The Bells (Les Cloches)
It had been a fierce battle. The two opposing forces had almost run into each other as they both crested opposite sides of a hillock. The surprise drove both sides into frenzied combat. When the sounds of guns and grenades no longer tore at the evening's quiet, the enemy lay dead upon the frozen French soil. First Squad's sergeant raked his eyes over each of his men.
Kirby and Doc stood up and moved toward the already standing Littlejohn and Nelson. Caje was on his feet a few feet away.
Saunders joined the small group. "Everybody alright?" He was answered by quiet mummers of "Yeah, Sarge". "Kirby, Littlejohn, Nelson— search `em."
"Caje, you…" Saunders turned toward his scout to tell him to search the area ahead but stopped in mid sentence. Caje was looking down at the bloody hand he had just pulled from inside his jacket.
Hearing his name, Caje looked up. He took a few steps toward his sergeant. "Sarge…"
"Doc!" Saunders' shout alerted the squad.
Caje fell forward. Saunders grabbed for the private's jacket, catching him in time to lay him gently upon the cold ground.
Doc quickly parted the heavy coat and woolen shirt. He pulled up Caje's turtleneck and undershirt to find a through and through wound above the private's left hip. Thick, white pads quickly turned crimson as Doc held the wadded bandages against the ragged entrance and exit wounds.
Despite the cold, beads of sweat formed, joined together and slid slowly down the Cajun's face. Struggling to sit up, Caje said, "It's not that bad, Doc."
"Oh no, that's why you collapsed and you've got two holes in your side." He pushed the private back down. "Why don't you let me be the medic and you just lie still?"
Caje's eyes narrowed and his lips thinned in the expression of defiance that was all too familiar to everyone in the squad. "Just do like Doc tells you." The sergeant's tone didn't allow for any rebuttal. "Littlejohn, Nelson— make a stretcher."
"I don't need one, Sarge, really. I can walk with a little help." Caje looked at Doc. "A stretcher will only slow us down."
Saunders knew that the scout was right. It would slow them down and they were pretty far out. Headquarters was a good three hours away with everybody in good shape but with a wounded man the time stretched out into the unknown. "Doc…?"
"The bleeding's slowing down. If I can stop it than I guess there's no reason he can't try." The medic looked from Saunders back to Caje, fixing him with a stare. "But I'll need to keep an eye on it."
Saunders pulled a map out of his jacket and walked a few feet away.
"Ain't we goin` back the way we came, Sarge?" Littlejohn asked.
'Yeah, we are. I'm just looking for some shelter in case we need to stop." He looked over at Caje. "But I don't remember passing anything."
"Me neither— but it's sure gettin` colder." Littlejohn looked up into a starless sky and took a deep breath. He recognized the smell of snow on the wind. "I think it's gonna snow."
"Now, how do you know that?" Kirby had joined them.
"I can smell it on the air."
"Did you hear that? Now the big moose can predict the weather by smellin` the air."
"You wait, Kirby `til you're hip deep in the stuff. Course, hip deep for you won't bother the rest of us so much." Littlejohn grinned.
"Well, at least I ain't no giant… Kirby was cut off by a sharp retort from Saunders.
"Shut up, both of you and move out. Nelson, take the point, Kirby the rear."
Littlejohn's prediction had become fact. Huge, white flakes swayed for a moment on the wind's currents before finding their way to the ground. The moon that had helped them retrace their steps was now almost completely hidden by the thickening clouds. Saunders eyes darted from side to side. The snow's arrival and the increasing darkness had put him on edge. He called for his men to move in closer and keep each other in sight.
Caje's right hand cradled his wounded side while his left arm rested across the medic's shoulders. He concentrated on placing one foot ahead of the other. Suddenly, he felt his right leg buckle, pushing his wounded side into Doc. Both men went down onto the freshly fallen snow.
They all heard Caje's cry and bunched around the fallen men. Doc pushed himself up to his knees and pulled open the scout's jacket. The dressings' small spots of dark rust were overlaid with the bright red of new blood.
Caje hauled himself up on his elbows. "I'm sorry, Sarge. I must have tripped over a root or something."
Saunders laid his hand on the Cajun's shoulder. "Don't worry about it. You all right?"
"Yeah, I'm ok. Just help me up."
Saunders increased the pressure on Caje's shoulder. "Doc…?"
"He's bleeding again, but it doesn't seem too bad. If we could just rest for a minute, I'll reinforce the bandages."
Saunders stood up. "Ok, take five." He leaned against the trunk of an ancient oak. Hunching over the smoke he had dragged from his buttoned pocket, he tried to protect the fragile paper and flame from the wind and snow. Once more he pulled out his map. Doc joined him.
"That map show us a way out of this storm, Sarge?" Doc's gentle smile curled the corners of his mouth.
