ETO - a Combat! fanfic originally posted online at the Purple Hearts website under the pen name Anzio Annie in August 1999.
"Wait one." Sarge released the transmit button with a trembling hand. Weariness pulled at him, and even more than he hated to accept this mission himself, he hated to push the squad any harder too. Could they handle it? Carefully, he surveyed the bedraggled men collapsed in the mud all around him. Billy sat with his back against a tree, his boyish features screwed up in a silent wince as Doc pulled a bloodstained bandage tighter around his upper right arm. Their medic's face was lined with fatigue – he'd been carrying his share of the makeshift stretcher for the last two miles. Littlejohn sprawled flat on the ground with eyes shut; his chest still heaved from the exertion of carrying the front end of the litter up that last hill. Caje was curled in a tense knot behind a tree 20 yards up the road, his M-1 balanced on his knees, eyes darting watchfully. And Sarge could hear Kirby not far behind him, the click of the bayonet being fastened onto the end of Harmon's rifle, the soft grunt of effort as Kirby speared it into the ground, and then the thin metallic sound of Harmon's helmet being settled gently on the rifle's butt. They wouldn't be needing the stretcher anymore. Harmon's time had run out.
More draining than the physical exhaustion was the heaviness of their hearts. Harmon had been a good kid, no older than Nelson, eager to be accepted, but amiable and competent. He'd fit in better than most replacements. They'd come through a grueling night patrol, tired, wet and hungry, but they were safe and heading for home. And then all hell broke loose.
There was no warning that the field was mined. One moment Harmon was razzing Billy about losing the squad's only flashlight on the mission and the next moment they were trapped in Dante's Inferno. The hell was the eternity it seemed to take Sarge to make his way inch by painstaking inch to the wounded men, his heart in his throat, forcing himself to be cautious when every instinct screamed to hurry. Billy lay in a lifeless heap, his helmet blown 20 feet away. Harmon was quiet at first, trying so hard to be stoic and brave. But when he saw the bloody stump where his leg had been, a look of terror blossomed on his acne-scarred face. Whimpers turned to tears and then hoarse cries for help and still Sarge and the men were too far away. Too agonizingly slow.
Finally, they had succeeded in dragging the bodies out of the field. A piece of shrapnel had caught Nelson in the arm; he came to as Littlejohn was wrapping his wound. But the full force of the blast had caught Harmon in its maelstrom and blown him apart. Doc did what he could. They all did. Each of them handed over his own field dressing kit to bandage Harmon's many wounds, but his blood saturated them as fast as they were applied. They took turns holding his hand, offering words of distraction or encouragement, and listened to Harmon finally sobbing with pain and calling for his mother.
Sarge drew Doc aside and told him to give Harmon more morphine. "I cain't, Sarge," Doc protested. "Any more'll kill him."
"Is he gonna make it?" Sarge asked.
Doc looked back at his patient, clutching desperately at Littlejohn's sleeve while the gentle giant offered soothing words of comfort. Then he just shook his head.
"Then give it to him," Sarge ordered. "As much as it takes. All of it."
In the end, even that much didn't knock him completely out. But it made him quiet.
"We gonna leave him here?" Kirby asked. He wiped his runny nose on his sleeve and then settled his BAR straps more comfortably across his shoulder, ready to move out.
"No." The answer was terse. "We don't leave our guys to die alone."
Now, a couple hours later, Harmon was dead. Sarge wondered if he had been responsible; if Harmon might have had a chance after all, without the morphine overdose. It was hell being responsible for others. That was one reason he turned down a field promotion - - it ate away at him too much, caring as much about the men as the mission. He didn't want to be responsible for any more people than he already was - - and he didn't think he could stomach sending out men like his on missions like this, without going along each time to keep them safe.
Missions like this….
His reverie broken, Sarge looked up at his squad and knew the answer to his question. It didn't matter that they hadn't slept in two days or that they were out of food. They could handle it. Because they must.
And because they would follow him into hell itself. They trusted him.
Like Harmon had trusted him.
Saunders flicked the handset again. "Roger that, King Two. White Rook out." It took two tries to summon the energy to get his legs under him and stagger back to his feet. "Saddle up!"
"What are we gonna do now, Sarge? We're still goin' home, right?" Billy's voice carried the hope of naive youth. Home was relative - sleeping on a floor instead of a foxhole; cold food instead of no food. A clean, white bandage instead of olive drab uniform scraps wrapped around his bicep to keep the pressure on his arm so the bleeding would stop. Was that too much to ask?
Apparently it was. "Eventually," Sarge answered, his eyes holding more sympathy than his words.
Littlejohn and Billy exchanged resigned looks.
Sarge gestured to Caje, who came jogging back. The squad hunched together in an informal circle around their leader and he kept the instructions succinct. "We've got one more mission before dark. Piece of cake. Remember that barrage we heard a while ago?"
The men nodded. They'd been hauling the stretcher at that point. The echoes of German and American shells screaming across the sky and pummeling the earth had given them a fresh rush of adrenaline. They'd picked up the pace, eager to get out of this no-man's zone before they got caught in the middle.
It was quiet now. No shelling. No dying moans.
"Our target is a village called Moissy," Saunders told them. "S2 wants us to find out if there's still an OP possible there."
"I'll bet it's uphill all the way there," Littlejohn muttered with a groan.
"At least it'll be downhill on the way back," Billy offered, quick to look for a bright side.
"Uh uh," Kirby shook his head. "It'll be uphill BOTH ways if S2 can figure out a way!" He sneezed and sent Sarge a pitiful look of misery. But Saunders showed the hopeful goldbrick no mercy and passed the radio back to Kirby to carry.
Wearily the squad, minus one man, hit the road toward Moissy. None of them looked back.
Acrid smoke filled their nostrils as they made their way cautiously past the village gates into Moissy. Broken glass crunched under their boots; shattered windows were the first signs of damage. A gothic church steeple rose above a cluster of burnt-out buildings at the end of the main street. At least it was still standing, Saunders noted. Whether it was possible to climb to the top remained to be seen. With a loose-limbed gesture, Sarge sent his right-handed men down the left side of street, where they could quickly duck into the cover of doorways and fire relatively unexposed if needed. Littlejohn and Billy trotted off. The southpaws followed suit down the right side of the street, scrambling nimbly over piles of rubble sometimes taller than they were. Sarge and Doc made their way more slowly toward what remained of the church straight ahead.
An axle lay in the middle of the street. No car or truck in sight; all that remained was the axle. Doc eyed it nervously as they skirted it and moved closer to the shelter of the storefronts lining the road. At once he felt the hot breath of fire fanning against his cheek and neck, just before his mind registered the crackle of flames. A shop's curtains went up in smoke just a few feet away and he jumped away from it, stumbling across one of the many craters that pockmarked the street as they approached the center of the devastation.
More flames gnawed at the small buildings across the west side of the village, slowly spreading from one to the next, destroying everything in their path. To the east, more of the buildings were made of stone, which gave them some protection from fire, but they had been closer to the center of the main artillery barrage. They were in ruins now too.
Scanning the area immediately north of the church, the scene reminded Sarge of his kid sister's dollhouse after Joey had dropped a ball on it. The front of the villager's home was completely gone but the other walls still stood; he could see all the furniture, toppled over but still in place. A kitchen there … a bedroom upstairs, with no roof left … a smaller room with a crib …. Thank goodness the village appeared to have been completely evacuated. It was a ghost town.
