saunders fought down the desire to knock it off his face with the butt of the Thompson.
The staff car swayed to the left, skidding on loose stones that strafed the bushes lining the road like machine gun fire. Saunders flung out his right arm, grabbing for a handhold, and the Thompson slipped from his fingers, clattering onto the floor. As the sergeant hauled himself back into the vehicle, von Stolzing hooked one foot under the weapon, neatly flipping it up and over Saunders' shoulder.
Caje jerked his head around at the sergeant's epithet, the Thompson a mere spinning blur at the edge of his peripheral vision. Lunging sideways, he dropped the Garand across Doc's unconscious body and threw himself from the car, the submachine gun slamming into his chest as it flew by in the slipstream. Arms securely clamped over it, Caje ducked his head and rolled as the ground rose to meet him, vanishing into the underbrush.
Scrambling over the seat, Saunders dropped heavily to the floor in the back, pain flaring in his knees on impact with the bare metal. He reached blindly for the Garand, eyes wide as he stared at the minute gap in the foliage through which his scout had to have passed. Blinking the sweat from his eyes, Saunders dragged his attention to the troop carrier, looming ever larger behind them. He blanked his mind to Caje's fate, knowing the man had extricated himself from far worse situations. He'll be okay. Saunders swallowed hard, suddenly aware of the warm smear of blood on his hand from the stock of the rifle where it rested on Doc's belly. Glancing down at the medic's ashen face, the sergeant felt a flicker of doubt work its itchy way across his conscience.
"MEIDER! Get this thing moving and find that turnoff! We gotta get offa this road!"
Meider's sweaty fingers slipped on the shuddering wheel as he wrestled the heavy vehicle around a sharp curve. He hadn't seen Caje bailing out the back and assumed that Saunders had joined the Cajun in the rear seat to face the troop carrier. "I'm on it, Saunders, I'm on it!" He shook his head, glancing briefly at the German next him. "Enjoying the ride, are ya, Colonel?" Shoving the accelerator to the floor, Meider turned his attention back to the road, glimpsing the narrow track bending off to the left only just in time to slam on the brakes, his arms shaking with tension.
The staff car canted sharply into the turn, its left-hand wheels barely kissing the loose dirt of the track while those on the right skidded, alternately digging in and powering the heavy vehicle forward and then slipping and threatening to slam it sideways into the wall of trees. Back braced solidly against the seat, Meider kept the accelerator mashed to the floor, ignoring the shuddering that ran the length of the steel frame and the stifled oaths of the German officer.
With one leg doubled underneath him and the other sliding toward the open door, Saunders had no option but to just hang on. He hadn't had time to loop the Garand's strap over his shoulder, and he held the stock squeezed painfully between his elbow and his ribcage. He looked over at the medic, ignoring Meider's muttering.
Doc slid slightly on the seat, his body controlled by the same centrifugal force that threatened Saunders' precarious position. His head lolled back and forth, lips moving, but no words escaped him. For a second, unfocused blue eyes snapped open, staring straight back at the sergeant, then slowly closed again.
"Oh SHIT!" Meider yanked the wheel frantically to the right, trying to avoid the shell crater he hadn't seen until the last minute. The staff car lurched sideways, throwing the communications sergeant against the German colonel. The colonel had nowhere to go, his feeble attempts to shove Meider off him useless. Fingers clamped around the steering wheel, Meider managed to get himself upright again, right foot still jamming the accelerator to the floorboards.
In the backseat, Saunders had problems of his own. The jolt as the car bottomed out in the crater lifted Doc bodily off the seat and slammed him into the sergeant, leaving them both on the floor, arms and legs and Garand entangled. Doc screamed in agony as consciousness broke over him in a tidal wave of white hot pain. He clawed unseeing at the weight on his abdomen, teeth clenched tightly together. Blood ran from his lower lip where he'd bitten right through it when his chin collided with the top of Saunders' head.
With only his left arm free, Saunders flailed unsuccessfully to extricate himself, his right arm hung up in the strap of the Garand and trapped by his elbow under the front seat. He knew he was hurting Doc, but couldn't get enough leverage with the insane rocking of the vehicle to move.
"Doc! DOC!" Saunders knew it was futile, the medic was too far gone in his own world of blood and pain to hear anything beyond his own hoarse pleas for mercy. "MEIDER!"
Meider ignored Saunders' desperate cries. He knew their only chance lay in outrunning the troop carrier or hiding until the Krauts gave up looking. He snorted, attention wavering from the road ever so slightly as he considered the options. Not that there was much of a choice between them. Both depended on dumb luck. And while Meider privately felt that Saunders seemed to have a lock on dumb today, he had to admit that the blond sergeant did command more than the average share of luck. Maybe it would be enough. Maybe.
Flat on his back in the weeds, Caje struggled to catch his breath, the Thompson clutched securely in his arms. It seemed so small to him, so inconsequential compared to the Garand that had seen the Cajun through so many tough situations. Chest heaving, Caje flopped over on his belly, coughing harshly in the dust from the road. Thick clouds of it settled in the wake of the careening vehicle driven by that madman, Meider. Caje shook his head, trying to shove his private opinions away. He needed to concentrate, needed to focus on just one thing.
Stopping that troop carrier.
He had about five seconds.
Easing up marginally on the accelerator, Meider finally acknowledged Saunders' frantic shouts. He frowned, downshifting in a clamorous grinding of gears.
Caught unaware, von Stolzing bent forward at the waist, almost bashing his nose on the dashboard. His cap tumbled from his head and onto the floor. Numb fingers grasped the handgrip where the thick twine that secured his wrists was anchored. Struggling for a moment to right himself, the German colonel realized that his new position allowed him some slack in the bindings. Pain flooded his hands while triumph filled his heart. He glanced at the American sergeant beside him, realizing that the man had enough problems keeping the vehicle on the track. Nobody was watching the captive. Von Stolzing grinned, deft fingers working away at the ropes.
Just a few more seconds.
Scrambling to his knees, Caje pulled a grenade from his jacket, index finger of his right hand sliding into the ring and yanking the pin free. Sweat stung his eyes, running down his face and soaking his collar. Acutely aware of the slick metal under his fingers, Caje closed his left fist tighter around the spoon. He counted to five, panting heavily. The troop carrier swung into his peripheral vision, and the Cajun threw the grenade, his muscles protesting yet another fall as he dropped to the ground, arms wrapped around his helmet.
The explosion was oddly muffled, and the truck inexplicably sped up, its engine screaming at the extra RPMs. Caje rolled to his feet, Saunders' Thompson at the ready. What he saw made no sense. The carrier continued down the road although its course grew more and more erratic. Smoke billowed from the passenger's side of the cab, and an arm dangled limply there. Despite the increasing speed, German soldiers leapt from the back, tumbling over each other in apparent panic.