"I wish. I keep looking at it but nothing changes." He took a deep drag, holding the smoke deep within his lungs before releasing it. He looked at the Cajun. "How is he?"
"It's not the wounds so much; it's the loss of blood and the cold and it feels like he's starting up a fever. I'd feel better if we could just get him to a place that was warm and he could rest for awhile."
Saunders snapped the map closed and stuffed it in his jacket. "Yeah, me too, Doc but I don't know where that is." The snow's intensity began to pick up. Saunders stared out into the night. He needed to make a decision about moving on or finding what shelter they could and waiting until morning. Either way, it wasn't going to be good for Caje.
Kirby knelt next to the scout and handed him a lit cigarette. "You picked a hell of a time to go and get yourself shot." The private brushed the snow away from his squad mate's jacket. "At least you coulda waited until it was warmer."
Caje smiled. "I'll try to do better next time." The smile turned into a grimace as he tried to maneuver himself into a more comfortable position.
Suddenly, Caje pushed himself up until he was sitting. He looked off to the east of their position.
"What is it?" Kirby asked.
"Bells— off to the east. Don't you hear them?" The scout continued to stare into the deepening darkness.
Kirby followed Caje's line of sight. He kept very still and leaned forward. Nothing—he couldn't hear anything. "Maybe those bells are in your head. Did you hit it when you fell?"
"No, I'm telling you I hear them. They sound like church bells. Caje struggled to get up. "Help me."
"Easy now, Caje. The Sarge and Doc are gonna have my head if I let you get up."
The determined scout pushed himself up using Kirby as leverage. He squinted his eyes hoping it would help him see through the torrent of wind-driven flakes. "Don't you hear them-the bells?" Suddenly, his legs buckled and Caje grabbed onto the front Kirby's coat. "Les cloches…"
"Hey Doc, you wanna give me a hand here?" Kirby let Caje slide gently to the ground.
"Well, why'd you let him get up?" Doc rising fear for Caje left him with little patience.
"It ain't my fault. All of a sudden he started going on about some bells he was hearin`."
"What bells, Kirby", Saunders asked.
"I don't know, Sarge. He just got up and said he heard church bells off to the east but I didn't hear nothing. And then he passed out." Kirby looked back to where Doc knelt next to the wounded man.
"Well, he ain't hearin` nothing now. He's out, Sarge." Doc looked up at Saunders.
Saunders knew he had little choice now. The wind and wet was robbing all of them of precious body heat. He didn't want to think about what was happening to his weakened scout. "We're moving out."
Without a word, Littlejohn moved forward and lifted Caje until the man rested over his shoulder. Saunders was about to say something but Littlejohn spoke first. "It's ok, Sarge. You know he ain't that heavy."
Saunders took the point.
Sporadic spears of moonlight fought with the snow-clotted clouds. But it was enough for Saunders to spy a cluster of bushy pines just ahead. With his men spent and Caje still out, he knew they had gone as far as they could. He walked back to the bunched squad. "There's a grove of pines ahead. We'll stay there for tonight and head back as soon as it's light." He looked at Littlejohn.
"Can you make it a little farther?"
"Sure, Sarge, I can make it."
Branches of the White Pines skirted the ground and offered shelter from the wind and most of the snow. The squad walked deep into the center of the little wood.
"Hey, Littlejohn, wait a minute before you put him down." Billy drew his bayonet and began hacking boughs from the soft-needled pines. Laying the branches so that the ends overlapped, he created a bed for the still unconscious man. He and Doc eased Caje from Littlejohn's protective grasp.
"Kirby, take a look around. Make sure we're the only ones in here."
"OK, Sarge but what if there are some kinda animals in here?" Kirby's usual bravado disappeared behind an anxious look.
Before the sergeant could answer Littlejohn said, "Just shoot `um. At least that way we'll have something to eat besides cold rations."
"Ha,ha—ain't you the funny guy today." Kirby lifted his BAR into position and moved out.
Saunders knelt next to Doc. "He's still out," the medic reported, "and he's shakin` himself silly. I can't tell if it's from the cold or the fever."
"Here Doc, will these help?" Billy offered more of the fan-like branches. They wove the limbs into a thick green blanket, covering the trembling man.
Doc smiled. "Thanks, Billy. He's likely to be a lot warmer now." He put his ungloved hand on Caje's forehead once more. He looked at Saunders but made no comment.
Kirby's snow-softened tread caused the men to reach for their weapons. He broke into the clearing and said, "Ain't nothing in here but us, Sarge." The men relaxed.
"Ok, Kirby and the rest of you, fan out and see if you can find any dry wood. I think we can get away with a small fire."