Maybe, MAYBE, they'd get lucky this time. The stairs up the steeple would be intact - - there would be a view for miles in every direction - - Hanley could send his forward observer up here with a fresh squad to string some telephone wires, if that's what he wanted, and Saunders' men would be relieved. Instead of crossing his fingers though, he tightened them on his Thompson and stepped out of the sunlight and into the church.
It took only a minute to assure himself that there were no Krauts waiting inside to ambush them. Sarge took one step back outside and waved his submachine gun at Doc to tell him it was safe to enter. The others arrived at nearly the same time. Billy sagged onto a pew, mindless of the inch-deep soot that coated it. His right arm throbbed. His head ached.
Littlejohn followed, slipping off his helmet respectfully. It always distressed him to see churches in ruin. As a soldier he understood the military tactics of securing the high ground, or preventing your enemy from doing the same thing. But he never stopped thinking of churches as sacred places that should be protected, not destroyed.
"Anyone see anything?" Sarge asked, buying a little time to summon up the energy to move from the broad altar steps, where he had wilted with fatigue.
Kirby shrugged off the radio with an exaggerated sigh of relief. A smile of wonder ghosted across his face and was gone. "I saw a butterfly," he reported. "Darndest thing! A house was nothin' but a pile of bricks and in the back was a garden full of flowers - - untouched. And a butterfly! Good thing it didn't come too close to me," he added.
"You wouldn't have killed it!" Billy roused enough to sound indignant.
"Heck no. I'm so beat, if it had landed on me, it would've knocked me to the ground!"
Saunders climbed to his feet and lumbered over to the radio, propped beside a marble baptismal font in the vestibule. "Kirby," he said, handing over the binoculars, "you check out the stairway up to the top of the steeple. See if the stairs are safe all the way up." He jerked his head toward the doorway to the tower.
"What, am I wearing a sign that says Stupid?" Kirby grumbled. "You want me to drag these weary bones up a bunch of half-blown-away steps, so you can see if I fall four stories to my death or not?"
"That sounds like a plan to me," Littlejohn said with a peaceful smile.
Kirby scowled and took a step toward the bigger man.
"I'll do it." Billy pushed himself reluctantly off the comfort of his bench. "Well, I might as well make myself useful," he added. "I can't carry a weapon; I can still climb stairs." Kirby gave him an elegant bow as gestured for the young private to take his place and passed him the field glasses. Littlejohn's face clouded, but he subsided at Billy's placatory shrug. If it was really dangerous, Sarge would have gone himself, he figured. Still, he couldn't resist whispering, "Be careful!"
As Saunders knelt to set up the radio, Kirby sank bonelessly onto the floor and propped his BAR against the wall beside him. "Anyway, I'm sure heights are bad for my stuffed up nose," he offered as further excuse. Then he brightened. "Hey Sarge, when you get through? Tell 'em to bring extra rations," he suggested. "I won't get a lick of sleep if the Big Moose's stomach growls all night."
From the steeple window, above the dust and dirt still wafting over the smoking village ruins, a breeze ruffled Billy's short brown hair, a tiny moment of comfort he savored. Looking around, Billy could see why this was a significant OP. He could see for miles. To the northwest lay Road D13 that they had taken earlier from the little village of St. Lambert. It continued past Moissy southeast to the town of Chambois, and a major crossroads. The only other access into the village came down from Hill 361 and crossed a bridge over a steep gully before becoming a gravel farm road as it entered the north edge of Moissy. "The bridge is out," Nelson reported back down to the others. "That barrage must've taken it out too after hitting the town."
"How out?" Sarge pressed. "Tanks couldn't pass but trucks could? Trucks couldn't pass but foot soldiers could?"
"Sarge, there's a stretch of 20 feet or more that's nothin' but air. There's nothing to set foot on - - " Suddenly, the wood panels creaked under Billy's weight and a chunk of the floor beneath him fell away, clattering down four stories below. Billy yelped and grabbed the part of the railing that was still intact. Still as a statue, he shifted all his weight to the one leg that still had a stable platform to stand on.
"Hey, watch it!" Kirby griped as the chunks of flooring just missed his helmeted head.
"It oughta be you up there," Littlejohn growled, rising to his feet.
Saunders peered up, making sure young Nelson wasn't in serious trouble. For the moment, nothing moved. Nodding to himself, he reached into his jacket and pulled out a folded map. "Littlejohn," he said, spreading the wrinkled paper across his knee, "go see what's holdin' up Caje. He shoulda been back by now."
"He's probably liberatin' some cognac," Kirby said. "Make sure he brings back enough for everybody!" He yawned and tilted his helmet forward over his eyes, ready for a well- earned nap.
Littlejohn grabbed his M1 and stormed off with a last glare at Kirby. He went out the back door, down an alley that separated the church from the small stone building that served as a rectory or convent. Still fuming, he had gone only one more length of a house when a reverberating crash sent him diving instinctively for cover. Looking around, he realized that a roof had just collapsed on a building across the street. As he watched, a crimson geyser of flames engulfed a staircase and it withered to a puddle of ashes on the ground. A shiver went down Littlejohn's spine and he looked back at the church with a worried frown. This whole village is on the verge of collapse, he thought. We need to get out of here. Reassured that the noise wasn't a German ambush after all, he rose cautiously to his feet and decided to save time by calling. "Caje!"
Was that an answer or just another house creaking?
"Here!" The answering voice was strained and low, as though exhaled through gritted teeth and without a full breath to carry it. After one or two more exchanges, Littlejohn determined the sound had come from inside a nearby house, what was left of one anyway, a scant 30 yards or so from the church. What had been a two-story brick and masonry home was the gutted wreckage of a one-story now.
Littlejohn stepped across the front porch and inside, moving aside the heavy front door that hung precariously from one hinge. "What the hell?"
The Cajun was standing, or more accurately crouching, in the remains of an arched doorway leading to the parlor. He balanced there, hands on his knees, his thighs trembling with strain. Gun and helmet were tossed aside, and a large wooden beam stretched across his shoulders. Piles of heavy masonry jammed against it, pressing downward. "Hang on," Littlejohn said reassuringly. "I'll be right there…."
Caje shook his head, a minute gesture. He inhaled shallowly. "This whole house is about to drop into the cellar," he said. Another shallow inhale. "There are people trapped down there."
"But - - how - -?" Littlejohn stopped himself in mid-thought. The parlor floor was sagging dangerously and was pockmarked with gaping holes. He stretched himself full-length across it as cautiously as if it were a pond of newly frozen ice. Thick clouds of dust swirled and obscured his vision as he squinted at the darkness below. Suddenly, there was a loud groan as the house shifted and more of the second story remains tumbled to the ground floor. A hailstorm of broken rafters and furniture pelted the kitchen and Littlejohn instinctively covered his head with his arms. And then, as the rumbling settled, he heard a sound from the cellar. Children crying.
Littlejohn pulled himself back to his feet and surveyed the situation. The last shifting of heavy debris had forced Caje to his knees. Sweat dripped from his hair, down taut cheeks and a clenched jaw. Adding one more pair of shoulders to the task wouldn't be enough, Littlejohn decided. "Hang on," he called over his shoulder, already making time for the door. "I'll get the sarge. He'll know what to do!"