Caje angled to the left, putting a little more distance between himself and the Krauts, but still staying within the safety of the trees. He desperately wanted to cross the road and keep on going, heading for the Allied lines. Saunders' map, the one handed him by the terrified young dispatch rider, had clearly marked the deployment of German troops through the region. It hadn't taken the scout but a moment or two of study before he committed the escape route to memory. The sergeant's continued scrutiny of the document while Caje tended the wounded Doc worried him, though. He had no choice but to travel the original route, and hope that Saunders would, too.
Not five seconds later, the troop carrier lurched its way off the road, slamming into a tree and bursting into flames as all the Germans fell to the ground. Caje could see the tops of their helmets, turning as one to stare slack-jawed at the fire climbing rapidly over the canvas cladding and up the spindly trunks of the shattered trees. He ducked away himself as one front tire blew from the heat, its belted tread tracing a lazy arc in the air before thumping to the dusty road ten feet from where he was hiding. Backing up through the thick groundcover, ignoring the quick jabs and grabs of stickers and thorns at his exposed skin, Caje fought a rising panic that threatened to overwhelm his judgment.
As the Germans picked themselves up and began to scan the woods, he recognized the futility in taking them on himself. Without a vehicle, what were the odds of them catching up with Doc and the others anyway? It took the scout a moment to realize just what his objective in this entire operation had been. To save Doc. He hadn't bought into capturing the colonel anymore than Meider had. The difference between them had been his long-standing loyalty to Saunders and an unwavering trust forged over a hundred recons. A trust that he now found himself questioning.
Caje hardly dared breathe, his spare frame weaseled into a space inside a deadfall of ancient trees. Any movement would bring the attention of the Germans who were even now searching his side of the road. Damn luck. One of them must have seen the arcing grenade as it sailed through the passenger window of the truck instead of landing amongst the crowded soldiers in the back as Caje had intended. Dammit!He tightened his fingers around the Thompson, the smooth steel of the barrel unbearably cold against his cheek. Sweat inched its way down his forehead and between his eyelashes, dripping into his eyes with maddening regularity. And yet Caje didn't blink.
A young German, cursing the thick foliage and the heat of the day, stepped over a log, his weapon at hand. He paused, listening. With a glance over his shoulder at his sergeant, the kid took another step closer to death.
Caje stared down the short barrel of the Tommy, both eyes open and focused on the Kraut who couldn't have been more than fifteen years old. He forced his fingers to relax around the magazine, well away from the trigger, and willed his lungs to keep on exchanging air, one shallow breath after another. There just wasn't any point in killing the kid, none whatsoever. It wouldn't save Doc and he'd be signing his own death warrant. Just no point.
With an elbow levered painfully beneath his ribs, Saunders managed to roll Doc away. He scooted backwards a few inches and pulled the Garand free, sliding it up on the back seat and out of the way. Rocks and other debris clanged against the underside of the car. Saunders winced, flinching away as a particularly large stone smacked into something that was surely important.
Now on his knees, Saunders braced himself between the seats, staring down at Doc and what must have been at least half the man's blood supply. He reached for the medic's wrist, freezing at the sight of his own hand, slicked red and trembling.
"You understand, don't'cha, Doc? It's real important..."
The car pitched forward, and Saunders' head cracked against the metal frame of the seat back. His vision blurred, tears welling unbidden in his eyes. He blinked a few times and shoved his sleeve across his face, unaware that he was spreading Doc's blood all over his cheeks.
Meider's arms shook with tension as he locked his elbows and fought with the wheel. The road had become increasingly rough from the impact of heavy artillery. Thick tree trunks fallen into the road bed forced him to swerve chaotically. At least the German colonel had stopped slamming into him. Meider didn't look, but it seemed that the man was hanging on tightly, one jackbooted foot planted against the floorboards.
Saunders. Saunders screaming at him yet again. Don't he know I'm a little busy here? Why can't he get Caje to help him out? Locking his elbows, Meider craned his head around and stared over his left shoulder at the back seat. And flinched so badly he almost drove off the road. There's nobody there!As the tires jumped a few ruts and nearly threw him from the driver's seat, Meider swung back around and corrected his steering. Von Stolzing seemed to be cowering away from him, half turned away. The communications sergeant dismissed him with no more than a momentary glance. His real concern was to the rear.
"Saunders?" Meider twisted himself backward again.
A camouflaged helmet popped up from the floorboards, followed shortly by a pair of bright blue eyes set in a sea of blood. Saunders blinked at Meider, turning his head to spit a thick wad of red-tinged phlegm out of the car. "What the hell do you think you're doin', Meider, you're all over this road like a corkscrew!"
Meider swallowed hard. Where there had been three soldiers, now there was one. "Wh—where's Caje?" He knew he was stammering and cursed himself for it, but there was no controlling his rapidly spiraling fear.
To Meider's utter bafflement, Saunders stood up and flung himself over the seat, grabbing wildly at the wheel. At the same moment, von Solving managed to free himself and lunged toward the passenger door, held in place only by the sudden weight of Saunders' knee landing in the middle of his back. Meider was aware that Saunders was screaming at him, screaming in a voice he'd not heard before, high and tight with panic. He felt he had all the time in the world and was watching his life unfold as if from a great distance. Turning his head in a lazy arc to the rear, Meider confirmed his initial impression: the scout was no longer with them and neither, apparently, was Doc. He wondered where they'd gone, and when. But not for long as...
...time resumed its frantic pace and the leaves on the trees blurred into a miasma of green and brown and what the hell was Saunders doing yanking the wheel away from him? Meider yanked back, surprised by the sudden laxity in the steering column as the staff car's front wheels shot off the edge of a bridge that was no longer there. Screaming, Meider threw his arms up, covering his face.
Desperate to get back to protect the medic, Saunders' right knee caught Meider on the chin as he scrambled back over the seat.
The car tipped over the crumbling stone, teetering for a moment as the rear wheels spun and finally caught, propelling them off the brink. Meider stared in stunned disbelief at the rapidly flowing river below them, admiring the changing colors the afternoon sun created among the eddying currents. It didn't seem right, to be confronted with such beauty at such a final moment. He had just enough time to appreciate the irony before they struck the water and cold darkness overtook him.
The German private crept over the fallen trees, his fingers wrapped around his rifle so tightly that he'd never be able to bring it around in time, let alone fire it. At least, that's what Caje was counting on. Ten more feet and he'd have no choice but to open up on the kid and the sergeant beyond him. That or risk capture, and Caje was fairly certain taking prisoners wasn't on his hunters' agenda. He could feel the hum of his blood racing through his body, buzzing in his ears and thudding painfully in his neck where he'd jammed the stock of the Thompson. Almost lightheaded from his strictly regulated breathing, Caje allowed himself a prolonged deep breath, wincing at the sudden pain in his chest as his starved lungs sucked in the humid air. His elbow twitched involuntarily and dislodged the uppermost of the stack of desiccated branches shielding him from view. Dark eyes widening in horror, he watched it teeter, sprigs of dead leaves waving back and forth like a flag, then roll to the forest floor with a resounding crash.