Soon the squad sat side-by-side on mats made of pine boughs. Hands reached toward the brightly burning fire. An occasional pinecone exploded putting the men on edge.
"Well, this just stinks!"
Littlejohn's face registered his surprise at Billy's comment. "What stinks, Billy?"
"This—being here, in the middle of nowhere. Caje hurt, snow, cold and who knows how many Germans. And us…"
"It isn't the first we've been in a tight spot," Littlejohn answered.
"Yeah, I know but…"
"But what, Billy?"
"Well, it just don't seem fair with tomorrow being Christmas Eve and all. At least we could be warm and safe back at command." The young private looked at the unconscious scout. "And Caje would sure have a better chance."
"Haven't you learned that nothing's fair about this war, yet?"
"Yeah, I suppose but I don't have to like it."
Saunders ended the conversation. "Alright, everybody try to get a little rest. We'll take two hour watches. I'll go first than Kirby, Littlejohn than Billy. We'll move out at first light."
The men hankered down, each one lost in his thoughts of war and home and Christmases past.
Doc moved in closer to his patient.
Saunders opened his eyes to Billy's frantic calls. "Caje—Caje where are ya.?"
The soft light of dawn was just pushing its way through the darkness. The snow and wind had all but stopped, replaced by a clearing sky. All the men were instantly alert and on their feet. Saunders knew that Nelson was close to panic. "Easy Billy, just tell me what's wrong."
"He's gone, Sarge— Caje is gone!"
Littlejohn spoke up. "Now Billy, how could a man as sick as Caje go anywhere?"
Doc's worried voice joined the conversation. "I don't know but Billy's right. He's gone."
Saunders turned back toward the medic. "None of us saw or heard a wounded man get up in the night and leave?" His frustration grew as he surveyed the camp.
"Sarge, you know Caje. If he don't want to be heard…" Kirby was cut off by Saunders.
The NCO's anger rang in the clear air. "Enough—we aren't talking about a ghost. We're talking about a man, a wounded man."
Doc alerted them to footprints that lead from Caje's empty pine mattress. They were headed east.
"Alright, saddle up. We need to find him quick before the krauts do." Saunders led the way beside Caje's clear path in the snow.
Breaking out of the little pine grove, Saunders called a halt. "Kirby you cover the rear. I'll take the point. The rest of you, be alert. We aren't the only ones out here."
Billy moved up beside Doc as they kept pace with Saunders. "I'm sorry, Doc. Honest, I didn't hear or see anything."
"Don't feel bad, Billy. None of us did. I don't understand how he got up let alone took off on his own." The medic gave the young private a reassuring smile. "We'll find him."
They followed the Cajun's snowy footprints to the top of a small ridge. There the squad stopped and peered over the rim. At the bottom of the shallow valley stood what appeared to be a church. From what Saunders could see, the building looked as if the war had never touched it. The thick gray stones sat one upon the other, forming walls that soared up to an intact roof. He reached for his map.
"What is it, Sarge?" Kirby asked.
"The map doesn't show a church. I don't know how it could have been missed?" Saunders stuffed the crumpled paper back into his jacket.
"Well, I don't know who missed it, but those have got to be Caje's footprints leading right to the door," Littlejohn added.
"Yeah, well I don't like it. How come it's in the middle of nowhere and all in one piece?" Kirby's cynical view drew a response from Billy.
"What difference does it make? It's here and maybe who's ever inside can help Caje."
"There isn't much shelter going in-just those tall pines on the left side of the building." Saunders studied the area looking for the safest approach. "Kirby, you and Littlejohn move off to the left. Cover yourselves the best you can. Billy, you're on me. Stay alert. We don't know what we're walking into. Doc, you…"
"Yeah, I know—stay here." The medic's tone mirrored his disappointment at being left behind.
Saunders gave him a small smile. "Look at it this way, who's Caje gonna need the most once we find him?"
The smile disappeared when he turned back to the others. "Ok, let's go."
Saunders and Nelson zigzagged their way going around to the right while Kirby and Littlejohn did the same on the left. Both teams arrived at the towering double doors of the entrance at the same time. They were greeted with the sound of muted voices. Saunders' silent signals led them forward.
They found themselves in a dimly lit vestibule. The voices that they heard were louder now and the sound led them through another set of doors. At the other end of the church, soft, yellow light from numerous candles lit the alter. Several black robed figures sat in the front pews, heads bent in prayer.
Saunders turned to Littlejohn. "Go get Doc."
The sergeant moved forward signaling Kirby and Nelson to take up positions on either side of the double row of seats. When he reached the front, Saunders realized the robed figures were nuns. Great, he thought, French nuns and no Caje to translate.
"Ah, excuse me Sister, but we're looking for a soldier that might have come in here." The prayers continued.