In less than a minute Saunders was the first one back through the front door, with Kirby, Billy, Littlejohn and Doc stumbling over each other on his heels. He cast a quick look of concern toward Caje, who didn't speak, saving his strength. Then Sarge followed the direction of Littlejohn's outstretched arm, pointing toward the widest hole in the floor. Dropping to his belly, Sarge peered down and thought he sensed some movement below. "Nelson - - Littlejohn - - find something to shore up those walls," he snapped, turning around so that his feet now dangled into the crevice. " Kirby - - Doc - - lower me down."
Kirby sank to his knees. "Are you sure you don't wanna wait till the house is secure?" he asked. But he already knew the answer, and grabbed Sarge's right wrist with both hands, while Doc took the left. Cautiously, they lowered him into the gap, feet first toward the unknown. Doc hoped there weren't any Krauts waiting in that cellar. When their own heads and shoulders hovered over the opening, their arms fully extended, Saunders still couldn't reach the floor. "Let go," he told them.
Kirby and Doc exchanged looks. No telling what condition the cellar was in, or how far away the ground was. If Sarge fractured an ankle landing, how would they get him out? The house groaned and broken tiles from the sieved roof rained down on them, clattering against the floor.
"Do it!" Sarge growled.
He felt himself falling then, a flicker of relief as the strain suddenly left his shoulders, and then he was crashing to the ground. He lay still for a moment, stunned. Hip and shoulder protested but he paid them no mind, intent on a sudden scurrying sound, like rats fleeing the surprise of an intruder. The cellar was dark as soot; he couldn't see a thing. The air smelled foul and he caught a whiff of gas. Saunders realized the movement had stopped, replaced by a shroud of stillness, in which the only sound was his own harsh breathing. And then he heard whimpering.
"It's okay," he said into the blackness, climbing to his hands and knees. "We've come to get you out."
Forty pounds of grubby skin and bones crashed into him then with a desperate fury and knocked him flat again. Matchstick arms locked around his neck and a child sobbed against his shoulder.
"Sarge," Kirby's voice came down on a flutter of mortar dust. "Everything all right down there?"
"Right," he answered tersely. He wished he dared a light, but the risk of a broken gas main was too great. "Hang on a second…. " Sarge held the child close, feeling the violent shudders begin to subside, as he waited for his own eyes to adjust a bit more to the darkness. In a moment he could make out shadows, shapes, moving a dozen feet away. He pressed the little boy to his side with one arm and crawled toward the others.
Above, Littlejohn had slipped under the collapsing archway beside Caje and taken the weight on his shoulders, letting the smaller man stumble free. Billy emerged from the debris outside, dragging a couple broken beams tucked under his uninjured arm. "Good, good, put 'em there. Find some more," Kirby directed, waving him toward a place where they hoped to shore up the unsteady walls, already buckling under the uneven weight of the collapsing roof. Between them, Caje and Kirby positioned the supports, while Doc peered down below into the blackness of the cellar. "Sarge?" he whispered hoarsely, as though afraid any louder sound would cause the house to shift further.
Saunders squinted up into the swirling dust of daylight. "I've got three kids here," he said. "And two or three more folks are in really bad shape. You ready up there?"
Doc, already prone on the floor with his head and shoulders hanging over the edge of the hole, scooted dangerously closer. Billy dragged his last armload of salvaged lumber to Caje and Kirby and then moved without a word to kneel by Doc's ankles, ready to grab hold if necessary.
Sarge hefted the smallest of his charges, a toddler of perhaps two. Then he thrust her up toward the light. Doc could see her; his straining fingers skimmed her dust-coated hair, but there was nothing within reach to grab hold of. She was distressingly still. "Damn! I cain't reach her! It's too far!" He turned wide eyes toward the rest of the squad. As one, they found themselves turning to look at Littlejohn.
Kirby cast a glance back at their hasty fortifications. "Think it'll hold till we get 'em out?" he asked Caje. Caje studied the supports and slowly tightened his jaw. "If we're quick enough," he decided. They moved to either side of Littlejohn, bracing themselvesto shoulder the rafters if any more of the second story started crashing down on them when the lanky soldier moved. With a look at each of them, Littlejohn nodded, took a deep breath, and eased away from the joist.
With a swiftness belying his size, he flattened himself alongside Doc and slowly extended his long arms through the ravaged hole in the floor. "Ready!"
Sarge pushed the child over his head again. Littlejohn's right arm stretched longer; his groping hand felt a head - an ear - and then he found the collar of her jacket. He clenched it in his fist and exhaled, "Got it!" Bending his elbow, he started to bring her up, and Sarge relinquished his hold. At his side, Doc reached for the little girl with both hands when she came close enough. Grabbing her around the waist, he drew her to his chest and then rolled over to pass her back to Billy, who hustled her to safety outside the house.
Caje knelt beside the medic. "Go on, Doc," he urged, nudging him to check out the toddler while he and Kirby assisted Littlejohn. With a worried frown, Doc nodded and moved aside.
Next up came a little boy of about four. Littlejohn raised him high enough for Kirby, straining, to grab the child's arm. The boy screamed in pain. Appalled, Kirby swept him up and bundled him roughly against his ribs, his own heart thundering in panic at having hurt the kid further. There just was no gentle way to retrieve the boy quickly. He staggered awkwardly to his feet and stumbled with his burden toward Doc.
A boy about six clambered up next, not even waiting for Littlejohn to lift him. Grabbing hold of the private's field jacket, he crawled over his savior's shoulders into the light. The left side of his face was covered with a mask of blood. Caje tucked him under one arm like a football and sidestepped the obstacles in his path to deposit the boy gently on the front porch, where the others were being tended.
Doc's skilled hands moved quickly over tattered clothes and scrawny and filthy limbs, checking for broken bones, unchecked bleeding, signs of serious injury. His hands were steady but his heart raced - - he knew every second counted. As soon as he was sure the children were in no immediate danger, he ricocheted back to the cellar, stumbling over the debris that littered the ground in his haste. He ended up crawling the final yards. "What about the others, Sarge?" he asked, his voice tight with urgency.
"They're pretty broken up," Saunders said. "We'll need another way to get them out."
"I looked for a rope or something, Sarge. Nothin' gives," Kirby said, plopping down on the other side of Littlejohn. He cringed as there was a rumbling sound and more debris rattled over them as it fell from the sagging roof. "You better get out!"
"C'mon up, Sarge!" Doc echoed. "I'll go down and see what I can do for them."
Littlejohn frowned. "What good'll that do, Doc? You don't hardly have any medical supplies left!"
"There's no time to arg - "
A deafening groan drowned out their words. It swelled like the rumble of an oncoming train. As if from very far away, Nelson's voice cried out, "Look out!" And then, the weight of the second story on the damaged joists finally became too much and the building collapsed in on itself like a house of cards.
Sarge leaped for Littlejohn's outstretched arms and caught the right one. The big man's hand fisted in Sarge's sleeve and he pulled up with all the strength he had left. Then he pulled some more, until his arm was literally pulled right out of his shoulder socket. The shock of pain made him cry out, but he held on. And then Kirby was reaching recklessly beyond safety's limit to grab hold of Saunders. Between them they started to drag him out of the hole.
Doc had just enough time to make it to safety outside. If he hadn't paused. His medical bag lay three feet away - - it may be depleted but what if he needed something still in it? He hesitated for just a second and then lunged for it. Fingers closed on the strap, and then the room above crashed down on top of him. A huge iron bathtub just missed his head, hit the ground beside him and rolled onto its side, smashing Doc's fingers to the floor. Heart pounding like the chatter of a machine gun, Doc shouldered the weight off his hand and then crawled inside the tub for shelter as more furniture, beams and bricks rained down upon him.