The German sergeant grabbed the back of the kid's jacket and yanked him to the dirt. Fearful of an ambush, they waited a few moments, puzzled by the lack of attack. They both jumped at the burst of static from the radio strapped to the private's back, then flattened themselves further into the dirt. Another long moment passed, and there was still no enemy fire.
The sergeant reached for the handset, almost dropping it from his sweat-slicked fingers. He swallowed hard, still staring at the shadows within the deadfall, and answered the summons.
Caje remained motionless. He wasn't so sure that it was a good tactic, but he had no choice. The tumbling branches had pinned him down. As they fell, he'd considered blazing away at the Krauts and then beating a hasty retreat to the rear, but the very first dead branch trapped his left arm and the Thompson beneath it. Now, he could do no more than wriggle his fingers in frustration. In all the close calls he'd experienced since Normandy, Caje hadn't pictured the end like this, defenseless, caught like a rat in a trap. He thought fleetingly of the hot summer afternoons of his boyhood, the cool jazz floating along New Orleans alleyways the summer he turned eighteen, his mother's face when he was called up. Hoping with all his heart that his gambit had paid off and Doc and Saunders had gotten away. Caje also thanked God that the rest of the squad hadn't been along. Kirby, Littlejohn, Billy... Of Meider he didn't think at all.
The shell slammed into the earth with a force that ripped the oxygen from the air and totally obliterated a circular area of trees and underbrush more than fifty yards in diameter. Flames rose from dozens of fires that sparked from treetop to treetop, exploding in the canopy and then jumping again and again, spreading carnage in waves across the forest. Small animals, forced from their burrows and underground nests, ran frantically in all directions, some of them right back into the red hot center of the blast.
Knocked senseless by the concussion, Caje came to abruptly, choking in the thick dust that hung in the acrid air, the taste of ashes filling his mouth. I can't see! Instinctively, he clawed at his eyes, not realizing for a moment that he was able to use both arms, freed when the rest of the log pile shivered apart like a house of cards. He couldn't feel any blood, any overt injury. More importantly, he didn't feel any pain. Therefore, Caje concluded, he must be dead. Dropping his hands in resignation, he was startled to feel the cold steel of the Thompson under his fingers. Clutching the weapon to his chest, Caje felt the hairs rising along the back of his neck as a far worse realization sank in. He wasn't dead. And not thirty feet away were two Germans intent on killing him, presumably also not dead.
And he was blind.
Just open your eyes. Open your eyes!
Saunders couldn't do it. He'd held it together all damn day, forcing himself to be the leader his men expected him to be. He saw the opportunity to snatch the colonel, they snatched the colonel. As for Doc, well, dammit, he was not gonna think about Doc now. The reproach in Caje's dark eyes had been enough to drive him to the breaking point. Caje. He'd trusted Caje all the way from Omaha Beach, depended on his quiet support. Today, the scout was just going through the motions because of Meider's animosity. Saunders knew it, knew it and ignored it. And Doc would pay for it. Don't think about Doc. Just open your eyes.
The steady hiss of steam rising off to his right drew his attention. He tried to open one eye and was surprised to find it gummed shut with sticky blood. Saunders forced open the other one and tilted his head to the side, squinting in the last brilliant fire of the afternoon sun. Except it wasn't the sun, it was flames, flickering from the chassis of the staff car where it rested upside down in the river. Saunders blinked, bringing up one hand cupped full of water and rinsed his face, both eyes now wide open and staring.
The bridge was gone, just a small walled approach and then nothing. The banks were littered with stone, some large and still intact, others blasted into pebbles and dust. Saunders couldn't remember Allied artillery in this sector. Maybe a stray 88? Or maybe the bridge had been deliberately destroyed to slow down an advancing enemy. Or a retreating one. Either way, Meider hadn't seen it and had driven straight off into the abyss.
Their vehicle had fallen at least thirty feet straight down, near as Saunders could estimate. He and Doc must have been catapulted from the back seat, flying gracelessly to an abrupt halt on the opposite shore. Doc! Saunders sat up abruptly, hands closing around a boot half submerged in the shallows. No, no, not Doc....Scrambling to his knees, Sarge hauled himself from the river, dragging the rest of his aching body to collapse beside the medic. He reached out, resting a heavy hand on the man's ribcage.
A long moment passed, during which Saunders had more than enough time to regret the hours spent waiting for von Stolzing, the loss of respect from his currently missing scout, and the possibility that his own pigheadedness may have cost Doc's life. Just as he was visualizing himself at his own court-martial, Doc's chest hitched beneath his fingers, and Saunders sat up abruptly, staring down at the medic with wide blue eyes.
Doc was deeply unconscious. Other than the slight lift of his jacket from time to time, he didn't move, his body relaxed in a way it hadn't been all day. The dark bloodstain over the right side of his abdomen faded in the gentle currents at the river's edge, the water tainted faintly red.
Eyes closing in sheer exhaustion and relief, Saunders took in a deep breath of his own, wincing at the multiple aches and pains.
"Saunders!" The muffled voice, hardly more than a whisper, wafted from beneath the staff car.
Blue eyes snapped open wide as Saunders first glanced at Doc's pale and motionless face and then rolled over onto his backside to stare at the wreck of the staff car. At first, he saw nothing but the rippling water diverting around the twisted steel, swirling as though encountering a new and curious rock, and then moving on. Nothing. You imagined it.
Saunders staggered into the water, boots skidding on the moss-covered stones lining the riverbed, and floundered in the fierce current. He lunged and grabbed for the staff car's bumper, its sharp edge cutting his fingers. Fighting both the pain and the river, Saunders worked his way to the driver's side, forcing his lacerated fingers to open and close again and again.
Meider!In his solitary despair over what he thought was Doc's death, Saunders had totally forgotten the other men in the car. Reaching blindly into the water, he swept his arm back and forth, encountering nothing but cold black water. He knew the man had to be there, HAD to be there. An icy chill that had nothing to do with the river's temperature but everything to do with his own sense of failure settled into his bones, slowing his movements. He slumped against the vehicle, fighting an escalating panic.
A hand gripped his wrist tightly, yanking with a strength that not only took Saunders by surprise but frightened him. His head bounced off the left front fender, lengthening the jagged wound on his temple. Scrubbing furiously at his eyes with his free hand, Saunders let the river sweep his feet out from under him in a desperate attempt to free himself.
It almost worked.
The water closed over Saunders' face before he had a chance to take a breath. The hand encircling his wrist tightened and pulled him deeper, underneath the shadow of the car. Lungs burning, Saunders kicked desperately, looking for purchase among the slimy river rocks but finding none, his boots slick as ice skates. He felt lightheaded, aware of a growing light as he stared through the murky water in the darkness underneath the vehicle. A haze of red blossomed before him, floating in front of his eyes before he was pulled through it and into an air pocket.