He hesitated for a moment than in a louder voice he said, "He was hurt."
One of the nuns said something in French to the others. She crossed herself and rose, momentarily genuflecting before turning around to face Saunders. To his surprise and relief, she addressed him in heavily accented English.
"You are looking for Paul?"
Thrown off for a moment by his scout's given name, Saunders replied, "Caje— uhh yes, we're looking for Paul."
She asked him to follow her. "Nelson, stay here. Kirby, you're on me."
The sister led them through a hallway lit from windows at the top of the wall. Both men kept their guns up. They noticed several closed doors leading off the long hall. Finally, she stepped through the only open doorway. The small bedside table held a low burning oil lamp. As she turned the wick up, the nun called Caje's name. "Paul— Paul, your friends are here."
Saunders and Kirby were met with the sight of Caje wrapped in patched quilts. Fever reddened patches were a stark contrast to the pale skin that stretched over high cheekbones and the hard planes of his face. "Caje…" Saunders moved in closer.
Opening his eyes, Caje said, "I'm here, Sarge."
Spayed fingers gently touched the side of his scout's face. "Yea, I see that. You gave us a scare, taking off like that."
"I heard the bells. I knew there would be help." The heavy hooded lids slid shut. "Les cloches…"
"I told ya, he keeps goin` on about those bells." Kirby shifted from one foot to another. Churches had always made him nervous. He could never quite figure out why but than again, he never really tried very hard.
Saunders ignored Kirby. "Thank you, Sister, for helping him."
"We found your soldier early this morning on the doorstep to the church. We brought him in here and dressed his wounds."
Littlejohn's voice in the hall caught their attention. "Now wait a minute, Doc. At least let me go first to see if everything's clear."
"Billy said they went this way." The medic walked into the room.
Doc looked from Saunders to Caje and without a word, went to the wounded man's bedside. He started to pull back the quilts but hesitated, looking at the nun.
"The sisters brought him in here and looked after his wounds," Saunders said. Giving Saunders a slight smile, she excused herself.
"Littlejohn, go back with Billy and watch things. We don't need any unexpected company."
Doc looked up. "The sisters did a good job cleaning out these wounds. Doesn't look like he's bled too much." He felt along Caje's arms and legs. "And he's a whole lot warmer than he was."
"OK, Doc— you stay here with him. Kirby, you come with me."
It was later that the squad found out the nuns were from the order of St. Bernadette. They had inhabited the church soon after being driven from Paris during the occupation. With hard work and a deep faith, they were able to be mostly independent from the world around them. Sister Marie Claire explained that the small barn behind the church housed two milk cows and a few chickens. They had put their summer harvest deep into the cool cellar.
"You'll stay with us, sergeant, and share our small Christmas Eve dinner." She translated what she had said to the other sisters. They all smiled and shook their heads in agreement. "It would be better for your friend to rest another night, yes?"
"Yeah Sarge, we don't want old Caje to get sicker now do we?" Kirby's motives were transparent to all.
"And it won't hurt havin` some hot food and shelter for the night, now would it, Kirby?" Doc's answer just caused the private to grin.
We'd be grateful, Sister. Thank you," Saunders responded. Turning toward his men, he added, "And everyone would be more than willing to help." No one disagreed.
The squad gathered around the rough hewn table in the kitchen that night as they waited for the nuns to finish their evening prayers. A stone fireplace gave a warm glow to the room.
Doc walked in after his latest check on Caje. "He's doing better, Sarge. Fever's down and I got him to take some of the soup the sisters made. He should be ready to move out with us tomorrow."
"Well, Billy, you got your wish," Littlejohn said.
"Yup and all because Caje heard those bells and led us here."
Sister Mary Claire and the rest of the women came into the kitchen. Bread with homemade butter and cheese was placed on the table along with a pitcher of fresh milk. Platters of eggs soon followed and their dinner ended with a dried apple and pear tart.
Sated, the men let themselves relax. "It'll be Christmas soon," Billy said. "Will you ring the bells tonight, Sister?"
"Ring the bells?" she asked.
Billy sat up straighter. "Yeah, you know, the bells that Caje heard yesterday. That's how he found you."
The Sister Mary Claire looked at Saunders and said, "But we have no church bells. They were taken not long after we came here. The metal was needed for the war."
"Then what was Caje talking about?" Billy looked at Littlejohn.
"I told you them bells were in his head." Kirby got up and walked to the fireplace.
"Then how do you explain him finding this place?" Doc asked.
Before an argument broke out out, Saunders spoke up. "Look, all we know is that Caje thought he heard church bells. And it doesn't matter whether they were real or not. Something led him here."
Saunders got up and looked out into the clear moonlit night. In a voice barely heard by the others, he said, "Maybe a little Christmas miracle."