The floor under Littlejohn and Kirby gave way, and as the second story and roof fell on top of them, they dropped into the cellar.
The entire foundation shuddered as though an earthquake had struck. On the porch Billy and Caje scooped the children underneath them and braced themselves for the impact of falling debris. Billy flinched as bricks hit his wounded arm.
Then, all was still.
Clouds of powdery mortar drifted down with an eerie silence after the house collapsed. When the dust settled across the ground like a blanket of volcanic ash, Caje darted to his feet. With a hasty "Ne bougez pas!" to the kids, he left them and scrambled nimbly inside. Behind the front wall of the house there was only a tremendous pile of rubble, rising up from the cellar in an uneven landscape. His heart sank. He felt Billy move up along beside him, sensed him moving cautiously to protect his right arm, which was bleeding again. The pain in Billy's eyes as he saw the ruin ripped through Caje like a shock wave. The quiet Cajun thought he'd grown hardened to death since that first tragic day on Omaha Beach, but seeing the raw emotion on the boy's face shattered his mask of stoicism. A muscle in his jaw clenched, his hazel eyes glittered, then he swallowed.
With faint hope, he called out, "Sarge?"
A deep groan from below answered him.
"That's Littlejohn!" Billy said excitedly. "Littlejohn!" he called, stumbling over the rubble toward the direction of the noise.
"Hold it, Billy!" Caje said, shooting out a hand to stop him. He pointed. The ground was moving under their feet again, rippling like the ocean tide rolling in. A pile shifted, slate shingles clattered off the debris in its wake, and then Kirby's head popped up. "I guess I shoulda figured – " he stopped for a coughing fit from the dust that clogged his throat. "That big moose would turn out useful one day," he continued finally. "Stood on his shoulders and I could climb out of there." He hacked some more dirt and grit out of his congested lungs and then grasped a pipe that had fallen across the gap, heaved, and acrobatically pulled himself out.
"What about Littlejohn? And Sarge?" Billy asked, too shaken to let Kirby's cavalier words rile him.
"I think they're both alive. But we'll need some help to get them out," Kirby said. Dust flew from his shoulders, which still shook from smothered coughs. He looked around. "Where's Doc?"
"Doc?" Caje and Billy scanned the area and then looked at each other. They raised their voices. "Doc?"
"Here!" The answer came, muffled, from under a macabre sculpture of broken pipes and porcelain. Kirby and Caje stepped carefully into that corner and began to dig out their medic, while Billy, hampered by his wounded arm, turned reluctantly back to comfort the children who had begun crying again at the latest scare.
"Doc! Your hand!" Kirby sputtered, when the corpsman finally crawled out. Bright red blood streaked down Doc's pant leg where he had brushed his knuckles. A couple of his fingers were bent horribly wrong.
"I'll be okay," Doc muttered, more concerned about the missing men. He could see Billy out front, since the door had finally been torn off its hinges. "Where's Sarge? And Littlejohn? Are they okay?"
"One way to find out," Caje replied. Without another word, he dropped down to grab the pipe lying across the floor, lowered himself into the dark hole, swung for a moment and then dropped out of sight. As his eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, he recognized what first appeared to be a mountain of dirt, motionless except for a pair of blinking eyes. It was Littlejohn, huddled rigid with worry next to Sarge, who appeared unconscious. "C'mon, let's get you out of here," Caje said.
"What about the sarge?" Littlejohn protested. "He's hurt bad…. "
"We'll take care of him," Caje promised.
Littlejohn climbed awkwardly to his feet, the broad planes of his face tense with pain, his right arm dangling uselessly. Caje frowned. No way the other man was going to be able to pull himself up by that pipe, even if he could reach it.
Caje knelt then to check out his NCO. Saunders was lying on his back; a thick film of mortar dust coated his hair, face and jacket. The rest of him was buried out of sight under the rubble. Caje put his face close to Sarge's ear and called his name.
There was no response.
Turning his head, holding his breath, Caje prayed for the sound of air being exhaled, the sight of Sarge's chest rising and falling, the flutter of pulse against his fingers poised tentatively along Sarge's jaw. He could hear his own heart pounding for three agonizingly long seconds before he felt a whisper of air along his cheek and knew that he wasn't imagining the subtle movement of Sarge's ribs within his jacket.
"Is he …. ?" Littlejohn's deep voice rumbled with unspoken fear.
"He's alive," Caje said, straightening. A moan from a darker corner of the cellar made him jerk to his left. "Stay with him," he told Littlejohn as he moved away, but the advice wasn't necessary. As soon as Caje had vacated the spot on the ground beside Sarge, Littlejohn had sunk awkwardly back into it, his big hand trembling as he tried to wipe the dust off Sarge's face.
The cellar originally was composed of several rooms, and some of those walls still stood. Caje ran his palm against the rough concrete as he stepped cat-like through the rubble, deeper into the shadows. At least where the parlor had just collapsed some daylight now leaked down, spotlighting Sarge and Littlejohn in a dim haze of dust. As Caje moved toward the new sound, gingerly to prevent any more debris shifting, he felt his way around a corner and found himself blind in a room that was pitch black. The moaning stopped. He had to stoop now, as the kitchen above him sagged into the cellar and the ceiling slanted lower and lower. After two or three more steps he dropped to his hands and knees. His groping hand skimmed along something cold and pliant and he recoiled. Tentatively, he made himself reach for it again, and feel the shape. There was no mistake. It was a tiny fist, out-thrust from under a rough woolen blanket salvaged from the basement. Cold and smooth as marble.
A soft sob broke the silence, and it took a moment for Caje to realize that it wasn't him. He crawled toward it, and discovered a tangle of limbs and broken masonry. "Qui est là?" he asked softly.
The only answer was a whimper.
Caje knew he needed more light before he dared move anything. He stood cautiously and reached overhead. The ceiling was about six or seven feet high here. Most of the rafters were firmly wedged in place, but soon his searching fingers found a plank that shifted when pressured. He pushed it gingerly and met no resistance, no ominous rumble of further collapse. Holding his breath, he slid it out of place, and a small cascade of daylight filtered down on them.
There were three more bodies besides the baby. The first one, an old woman, was already dead. When Caje brushed the away the thick dust that coated the second victim's face, he realized it was another child, perhaps ten or twelve years old. She was unconscious but alive, pinned under a heavy rack of shelves that had contained a winter's supply of preserved fruits and vegetables. Caje knelt beside her and shards of broken glass sliced his knee, drawing blood. Getting leverage, he lifted the rack off her and dropped it off to one side. Gently, he cleared the rest of the rubble off her, but did not try to move her. Then he moved on to the third victim, an adult woman. She moaned as he tried to find a way to free her from the heavier debris that had pinned her as effectively as Sarge was trapped.
"Mes enfants!" she cried weakly.
Caje stopped what he was doing and crouched low beside her. "Ne pas vous inquiéter," he consoled her. "Ils ne sont pas en danger.…"
"Tout mes enfants?" She clutched his hand. "Est-ce qu'ils ne sont pas morts?"
"Shhh…. " Caje stroked her hair, soothing her. He knew now it must have been Sarge who had found the little baby, and hastily tried to cover her to protect the others from the discovery. Caje felt the woman's hand tighten on his as she waited for an answer. "S'il vous plait," she pleaded in a whisper, her breath rattling in her chest. "Dites à moi…."