He inhaled sharply, filling his lungs with a shuddering breath.
Meider guided Saunders' hand to the steering wheel, curling the sergeant's fingers around it, and then released him. The communications sergeant coughed then, gagging and spitting, bright red blood spilling over his split lip and dripping down into the water. The flashlight clutched in his other hand shone a weak yellow glare over the floor of the staff car, now above them. The communications sergeant was twisted awkwardly around, chest pinned by the steering column where it had broken through the wheel and impaled him.
Struggling to draw a breath, Meider inexplicably grinned at Saunders. "Did we kill Doc yet?" He choked suddenly, eyes bulging. More blood trickled from his lips and he squeezed his eyes shut, struggling without success to suppress a wracking cough.
Head bobbing beneath the dashboard, Saunders could only stare in disbelief. His pulse hammered in his ears, far too fast to count. He heard Meider's words, but made no sense of them. The current plucked at his pants and jacket, threatening to tug him off his feet and sweep him downstream. Squeezing his fingers tighter around the steering wheel, Saunders managed to anchor himself, hooking the elbow of his other arm around the brake pedal.
"Meider?" His voice sounded alien to him, a stranger calling in a dream. He swallowed hard and tried again. "Meider, can you move?" Saunders wasn't sure if he could himself. The wash of adrenaline through his system left him trembling in the icy water, his limbs numb and heavy. Every few seconds, his hand slipped from the wheel despite his best effort to grip it tightly, splashing into the water like a dead fish thrown back by a frustrated fisherman. I can't even feel my fingers!Panic settled its cold mantle over his shoulders, slowing his mental processes even further.
Saunders jerked awake, slamming his head into the accelerator pedal. Blinking away the sudden tears in his eyes, he opened them wide to discover himself only inches from the water. He kicked hard against the riverbed and hitched himself higher on the steering wheel, staring hard at Meider who glared back with a gaze far colder than the river.
"What'cha gonna do about him?" Meider turned his head only the smallest fraction, still holding Saunders' uncomprehending gaze. Blood dribbled over his lip, pooling briefly on his chin, and then dripped into the water, one globule after another in an endless chain.
Oddly fascinated, Saunders watched the river turn red, then clear again as the surface current swirled the blood away, then red....
"Saunders!" Meider swung the flashlight at the sergeant, then pointed its failing beam at the far corner of the compartment, the jaundiced light falling on the struggling face of Colonel von Stolzing.
Saunders lost his grip on the steering wheel and cracked his chin on the column. Flailing, he managed to duck under the water, hands finding and pushing Meider's legs out of the way as he scrabbled over to the other side of the car. He burst back into the air pocket nose-to-nose with von Stolzing. The German's mouth was almost entirely submerged beneath the cold water, his lips pursed with effort. Saunders shoved an arm around his back and tried to pull him higher.
Screaming in agony, von Stolzing slipped from Saunders' grasp, his entire head ducking underwater and then reappearing, eyes wide with terror. He clawed at his rescuer, pummeling blindly in the confined space of the staff car.
Backing off, Saunders looked over his shoulder at Meider, whose face held an expression the sergeant couldn't quite fathom. He looked...amused, eyes coolly appraising the German's situation. Saunders stared at him, shivering.
Meider finally turned his gaze back to Saunders, raising his chin to clear the rising water. "He seems to be stuck somewhere." He coughed, spat out more blood, and glanced over at von Stolzing. "I figure the water should be over his nose in about half an hour."
Another shell pounded into the ground, closer than the last. Caje threw his arms over his head and rolled onto his belly, his limbs shaking uncontrollably. It was bad enough he couldn't see, but it took the second 88 for him to realize he couldn't hear, either.
But neither could the Germans!
Scrambling on all fours, Caje put as much distance between himself and where he thought the Krauts had been as he could, slamming into saplings and tree trunks and all manner of scrubby undergrowth in the process. The dust in the air dissipated and he found he could breathe easier between coughing fits. A faint glow off to the left drew his attention... afaint glow! Caje curled up in the dubious shelter created by a cluster of newly toppled pines, their tangy odor flooding his nose and the back of his throat. Rubbing at his eyes with his fists, he tentatively opened them, staring down into his hands with such desperate hope that his chest hurt.
He waggled his fingers...and let out the breath he'd been holding. Turning his attention to the forest around him, Caje realized just why he'd been unable to see before. The amount of dirt thrown into the sky by the huge explosions had literally turned day into night. As the dust settled, the scout saw the vast extent of the devastation.
A new clearing now lay where only moments before hundreds of ancient trees had stood. Smoke rose from the bomb crater, drifting in lazy spirals with the diffident afternoon breeze. Denuded tree trunks lay everywhere, and sap dripped down in thick tears.
Caje hauled himself from his knees and slung the Thompson over his shoulder. He knew now what the German sergeant had been arranging over his radio. There was no other reason for this area to be shelled. No Allied troops were anywhere close to the region. Only him. Caje was certain that the two Krauts and their remaining squad members had decamped as soon as they'd ordered up the brief bombardment. They'd be long gone back to their lines, convinced that the American couldn't have survived the shelling.
Caje was utterly alone in the forest.
The water rose relentlessly in the compartment, while Saunders dove again and again, fruitlessly clawing at the riverbed under von Stolzing's leg where the door jamb had pinned him. The sergeant couldn't even gain the man an inch. Saunders slammed his fist uselessly at the water, succeeding only in splashing more of it into von Stolzing's face.
Meider watched the operation in uncharacteristic silence, coughing now and again and swiping at the dribbling blood on his chin with an increasingly lethargic hand. He wanted to feel rage, wanted to lash out at Saunders for getting them all into this predicament, but somehow the anger slipped away with the river currents, leaving him tired and indifferent.
Saunders moved back to Meider, running his hands frantically over the steering column. Ignoring the moans from the communications man, he braced himself against the underside of the dashboard and kicked again and again at the rigid metal. Panting, he ducked under the water again and came up spluttering next to Meider. For a long moment he floated there, clinging to the brake pedal, his blue eyes dulled with pain and exhaustion. The glow of the flashlight accentuated the hopelessness in Meider's expression and the sheer desperation in the set of Saunders' jaw.
Lifting his chin a little, Meider cocked an eyebrow in the German's direction. He turned the flashlight's faint yellow beam at von Stolzing, who closed his eyes against the glare.
"I guess I was wrong on the timing." Meider's head dipped to the side, momentarily dropping his own mouth beneath the surface of the water.
Saunders was there in an instant, pulling the communication man's arm across his shoulder, and lifting him enough to clear his face. He threaded his arm through the steering wheel and took more of Meider's weight as he struggled against the current.