And with quiet desperation, Caje lied to her. "Ils sont tout sûrs," he said.
The tension ebbed from her taut face then and her eyes drifted shut.
"Caje?" A stage whisper pierced the silence. Caje looked over his shoulder to discover Doc cautiously making his way toward him.
"I don't know if you can help them, Doc," he told him, but moved out of the way to let the medic examine them. "How did you get down?" he added, remembering Doc's crushed fingers.
"Kirby is still looking for something to use as a ladder," Doc drawled, not directly answering. "But I didn't want to wait." Not with Sarge in trouble, he didn't have to add.
Caje noticed that Doc was moving a bit more gingerly than before, and figured the eager medic had made a rough landing that he chose not to talk about. He understood what had motivated Doc to be in such a hurry. "How is he?" he asked, tilting his head toward the main cellar room.
Doc sat back on his haunches and shook his head over the two French women. "There's nothing I can do for them," he said sadly. "The girl here might just be concussed though. I hope so. We need that ladder." He looked back. "I think Sarge'll make it if we can get help," he answered. "I cain't tell how bad the damage is under those beams."
"We'll dig him out," Caje said confidently, starting to lead the way back toward the others.
"No - - that's just what we can't do." Doc grabbed the other man's elbow as they moved from shadows into the blackest part of the cellar. They stopped, and Doc's hand shook a little. "Do you remember Gage, from third squad's BAR team?"
"I think so. Yeah. He bought it in St. Lo, right?"
"Yeah. He was in a building like this one; got hit by artillery. We got him out, but as soon as we lifted the rubble off him, he went into shock. He never even made it back to Battalion Aid." Doc's voice caught. Gage had been the first soldier to die in Doc's arms. In the eerie, stifling darkness of the cellar, the haunting memory clung to him like a damp chill, in painfully vivid details. "The doctor said later it was the release of the pressure that killed him," he continued unsteadily. "If we'd have had some plasma there, ready when we freed him, we might have kept him alive." Doc had seen a lot of men die since then; had learned to let it go, put it behind him. But you never forgot your first. Especially when you learned that the steps you took to save him might actually have hastened his death. Doc shook off the vision with a conscious effort and nudged Caje to move on. "We need to get some engineers in here and some medical supplies and a real doctor, before we try to move the sarge."
"Then that's what we'll do," Caje said calmly. He squinted as the feeble sunlight hit his face as they rounded the corner.
"Hey! Doc! He's awake!" Joy shone from Littlejohn's eyes, despite the bruises that made them look like deep hollows.
That big grin was contagious; Doc and Caje exchanged relieved looks. Caje dropped down beside them, oblivious to the glass cuts in his knee. "How 'ya doin' Sarge?" he asked.
Under dust-caked brows, Saunders' deep-set blue eyes struggled to remain alert. "Hurts. To breathe," he answered tersely. His eyes shut, as though he hoped that would shut out the pain, but then he opened them again. "The kids?" he asked. "Safe?"
"We got them out, Sarge," Caje told him, putting a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
"What about - - " his eyes went toward the corner of the cellar from which Doc and Caje had just come.
"Comin' thru!" Kirby's shout made them all look upward. A ladder slid into view, striking the ground and sending puffs of dirt floating around them like grimy soap bubbles.
Caje turned to Doc for confirmation. "It's safe to move the girl?"
Doc nodded. "Get all the kids to another building. One that isn't going to fall down on all their heads," he said, as a few more bricks clattered down when Kirby tried to position the ladder to be more stable.
Caje sniffed. "And somewhere that doesn't smell like a broken gas main," he added, and disappeared around the corner. In a moment he was back, with the girl draped over his shoulder like Santa carrying a sack of toys. Doc crouched next to Littlejohn to give them more room, and Caje clambered up the ladder and out of sight.
As Doc settled back into place, he heard a sharp intake of breath and felt the big man beside him go rigid. Except for the dusky bruising around what was probably a broken nose, Littlejohn's face was the color of paste. He sat immobile, his left hand clenching his right elbow to provide support. Doc frowned and with his good hand carefully examined the injured shoulder. The least touch caused Littlejohn to swear an oath under his breath, but Doc knew that he couldn't let that stop him.
Finally, he rocked back on his heels. "It's dislocated, Littlejohn," he said.
The big man nodded unhappily. "I guessed," he replied. "It's happened before. Back on the farm…." Talking was too difficult and he fell uncharacteristically silent.
"Then you know we have to put it back," Doc said. It couldn't wait for a rescue. Swelling from the dislocation could result in nerve damage, compressed arteries, permanent disability. It had to be done now.
He looked down at his own smashed fingers and didn't know how. Instinctively, he looked toward Sarge but the man who always found an answer was unconscious again. Doc raised his eyes and found Littlejohn looking to Sarge for the same thing.
"What do you want me to do, Doc?" Kirby's voice surprised them both. He squatted on his haunches beside them.
Doc sighed. "Good. I need you to help me with Littlejohn."
"Oh no," his patient protested. "Not Kirby. What about Billy? Or Caje?"
"Billy's got shrapnel in his right arm," Doc reminded him. "He can barely lift his rifle - - he won't have the strength to do what as to be done. And Caje is off somewhere in the village trying to find a safe place to leave those kids. This oughta be done right away, Littlejohn."
The soldier knew what was coming. He shut his eyes so the others wouldn't read the fear in them. Kirby looked wide-eyed at Doc. Just what was he getting himself in for?
"You sure you can do this?" Doc asked him. At Kirby's nod, he used his uninjured hand to help position Littlejohn securely with his back against a wall. "Now, take six slow deep breaths," he instructed. "Both of you. Everything has to be slow and easy."
"Must be why they made you a medic," Kirby muttered. "Slow and easy, that's your middle name!"
Doc felt a smile flicker across his face. Kirby always had a wisecrack to make - - he wouldn't admit it but Doc suspected he did it on purpose to help relieve the tension. "Now," Doc instructed them, "straighten his arm out to the side. Slowly."
Kirby took the weight of Littlejohn's right arm in his hands. He was surprised at how heavy a man's arm was, if the owner wasn't bearing any of the weight himself. He started to straighten it out.
"Slower!" Doc barked.
Slow to the Arkansas medic was positively snail-like to the rest of the human race, Kirby decided. A minute passed. Then another.
A groan squeaked past his Littlejohn's lips. Sweat popped out on his face and then on Kirby's too. Finally, Doc was satisfied.
"Okay. Next step. Pull the elbow across Littlejohn's chest. Slowly again."
Kirby started, grip firm. Centimeter by centimeter. Minute by minute. He could feel Littlejohn trembling with pain and the effort to remain still.
"It's not workin', Doc!" Desperation edged Kirby's voice.
"One more inch," Doc promised them both.
Another excruciating minute passed, second by slow second. Kirby's nose wrinkled as an approaching sneeze threatened to undo all the progress they had made so far. He paused, rubbed his nose against the rough wool of his jacket shoulder, felt his nose twitch again and saw Littlejohn staring at him in horror. Just hang on, Kirby thought….
And then, there was the sound of bone grinding against bone as the knobby head of the humerus came up against the shoulder socket. Kirby winced at the sound and froze.
"Don't stop," Doc urged. "You're almost there."
Kirby glanced up. Littlejohn's face was color of thin milk. His eyes were squeezed shut again.
Bone scraped against bone in jerks.
"Now," Doc said. "Take his wrist and lift it up - bend the elbow - and bring his hand up to his left shoulder. Slowly."
Scrunch. Another scrunch.
Finally, bone locked into place. Littlejohn's head drooped. His brown hair, damp with sweat, clung to his scalp like a helmet.
And then a tsunami-like sneeze blew more dry mortar dust off the basement walls.
"We'll need a sling," Doc said. "That joint is still unstable. It ought to be immobilized."
"I've got it." Kirby unbuckled his belt and whipped it off in one smooth motion. Then he re-fastened the buckle and slid the loop cautiously over Littlejohn's bowed head. With surprising gentleness he took the other man's big paw and guided it through the improvised sling, so that the injured arm was snug against Littlejohn's chest.
Then all three of them slumped against the crumbling cellar walls, as spent as the unconscious sergeant beside them.
Billy sat on the broken stones of the front porch steps, unconsciously rubbing his right arm. He had scouted out a big house a couple blocks to the east that seemed more structurally sound than the rest of the area, and helped Caje herd the kids over there. Now he was in the uncomfortable position of doing nothing, but the necessary job of sitting at a relay point, where he could see the top of the ladder if Doc wanted anything and could see the house down the street if Caje appeared to need something.
Doc emerged first, and Billy staggered to his feet eagerly. "Is everyone okay?" he asked, unable to suppress his anxiety.
Doc nodded; too weary for unnecessary words. Pain pounded in his hand like a sledgehammer. He cradled it in his left hand and leaned against a wall, feeling woozy. "Where'd Caje take the kids?" he asked.
"Down there." Billy pointed down the side street, while his feet inched toward the parlor and the ladder peeking through the floor from the cellar. "That stone house on the end," he added.
Doc gave him a tired smile. "Go ahead, check on the sarge," he said. "And then you can help Littlejohn up too."
The young private instantly looked less haggard and stumbled eagerly into the house. Doc pushed himself back upright and trudged down the street, where he found Caje underneath a pile of children who swarmed over him like playful puppies. A solemn girl of about 12, dirty and bruised, sat close behind them, hugging her arms to her chest, not engaging in the tumbles. She hovered nearby though, always inching closer when their play moved them away from her. Doc was glad to see she looked unhurt. "How is she?" he asked.
Caje disentangled himself from the three little ones enough to reach for her hand. "This is Marie," he said. "I think she's hurt her throat; she can't talk. But when I asked her if she had any pain besides her neck, she says no, Doc."
The medic took his time checking Marie and all the other children. "She may have damaged her larynx," he announced. "That will probably heal, in time." Gabriel's head wound, though it had bled a lot, was also not serious. Jacques apparently had a broken collarbone - - Caje found some curtains in the house that could be ripped into smaller pieces to make a sling. And little Yvonne had regained consciousness with no signs of any lasting damage, just a goose egg under her blond curls.
"They were lucky," Doc said softly, shaking his head. More lucky than the victims left behind. "Did they tell you why the hell they weren't evacuated like everyone else?" he asked.
Caje shook his head. "The little ones know that they left, but they came back. I don't know why. Marie may know, but it's too hard for her to talk. I didn't push it."
Doc nodded. "Do they understand what happened to their mother? The others?"
Again Caje shook his head. "Marie doesn't remember anything that happened in the cellar. But she may suspect. The others are too little." He held Jacques gingerly in his lap, so he wouldn't jostle the broken arm as Gabriel and Yvonne climbed over them, giggling. Marie watched them forlornly and Caje gave her an encouraging smile. She smiled back tentatively.
"Can we leave them here with Marie?" Doc asked. "Until the town folk get back? We gotta figure out what to do next."
Caje climbed to his feet, setting Gabriel down carefully and brushing the other two off from their quest to scale his legs as though he were a hill to climb. He spoke softly to Marie, in rapid-fire French. When she nodded, Caje knelt close to her and pushed her back from her eyes with great gentleness, his eyes warm. Then he let her go and she turned to her siblings and led them out of the room. "I told them to stay in this house," Caje explained. "But to go find the kitchen and look for some food."
"Food." Doc sighed. It had been a long time since any of them had eaten. That would be high on their list of priorities. And medical supplies. He had no sulfa powder left, no bandages, no morphine. "Say Caje?" he asked. "When you flushed the village, did you guys find any kind of a hospital? A pharmacy? If we're gonna keep Sarge alive and comfortable till help comes, we gotta find more medical supplies!"
"Nope. I already thought of that," came the unhappy answer. "I asked Marie if there was anything like that around, when we were making a sling for Jacques. She said no."
They walked on back down the road in mutual thoughtful silence, past the church with the creaky steeple, to the house that reminded Doc of a broken brown egg - the top half of the shell missing and the contents spilling out into the street.
The squad gathered together on the front porch. Doc and Caje reported that the children were safe in Marie's care until the villagers returned. Kirby told them there was no change in the kids' mother; she had not regained consciousness.
"I don't expect she will," Doc said, frustrated at being so helpless. "How's the sarge?"
Kirby sneezed twice before answering. "Still out cold too," he said.
"Somebody oughta sit with him." Caje rubbed the back of a sore shoulder. "I'll go."
Kirby flashed back to words Sarge had spoken to him that afternoon - - it felt like a lifetime ago. We don't leave our guys to die alone. "Hey! He is gonna be all right, ain't he?"
"Not unless we get some help soon," Doc answered. "Till that comes, we'll take turns with him."
Caje nodded and went down the ladder.
The four remaining men looked at each other. Sarge wasn't there to tell them what to do. It was a new experience. Finally, Kirby sniffled. "Lieutenant Hanley must be goin' nuts back at HQ. Sarge just about hung up on him when Littlejohn burst in. I guess we better fill him in." He stretched his aching muscles and headed back to the church.
Doc had no idea where his medical bag had ended up. And not much idea what Sarge might need through the next few hours. He figured he'd better find it and see what supplies he did have left. Even an aspirin would be welcome relief. And maybe he could get Caje to splint his throbbing fingers.
Littlejohn turned to Billy. "We oughta be using that OP while it's still light," he said. "The last thing we need is Krauts sneakin' up on us right now."
Billy nodded. "I'll go back up. I don't think those stairs will survive those size 15 boots of yours, Littlejohn." He grinned.
Littlejohn hated to give in, but knew his buddy was right. With his left arm he gathered up Caje's rifle, still lying in the same corner where it had fallen before the house had caved in. The helmet was nowhere to be seen. "Better keep all the ordnance in one place," he thought aloud. "Where we can grab it quick if we need it and where those kids won't find it and play with it if they come back. I'll do an ammo check too."
Kirby tried to think if he'd ever gotten to say "Checkmate King Two, this is White Rook - Over" before. He decided this was a first and his chest swelled a little with pride.
Hanley's terse voice interrupted his little mental graduation party. "White Rook. What is your status? Over."
"We're in Moissy. No Krauts around. We've got the OP," Kirby told him, allowing a note of smug satisfaction to creep into his voice. "Over."
"It's secure?" Hanley's voice interrupted him. "Intact? Over."
"Yes sir," Kirby reassured him.
"Damn," the lieutenant's irritation carried over the radio waves. "That's not what I wanted to hear."
Kirby nearly dropped the handset in surprise. "I thought we were supposed to secure the OP," he said.