Meider shook his head. "It's too late, Saunders." He flicked his eyes again in von Stolzing's direction.
The German colonel twisted and turned, arms above his head and long fingers sliding over the upholstery as he searched for a handhold. The water rose over his mouth and nose and a stream of bubbles percolated to the surface and popped, one by one. Clear blue eyes flew open, his gaze darting first to the smooth upholstery overhead and then turning frantically toward the two Americans. The water roiled for a brief moment, and then the froth was gone. Von Stolzing's arms slid down the seat back, fingers seeming to linger over the smooth contours of the leather. His eyes remained open, staring at them with stark accusation.
Swallowing hard, Saunders turned his face away and shoved Meider higher. Meider continued to meet the corpse's blank gaze, his mouth clamped tight against the invading water, body shaking with cold and shock and a fear he'd never admit to Saunders. He could feel the sergeant's hands next to his ribcage, shoving against the unyielding steering column. A cough burbled its way up from his chest, bursting from between his lips with a stream of blood. He felt a loosening in his lungs but, strangely, no pain, and he was able to draw a full breath that cleared his head and calmed his panic. He turned to Saunders, only inches away, and laughed, a high-pitched whistling accompanying his efforts.
"Did it again, didn't'cha?" Meider's head threatened to topple to one side, and he straightened it so he could meet Saunders' uncomprehending frown with a grin of his own. The blood flowed freely over his lips now, pooling in the dark surface of the water.
"Made the wrong goddamned choice, didn't'cha?"
Saunders' muscles tightened, trembling.
"Made Doc wait all damn day, didn't'cha?"
The river kept on rising, a fraction of an inch at a time.
"Now your prize is DEAD!"
The shouting was a bad idea, Meider mused, it about took all he had left. But he had to admit that Saunders' face was worth it. He took another breath and soldiered on. "Now you pick me over your precious colonel and guess what, Saunders?" Shivering badly, Meider forced his hand out of the water, the skin shriveled and puckered. He patted Saunders on the cheek, his fingers stiff and wooden and clumsy with cold. He had to hurry.
"Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly...."
Meider's voice was high and reedy, not much more than a whisper. Saunders shook with a dread he hadn't experienced since he was a little boy. Not since he'd overcome his fear of the dark.
"And now... I'm... dead, TOO!"
Screaming, Meider arched backward, his head striking the doorframe and then rebounding into the steering wheel. The blood continued to run freely, staining the water and the two men crimson. Flashlight clutched tightly in one fist, Meider's arms flung wide, narrowly missing Saunders' head. He wrenched his neck around, the muscles creaking audibly, and caught Saunders' gaze one final time. His mouth opened, teeth brilliantly white against all that blood.
"I'm... dead... too."
Meider's lips merely shaped the words, no sound emerged. His head tipped forward until he was facedown in the water and his arms fell to his sides. The flashlight fell, too, splashing into the river and sinking to the bottom where its feeble light glowed.
As Saunders clung to the steering column, shock shutting down his senses, the light flickered and then blinked out, leaving him in total darkness.
Caje leaned his hands on his knees, trying without a great deal of success to take a deep breath. He felt much as he did that June afternoon, an eternity ago in his heart. He'd been scared out of his mind. And worse than that, he'd let the fear sap his strength and his focus. Theo's death had replayed itself many times in his dreams, always coming unexpectedly, often after a day when the worst thing that happened was Kirby complaining about his feet. The nightmares almost always culminated with his own death, insinuating dark tendrils of doubt throughout his subconscious. Up 'til now he'd managed to balance that dark despair with the trust he'd been able to forge with his sergeant. Feeding off Saunders' confidence had enabled Caje to find the self-assurance he'd possessed all his life but had forgotten on Omaha Beach.
Understanding a man's motives and agreeing with them were two different things. Caje hauled himself upright again, the Thompson slung carelessly over his shoulder and slapping against his thigh with each halting step. He knew better, sure he did. But somehow, he just couldn't bring himself to care. Would Saunders have let him die, slowly and painfully behind a curtain, just to capture a German colonel? Caje was pretty sure he knew the answer to that, having observed Saunders' sidelong glances at the wounded medic all afternoon long, the momentary flicker of doubt in those otherwise decisive blue eyes.
While Caje was Saunders' right hand, Doc was the sergeant's conscience. The medic could say things to Saunders nobody else could get away with, not even Hanley with his privilege of rank. And his easy manner so softened any rebuke that Saunders often found himself taking the medic's comments under advisement. Caje, for one, had been happy to see the rapport grow. The sergeant had been out there in noncom-land all on his lonesome too long. While his technical skills, intuition and ability to command had never been questioned, Caje felt that it came at a cost. Doc's arrival in the squad had slowed that continual drain on the sergeant, helping him store the energy he wasted sorting out the hearts and minds of the men. Today, though, it was Doc paying the price, and it was more than Caje thought Saunders ought to write off.
Slapping one booted foot in front of the other, Caje followed the tracks of the staff car. He'd checked out the troop carrier, noting the two dead men in the front seat who'd been the direct beneficiaries of the grenade's blast. The steering wheel and foot pedals had been blown to pieces. Well, at least they hadn't been able to follow Doc and Saunders.It hadn't been more than a few hundred yards to the turnoff; Caje had stopped the Germans just in time.
He studied the deep ruts in the road, his skills as a tracker sharp despite his detachment. Shaking his head at the thought of Meider taking the turn at what must have been an excessive rate of speed judging by the spray of darker dirt thrown over the loose sand, Caje could only hope that the medic had managed to remain in the vehicle. He stood there a further moment, staring at the lush undergrowth that still remained in this area, and wondered just how far a man might travel, airborne, and would it necessarily be a fatal journey. With a shake of his pounding head, Caje forced himself to march on, following the southerly track.
The sun bled through the trees, falling in bright shafts. He pulled his helmet lower over the ear on that side, shading his face and giving his grit-filled eyes some respite from the glare. It had been hot all day but now Caje felt the heat pressing on his shoulders, sapping what little remaining strength he had in his limbs. Watching the toes of his boots as they appeared and then disappeared, Caje felt a vague disorientation, as though his feet had instructions of their own to which he wasn't privy. Just along for the ride, he thought, realizing that that's all he'd been doing all damn day.
The road bent slightly to the left, enough that Caje lurched to a halt, finally aware that an entire platoon of Krauts could have been waiting there and he wouldn't have been the wiser. He pulled the Thompson around to firing position, letting his hand slide over the stock, and rested his index finger on the trigger guard. In three quick strides, light as any cat, Caje slipped into the trees and vanished.
Five long minutes passed while Caje reconnoitered the area, backtracking to make sure he wasn't being followed, and then working his way forward again to a position where he could see the road. A faint ticking noise reached his bomb-muffled ears. Frowning, Caje crept on, pausing every few steps to fade into the foliage, his dark eyes wide and unblinking.