"Negative," Hanley told him. "Our artillery was supposed to take it out. Your mission was to confirm."
"That was our artillery?!" Kirby stared blankly at the church wall. For the first time, he noticed he was standing in front of a large painting of Jesus blessing the children, which stretched above an expanse of unlit votive candles. Poor kids, Kirby thought. It made his stomach churn to think that his own side had probably made the little kids they'd rescued orphans.
"Roger that." Hanley debated how much to tell the private. It couldn't be good that Saunders wasn't the one on the radio. The words hovered on his lips, to ask where Sarge was, but a sudden sense of foreboding made the question catch in his throat. He wouldn't dignify the fear by voicing it. "You guys pull out," he said instead. "I'll call in another fire mission to make sure we get the job done this time."
"No Sir! You can't do that!" Kirby's hand tightened on the handset. "We've got wounded that we can't move. They're trapped in a cellar and we need some engineers and some medical supplies in here. You can't hit the village again."
"This isn't Debate Club, private." Hanley's voice toughened. "We can NOT afford to let the Krauts discover our movements. And S2 reports German activity in your sector. That OP has to be taken out." There was much more he didn't share with the enlisted man. That despite all the casualties and losses, the Allies were still ahead of schedule on their advance through Normandy. There weren't enough supplies to keep up this pace. If they were going to push the Krauts out of France, they would have to choose carefully where to make their push. And it was critical that the Germans not get any warning that Hill 361 and Chambois were the next targets and bring up reinforcements to that part of the line.
Kirby dropped onto a nearby pew, thinking furiously. "Lieutenant, we can hold the Krauts off till you can send someone up here to relieve us. We won't let them take the OP."
"No deal." There was a moment before the lieutenant spoke again, a silence that betrayed his reluctance to give the order that followed. "Can't chance it. I'm ordering artillery fire and you'll just have to clear out. Secure those you can't move the best you can."
Well, Kirby figured, he had lost stripes before bucking authority, and none of them were for a better reason than this. "Look, Lieutenant," he protested. "We've air-dropped supplies to the resistance before. How about you send a C-47 to drop some thermite grenades or some TNT and let us blow the steeple? Littlejohn knows how to do it! And we can control the direction of the explosion better from down here. Over."
Only silence answered him.
Hanley gnawed the inside of his lip. He knew full well that Saunders must be one of the people trapped in the cellar. Kirby wouldn't be the one on the horn if Sarge were available. Was Hanley letting his friendship with one man drive a decision that he couldn't afford to risk? If the Krauts took the OP, and discovered the troop movements, they could call in artillery that would cut the Allied forces to ribbons. He couldn't risk it.
If only it weren't Kirby's idea. If it were Saunder's idea, he'd have given it a chance. Was it the plan he objected to, or the source?
Hanley finally turned back to his receiver, with a sigh and a prayer. "Okay, Kirby. You get one chance. As long as you've got an OP, use it! Keep your eyes peeled for any enemy movement in your sector. And if you see it, report back ASAP. If it stays quiet, I'll call in a few markers and arrange to drop some explosives and some medical supplies around 2030 hours. Watch for it. Then you blow that church, got it?"
"Roger that," Kirby said, flippant but determined. "No Kraut's gonna get this OP. Not even over my dead body."
"Your dead body's not worth squat, private! Just take down that steeple! Out!"
Kirby set the radio aside with a muttered expletive and looked up to see Billy peering back down at him from the bell tower stairs, binoculars dangling from his left hand.
"What'd Hanley say?"
"He wants the church destroyed," Kirby answered.
Billy gulped. In that case, this wasn't a very good place to be standing!
Littlejohn climbed to his feet, looming over the wiry BAR man. "What are you talking about?"
Kirby explained. And then explained the alternative that he'd sold to Hanley. "You do know how to use explosives, don't you Littlejohn? You're always tellin' us about blowin' up trees on the farm." His sidelong glance didn't convey the same confidence he'd feigned with the lieutenant.
"Stumps, Kirby. It was tree stumps." Littlejohn sank back down in a heap, surrounded by the piles of ammo belts he had collected, and absently rubbed his broken nose. Had he ever known a plan of Kirby's to succeed? No. Sure, he did have some experience with dynamite, but he figured any demolitions he'd get to do in Europe would be maybe assisting experienced engineers. Not being in charge. He couldn't help wondering what would Sarge have done instead.
Then there was no time to muse. "Heads up!" Billy called out.
Littlejohn reached for his rifle instinctively, but couldn't manage to load a fresh clip with his right arm still tethered close to his chest with Kirby's belt. Before he could react to this discovery, the heavy door to the church was slowly pushed open. And in stumbled little Gabriel, the six-year-old. He clutched a big woven basket tightly in both arms.
"What the hell are you doin' out here!" Kirby yelled. "You coulda got your head blowed off. You're supposed to stay in that house. Remember? Capishe?"
Gabriel smiled ingenuously. He wasn't afraid of Kirby. He had seen the tender way Kirby had cared for Jacques on the porch and the boy knew Kirby's talk was all bluster. "Pour vous!" he insisted, holding out the basket. More French words spilled forth but the only word Kirby caught was "Marie."
"Okay, so your big sister sent you. I get it. Give it here, kid, and then am-scray. Back to the house!" He took the basket in one hand, shoveled it toward Littlejohn, and waved down the street with the other arm. Littlejohn rose to take it and Gabriel's head tilted back and back and back as the giant towered over him. With a gulp of awe, he turned and fled, his scrawny bare legs churning as they carried him back to his siblings.
"God bless Marie," Littlejohn rumbled with a reverent tone.
"What?" Kirby turned to see Littlejohn inhaling a sweet aroma that spread an intoxicating grin from ear to ear. "I don't smell anything," Kirby protested, sniffing futilely.
"Dinner is served," the big man announced. He set the basket down and flipped back a red-and-white-checked napkin to reveal a loaf of bread and a wheel of cheese, a bottle of cognac, and a set of four antique gilt-edged china plates, only slightly chipped.
"God bless Marie," Kirby echoed.
Littlejohn and Kirby took some food to Sarge, but he couldn't eat. Caje finished wrapping Doc's broken fingers and then the squad hovered restlessly around the parlor of the fallen house, feeling helpless. As if searching for an excuse to stay, they began clearing more of the debris away, pulling up floorboards so that more light could reach the cellar. When Saunders finally faded out, Littlejohn put a finger to his lips and "shhhh"d the others. They stopped, grinning sheepishly, and stepped out of the house, not wanting the noise to wake the sarge. They decided to stand in rotations - - one man took sentry duty in the steeple, another sat with Sarge in the cellar, and the rest ate a little, cat-napped, cleaned their weapons, and longed for a smoke. It wasn't till Caje and Kirby were both relaxing in the church at the same time that Kirby discovered the flaw in his plan.
"I thought you said you told Hanley we'd hold the OP," Caje said.
"Yeah, I did. Until we got no other choice. Then we gotta blow it."
The Cajun shook his head. "We can't. Not with Sarge still trapped."
"Sure we can. It'll only take a little explosion to bring down that steeple." Kirby took a long swig from his canteen and set it on the floor beside him. "That's all we gotta do. Not the whole church."
"It'll only take a little explosion to set the whole block on fire! There's a broken gas main somewhere close!"
"There is?" Kirby sniffled. "I didn't smell anything."