He could smell it before he could see it. The odor of hot metal flooded his nostrils and stung the back of his throat. Caje sank to his knees, his right hand clutching his shirt collar closed over his mouth while he fought down an overwhelming urge to retch. He tried to slow his breathing but the adrenaline flying through his bloodstream had complete control now. Even his fingers seemed to pulse with his heart's rhythm, the Thompson warm under his touch and alive to his instincts. The weapon may not have been his Garand, but it still felt like an extension of his body, and Caje knew if the time came, he'd use it with the same practiced ease.
Just ahead, a thin plume of smoke arose from beyond a knee-high stone wall. Caje squinted at it, wishing he'd been carrying Saunders' binoculars. Something didn't look right but, from his position in the trees, he couldn't quite see what it was. He waited another few moments, turning slowly to ensure that he was quite alone. A bird chirped suddenly, only a few feet away, springing into the air with a great flurry of feathers. Caje flinched away, throwing an arm over his face. Flat on his back, he shut his eyes, focusing all his attention on the sounds around him.
Caje rolled to his feet and stepped out onto the road. It only took a moment to realize that the little wall was in fact part of a bridge, a bridge that no longer spanned the river. The smoke drifted in the breeze, its acrid odor burning the Cajun's nasal passages and threatening to send him into spasms of hacking coughs. Moving closer, he abandoned all pretense of stealth and sprinted the rest of the way, pulling up short at the fractured edge.
Beneath him was the underside of the staff car, its front end brutally buried in the river. Somewhere in the mechanics, a fire smoldered as the thin plume gave way to a thick black cloud of sooty smoke. With sudden ferocity, the gas tank blew, knocking Caje backward off his feet. He scrambled to his knees, eyes burning, and crept back to the abyss. The fire flared up, sending a wave of heat that scorched his skin and forced him to retreat again. But the blaze was no match for the river and was soon extinguished, leaving behind only that peculiar ticking of cooling metal.
Caje lay on his belly, elbows propped under his chest. Tears streamed down his face as he stared at the wreck. He didn't bother wiping them away as he was totally unaware of them. Already at the end of his physical limits, Caje felt the fragile hold he had over his emotions falling away as shock set in.
Nobody could have survived that.
As the staff car exploded, Saunders did nothing more than close his eyes. He sat cross-legged on the far bank of the river, his back against the remainder of the bridge abutment. He'd managed to pull Doc completely out of the water but was unable to get the medic up the steep and muddy banks, his muscles shaking with fatigue. As pieces of metal and upholstery rained down, he leaned slightly forward to shelter Doc's head and shoulders where they rested in his lap, wincing as a hot shard bounced off the bare skin on the back of his neck.
He had no memory of exiting the vehicle, no idea how he'd escaped the flooding compartment and the same fate as von Stolzing. All he could remember was the cold and the darkness, blacker than any night of his life. As he'd placed his hands on Meider's corpse with the intention of removing the man's dog tags, the body had lurched against him. Beyond that, Saunders had no recollection.
The sergeant's relief at finding the medic still alive had almost been his undoing. He'd fallen to his knees in the shallows, trembling hands dropping to Doc's head as if in benediction. Doc's eyes had opened briefly, and a weak smile made its way to his lips and then was gone again, but it was enough. Saunders hauled him from the water with renewed determination that only faltered with his body's physical inabilities. He had to rest before trying the bank again; in the meantime, he and Doc would have to stay put.
The flames shot high into the air, the heat blistering for a brief instant. Saunders welcomed it, although it did nothing to stop his violent shivering. Doc moaned and Saunders gently patted the man's shoulder, shushing him with muttered platitudes he'd not used since his little sister was small. Sorrow poured over him then, drenching him in endless guilt and longing. Home was no longer real to him, his world contained only mind-numbing recons through once green and inviting forests, now damaged beyond belief by the business of war. Saunders knew the trees would recover, that some day in the not too distant future the landscape would return to its pristine beauty. He also knew that he himself was forever changed and that no amount of time would heal his wounds.
Saunders reached down and pulled Doc's soaked jacket a little closer around his chest. He couldn't understand how the medic was still alive. Blood on his jacket, blood on the floor, on the Garand, on his hands, oh so much blood on his hands. And not just Doc's.
Turning his palms upward, Saunders stared at the calloused fingers, the shallow lacerations across the joints where he'd gripped the bumper of the staff car. It must have hurt at some point, he mused, as well as the cut above his right eye.
Now, Saunders felt no pain at all. Felt NOTHING at all.
Saunders didn't budge an inch, his head bowed over Doc's body. His hands rested on the medic's filthy jacket, fingers clenching the epaulettes as though he'd been dragging Doc and then simply sat down.
Caje stood there in the river, buffeted by the rapid currents, and shook his head. He'd lain on the opposite side for awhile, staring at the smoldering wreck. It hadn't occurred to him that the explosion might have drawn the attention of any nearby Germans. Even if it had, the scout couldn't have moved anyway. The weight of the day had simply been too much. Another moment and sleep would have overtaken him, dragging him down into oblivion. But then he heard a cough.
"Sergeant?" Voice rising with his escalating panic, Caje floundered out of the water, falling to his knees next to Doc. He started to place his hand on the man's chest, something he'd seen the medic do a thousand times, but hesitated, suddenly afraid. His fingers closed into a fist and Caje drew back, not wanting to confirm what his eyes were telling him.
Doc coughed, his body shuddering with the force of it, and groaned, one hand coming up slightly off the muddy bank before sinking slowly back down.
Saunders loosened up his stranglehold on Doc's jacket long enough to pat him roughly on the shoulder. He spoke then, his voice so hoarse that Caje could barely hear him.
"It's okay, just sleep, just sleep. 't's okay."
He looked up, haunted blue eyes so pain-filled that Caje had to turn away. Focusing instead on the medic, Caje lifted Doc's jacket and inspected the injury. While no longer bleeding, the edges of the wound were dark red and jagged and the surrounding skin was mottled with deep purple bruising. He pressed gently just beneath Doc's ribs and winced as the medic groaned. "I'm sorry, Doc, sorry." He felt around his own pockets briefly before remembering that he'd already used his own dressing hours earlier. Sitting back on his heels, Caje stared down at his patient.
Saunders cleared his throat and spoke. "Meider's dead."
Caje glanced up, surprised by the small bloom of pain he felt somewhere in his chest. He hadn't liked the communications man, but still, he was one of theirs. He met Saunders' gaze, held it a moment, and then looked over at the wreck. "He still in there?"
Nodding, Saunders let his head fall forward again. He reached down and pulled Doc's damp jacket closed, hiding the terrible wound, and then let his hands fall to the medic's shoulders again. A moment passed while he watched Doc breathe, his own chest rising and falling in the same tempo. Then Saunders sighed, bringing one grimy hand up to scrub at his eyes. Blinking, he met Caje's steady gaze with his own.
"The steering column, it, it pinned him against the seat. I think he was bleeding in his lungs, he kept coughing up blood. I couldn't get him loose." Saunders' voice trailed off and he gagged, twisting to spit into the shallows. When he turned back, he opened his mouth a few times, but finally just closed it and looked back down at Doc.
Caje stared at the staff car, eyes widening with the realization that Saunders had been under it, inside it, while the vehicle rocked upside down in the river. Wrapping his arms around his chest, Caje shivered, despite the lingering heat of the day. He turned back to Saunders. "What about the Kraut?"
Saunders shrugged, pursing his lips slightly. "Drowned."
Nodding, Caje dropped his hands to his knees and slowly stood, closing his eyes against the dizziness until his equilibrium balanced out. He slid the Thompson from his shoulder and held the weapon out to the sergeant, waving it in front of Saunders' face until he looked up. "I found this in the bushes, Sarge, a few miles back." He tried to grin but failed, the slack muscles of his face refusing to cooperate. "I thought you might want it."
Saunders took the submachine gun and laid it carefully next to the medic, although close enough that he could keep one hand resting on the stock. Gazing back up at Caje, he cocked an eyebrow. "What happened back there?"
The scout stared right back. "What happened there?" He leaned closer. "What happened here?" When Saunders looked away, Caje straightened, climbing up the bank a few yards. He scanned the tree line, although he knew that at this point, after all their combined inattention, the entire German army could have pitched camp and been brewing up coffee. To his relief, he saw nothing suspicious. Returning to the river, he slid down the bank and sat down next to Saunders.
The sergeant glanced over at him, then at the wreck. He shook his head, the corner of his lips twitching into a faint smile. "What happened here? I dunno." He threw a small twig into the river, idly watching it drift away. "It seemed like a good idea at the time. Wait a little while, capture a Kraut colonel. Simple plan." Shrugging, Saunders held his hands out and studied them for a moment before lowering them again. "Get a few maps in the bargain."
Caje cocked an eyebrow and then nodded, tilting his head toward the staff car. "And that?"
"Well, that was the fly in the ointment." Saunders winced at his own choice of words, Meider's voice echoing in his mind. Come into my parlor...."Meider wasn't watching the road, didn't see the bridge was out. He couldn't stop." He described an arc in the air with one hand. Swallowing hard, the sergeant stared into the river, as he clenched his fingers into a fist. "Me an' Doc, we were thrown clear."
The scout chewed his lower lip, his head turned toward the wreck, but he watched Saunders at the far periphery of his vision, a skill that came in handy quite often. He wasn't sure just what he was going to say. He'd expected to traipse all the way back to the CP alone and find Saunders being feted for bringing back the colonel, while Doc was rushed to surgery. He'd expected to be angry. What he felt, though, was far more puzzling. All along he'd agreed in principle with Saunders' decision. From a military standpoint, it made perfect sense. One life weighed against many. It seemed obvious. Meider hadn't agreed with Saunders but it hadn't been over that issue. Meider wanted only to save his own skin, Doc be damned. What Sarge was really gambling was much more personal. Not just one life, any one life, but Doc's. Caje wasn't given much to philosophical wool-gathering, but even he saw the irony in the situation. The medic, the squad's personal savior who had bandaged up both Caje and Sarge on more occasions than they'd like to admit, and who'd never questioned that he'd be performing his little miracles while under fire, well, he knew what he was getting into. But this time he'd been offered up as the sacrifice by his sergeant, rather than putting himself in danger. Caje felt sure there was a difference but right now his muddled brain couldn't quite sort it out. The one thing he knew for certain was that Doc would have agreed with Saunders. Climbing to his feet, Caje stretched his cramped muscles.
"I gotta find some branches if we're gonna carry him."
"Why don't'cha just use the stretcher Third Squad's doc's been carryin' all day?" Kirby's voice boomed down to them from the top of the bank.
Caje leaped to his feet, catching Saunders' elbow as he, too, stood, trembling with exhaustion. They turned together, staring in stunned disbelief as Kirby and Littlejohn and the men of Third Squad spilled over the bank and tumbled down to the river's edge.
Hanley stood in the doorway of the makeshift hospital ward, housed in what had once been the country home of a pre-war French aristocrat. Now its bare walls were covered by rectangular areas where the paint hadn't faded as much as the rest, the legacy of paintings "liberated" by the Germans and no doubt currently hanging in the offices of higher ranking SS officers. The grimy windows let in little light, despite having no curtains, and lent a chill to the air that was only intensified by the rain beating on the glass.
The lieutenant caught the eye of an orderly and followed the young man's murmured directions to a far corner. Crisp white sheets covered the bed, neatly tucked around the still form lying there. Only twenty-four short hours ago, Doc had received multiple transfusions and been rushed into surgery. The doctor wouldn't meet Hanley's eyes, brushing him off with a terse, discouraging word or two, and then scurrying down the hall after the medic's gurney. First squad had camped on the wide stone steps of the "hospital," alternately pacing and smoking and snarling at each other. When Caje had joined them, hair slick from the shower, and dressed in an unaccustomed clean uniform, they'd fallen silent, walking the length of the veranda and back to stare at the closed front door, lighting up an almost continuous series of cigarettes. Saunders had made no appearance at all, still somewhere in the bowels of the hospital, presumably having his head stitched up while being debriefed by the S2 men who'd been waiting for them when they'd arrived back in camp. Caje had sat apart, dark eyes gazing into the distance as he worked his way through his tobacco ration.
Now, a day later, Hanley walked down the center aisle, slowing to allow orderlies past as they tended their patients. He stopped at the foot of the bed and reached down to pick up the chart hanging there.
"Think you'll be able to read that?" Saunders' voice was husky as though he hadn't spoken to anyone at all since the S2 grilling.
Hanley grinned and replaced the chart on its hook, then shoved his hands in his pockets. "Just seemed like the thing to do. Might impress a nurse." He smiled broadly as a young woman sidled by. She placed delicate fingers around Doc's wrist and made a production out of taking his pulse, lifting her slender arm and turning it just so as she gazed at her watch.
Saunders, slouched in an ancient wooden chair tilted backward on two legs, sat up abruptly, rolling his eyes at his superior officer. The front legs of the chair hit the floor like a pistol shot and everyone jumped, including the medic.
"Wah?" Doc tried to sit up, only to groan and sink back into the bed.
The nurse glared at Saunders, laying a cool hand gently on Doc's forehead. After fluffing his pillow and smoothing his bedcovers, she retreated, not without a withering glance for Saunders and something much warmer for Hanley. Her shoes clicked sharply along the floor, echoing her annoyance.
The lieutenant watched her go, a small grin uplifting the corners of his mouth.
Saunders leaned his elbows on the bed, resting one hand on Doc's forearm. He glanced up at Hanley, then back at the medic. "Doc? You awake?"
Doc took a deep breath and dragged his eyes open. He blinked a number of times, turning his head to find Saunders staring right at him with intense blue eyes. Another man appeared next to the sergeant, and Doc squinted to bring him into focus. "Sarge? An', Lieutenant?"
Saunders looked sideways at Hanley, moving over to give the man room. "Hey, Doc, how ya feelin'?"
The medic grimaced, the hand not tethered to the IV pole and its cluster of glass bottles reaching for the thick bandage over his abdomen. His fingers slid over the layers of tape and gauze, pressing gently, and then lowered to the bed. "Awful."
Saunders's lips pressed into a thin line and he looked away, guilt washing over him like the rain streaking down the windows.
Staring at the back of Saunders' head, Hanley addressed the both of them. "I have some news, actually. Thought it might interest the two of you." He cleared his throat. "Had a message from S2 this morning. They went over that map you gave them, Saunders. They also got some intelligence from a source they wouldn't tell me about. Your capture of von Stolzing set off some fireworks. He knew some things the Krauts couldn't afford us knowing." He pulled out a pack of cigarettes, shaking one into his hand before he looked up at a sign directly over the next patient's bed – Oxygen in Use, NO SMOKING! With a sigh, he returned the smoke to his pocket. "Anyway, there was a major push planned. It would have rolled right over our lines. With von Stolzing captured, they scrapped it and pulled back."
Doc turned his head to look at Saunders, blue eyes blurred with morphine. "Tha's good." He managed a small grin, the years dropping away as they always did when he smiled despite the dark circles under his eyes. With his hair freshly combed, presumably by the pretty nurse, Doc looked hardly out of his teens. Somebody had scrubbed the grime off his face, revealing a roadmap of tiny scratches and scattered bruises. He relaxed back into the pillow, eyes slowly closing.
Saunders closed his own eyes, reaching within himself for some measure of peace. Yesterday, he'd glimpsed his men scattered over the steps of the hospital, waiting for news about the medic, and had turned the other way, unwilling to hear the news of Doc's death in their company. Caje hadn't said a word to anyone, but still, even now that he knew Doc was going to be okay and that his decision had proved sound, Saunders felt their unspoken blame. All he had now was the knowledge that he'd done the right thing. For now, it was enough. It had to be.
He startled, lifting his head from the pillow of his own arms resting on the side of Doc's cot. With a quick glance at the medic, Saunders confirmed that Doc was still sleeping and hadn't spoken to him. He twisted in his chair, surprised to find not Hanley but Kirby, Caje, and Littlejohn, obviously ill at ease in the antiseptic atmosphere of the hospital ward but also delighted to see their squad mate. And their sergeant. He straightened up, scrubbing at his eyes with his knuckles. "What's up?"
Kirby shrugged, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "Hanley told us Doc's gonna be okay. We wanted to see for ourselves." He edged closer to the cot, shoving past Littlejohn, and peered down at the medic. "Huh. Don't look so good to me."
Littlejohn gazed heavenward, then at Saunders. He grinned, the ever-present apology he always seemed to be making for Kirby visible in his eyes. "Sorry, Sarge, we tried to leave him outside."
Kirby snorted. "Fat chance, ya big lug." He looked up as the pretty nurse walked by, his nose twitching at the faint fragrance of her perfume. Without a word, he turned around and followed her down the row of beds.
Saunders shook his head and tilted his chair on its two back legs, leaning against the wall. "Hanley tell you Doc's going to England for a few weeks for R&R? The surgeon said he's gonna be fine, just needs a little time off from the war."
"Don't we all?" Littlejohn absentmindedly patted Doc's foot through the blanket as he watched Kirby's attempts to chat up the nurse. When the woman smiled at the BAR man, Littlejohn couldn't help himself; he wandered over to "help."
Caje shifted from one foot to the other, his dark eyes giving nothing away. Across the bed from Saunders was another wooden chair and he moved around to it, turning it backward and straddling it. For a moment he watched the easy rise and fall of Doc's chest, then the droplets slowly dripping in the chamber of the IV. Finally he looked up at his sergeant and cleared his throat. "The lieutenant told us about S2 and the intelligence they had on von Stolzing. He said the Germans had our guys outnumbered four to one in that area. That it would have been a massacre."
Arms crossed over his chest, Saunders stared back at Caje, and then looked away, unable to hold that dark gaze. Having his decision validated had lifted one weight from his heart, but Doc could still have died. Meider diddie. But Saunders hadn't gambled with Meider's life, that had been an accident. Accidents happened anywhere, anytime. Meiderwasn't his fault.
"You did the right thing, Sarge."
Caje was still watching him. Saunders shook his head and leaned his chair upright. He stood, stretching his lower back and wincing at the awakening soreness. The physical pain he could deal with. It was that other, less tangible ache that troubled him. Every decision, every plan had a price. As squad leader, Saunders knew it was his job to carry the burden of that price. He just wasn't sure how long he'd be able to do it. We'd better end this war soon.
Picking up his jacket, Saunders moved away from the bed, stopping at the foot to slip his arms into the sleeves. He looked back at Caje, but the scout was talking to Doc, his Gallic face lit with animation. Doc's eyes blinked sleepily as he listened, a faint grin chasing its way across his lips.
Exhaustion washed over him then, and Saunders walked down the ward and out of the hospital, surprised to find the rain had stopped and a weak sun was poking through the clouds. A rainbow arced across the sky, starting somewhere in the French countryside and ending at the hospital. Saunders watched its vivid colors shimmer as the clouds moved past the sun, and then, as it faded and disappeared, he moved off in search of his bedroll.
As he unlaced his boots, Saunders thought about the last forty-eight hours and what they had brought. And the things they had taken away. It was no small comfort to know that he'd accomplished what he'd set out to do: save the lives of the men on the front line AND get Doc back in time. But who could have foreseen what it would take to make that happen? That Caje, in an act both brave and moronic, could have stopped the troop carrier? And, not incidentally, managed to be somewhere other than the staff car when it went into the drink. And that Meider, in his self-serving smugness would have looked away from the road at that critical moment?
Saunders pulled the blanket up to his chest and stared at the ceiling, his hands linked behind his head. He knew he'd make the same decision again. As Caje said, he'd been right. But that was the crux of the problem: being right didn't always feel right. He turned over, pillowing his head on his right arm. As he saw it, when you gamble, you gamble to win. Hanley certainly considered his decision a win. Doc was alive, all the men thinly stretched along the Allied lines lived to fight another day. In the grand scheme of things, Saunders had gambled with one life, but lost another. Then again, all those men.... If he'd been willing to sacrifice Doc, he'd have to resign himself to the fact that Meider's loss had been just as calculated. Saunders yawned hugely, turned over again... and fell asleep.