Caje scowled. "Call Hanley back. Get him to drop more ammo instead. We'll need that if we have to hold here till help comes."
Kirby looked at his watch and sighed. "Too late. It's almost time for the drop now!" He looked up at Doc, who was taking his turn as sentry while Littlejohn sat with Sarge, and Billy caught a nap on a pew. "See anything yet?"
"No signs of a plane, yet," Doc said. He sounded worried. "We've got to get Sarge some morphine and plasma… Hey!" He paused and tucked the field glasses against his jacket to adjust the focus with his good hand. Wincing, he brought them back up. "Damn!"
"Krauts! Two different patrols!" His heart was racing. "Or one, that split up."
Billy sat up groggily.
"How many men?" Caje was practical, already reaching for his M1 and moving toward the church door.
Doc breathed slowly through his nose, deliberately making himself calm down. "They're both comin' from the south. The closer group looks like just two men carrying a third. With a fourth guy armed, walking ahead. The guy at the back of the litter looks like a corpsman." Maybe they wouldn't cause any trouble, Doc thought. They were probably heading for the village for shelter, not on a mission to take it. And our squad's got more firepower than they do. We could hold them off.
"And the other patrol?"
Doc knitted his brows into a frown. "Can't tell exactly how many; they're too far away. About half a mile behind the other guys." He brightened. "They aren't on the move."
"Well, they're probably laying mines or setting up an ambush or somethin'! Whatever it is, you can bet they're up to no good," Kirby groused.
"Doc, you better come down and switch places with Littlejohn. Looks like we may be needing all the fire power we can muster," Caje suggested. As Doc rumbled down the steeple stairs, Billy shook off the last tendrils of sleep and reached instinctively to put on his helmet. It took a moment to remember that he had lost his helmet in the minefield. Without a word he grabbed his rifle, grimaced, and went up to take Doc's place.
Just as Littlejohn stooped through the church entrance, Billy's excited voice called down, "Incoming!" There was the echo of artillery, a single burst, and then silence.
"What do you see?" Littlejohn asked impatiently. "What happened?"
"It came from due south of here. But it didn't explode. I can still see where it hit," Billy told them. "By a big tree stump where the road curves along the ravine. I don't get it …."
"I think I do," Kirby said pensively.
Caje nodded. "I think it means the Lieutenant couldn't get a plane after all. If that came from the direction of Le Bourg-St. Leonard ridge, then that's probably our supply drop!"
Understanding dawned across Littlejohn's face. "He had them stuff our supplies in a smoke shell casing and fire it at us! And hoped we'd be smart enough to figure that out."
"But it landed outside the village!" Kirby slumped with his back against the wall. "Geez! Last time the artillery missed the church and hit the neighboring houses. Why didn't they just use the same coordinates as last time?"
"Maybe it was a short round," Littlejohn said. "How far out is it?"
"That's gotta be a mile from here. The damn Krauts are closer to it than we are!" Billy told them bitterly.
"Then I better hurry," Caje said abruptly. "Doc said he's gotta have those supplies!" Without waiting for an argument, he took off down the street like a bandit.
"Wait a minute, you crazy Cajun!" Kirby called out. "You can't…."
It was too late. He was gone.
"Maybe the Krauts haven't spotted where it fell," Littlejohn said hopefully.
Billy peered into the growing dusk through the binoculars. "No - they're on the move, heading toward it too. But they haven't seen Caje yet."
Doc jogged back though the open church doors. The internal conflict was written across his open face. He hated to leave Sarge alone. But his place was with the men facing battle.
"Who's closer, Caje or the Krauts?" Kirby asked.
"The Krauts," Billy answered. "They're about 400 yards closer."
"No problem then. Caje'll get there first." Kirby smiled. "Did I ever tell you guys about the first time I met Caje? It was right after D-Day - - in some damn village we were fightin' over. They all look alike; ya know? Anyway, there was this disabled tank - - no crew - - but it had a machine gun that still worked. Caje and a Kraut both took off for it at the same time. I didn't know Caje - - I saw the Kraut had a big head start - - so I bet my NCO ten bucks that the Kraut would beat him. I lost." He laughed. "And the very next day I got assigned to Hanley's platoon. I figured Caje would take my head off when he heard I bet on his life like that. But he just laughed and said, 'Just remember next time, pal, don't bet against me!' "
As if to punctuate the end of his story, the sound of rifle fire suddenly erupted.
"He's there!" Billy shouted. "But it looks like he's pinned down."
"I'm comin' up," Littlejohn announced, tearing off his makeshift sling and then grabbing his rifle with his left hand. He couldn't stand the inactivity another minute. Surely if the steeple steps had survived Billy and Doc tromping up and down, they would hold him too.
Kirby felt the same itch. He had to do something.
He knew the BAR would slow him down. The prospect of running that gauntlet of enemy fire was daunting enough. Weighed down by the 16 pound Browning made him feel as vulnerable as an arcade duck in a shooting gallery. "Might as well just paint a target on my jacket," Kirby muttered and reached for the extra ammunition that Billy had been hauling for him the last two days.
Doc shot him a patented worried look. "That's a lot to carry out and back, on top of the supplies," he ventured.
"I'm not comin' back." Kirby flashed back to his last look at Saunders, lying so pale and defenseless. He wanted the old sarge back - - the no-nonsense NCO he was used to - - the one that barked commands that brooked no argument, freeing Kirby to gripe and then do his duty, knowing it was the right thing to do, because Sarge had said so, and knowing that he really had no choice.
This time there was no certainty at all that it was the right thing to do. And there was no command either - - he didn't have to do this. Except that Kirby felt in his heart that he did.
"I'll send Caje back with the supplies," he said. "But I'm staying out there to watch the perimeter."
Doc nodded. He picked up Kirby's canteen to pass along, hefted it thoughtfully, and then unstrapped his own and used the last of his water to fill Kirby's to the top. "How are you gonna do it?" he asked, screwing the top back on. "Run down the road and they'll spot you for sure. But try to run through the brush and you'll break an ankle in this terrain."
"It is a problem," Kirby admitted with a rueful grin.
"Well, at least keep your head down," Doc said, handing Kirby the canteen.
"You can count on that!" Kirby smirked. Then his face grew serious. He was still haunted by Sarge's words at the minefield that morning. "Look Doc, there's no moon tonight. If the Krauts don't attack the village now, they won't be coming till morning. I'll be watchin' the road, so they can't come that way. And if they try to avoid the road, they'd just walk smack dab into a tree in those woods at night. So they'll sit tight tonight, right?"
"Okay, I'll buy that," Doc answered. "So?"
"So." Kirby fitted the canteen on his belt. He didn't look at Doc. "You won't need everyone up here in the church all night. Don't leave Sarge alone. Okay?"
Doc's head bobbed once in silent agreement. Then he clapped Kirby on the arm and the scrappy BAR man rose and moved stealthily to the door.
Above, Littlejohn sent Billy down and took his turn in the tower, eyes straining against the fading light. He knew where Caje and the supplies were hidden, behind a huge fallen tree, although he couldn't see them now. He hoped the Krauts were equally stymied by the dusk.
A blur by the village gates caught his attention. Kirby was on the move.
Instinctively, Littlejohn brought up his M1 to provide covering fire. His injured shoulder immediately objected to the abuse. But it was nothing like the earlier agony, before Kirby had manipulated the bone back into place in the socket. Who would have ever guessed that the loudmouth goldbrick had such gentleness in him? Littlejohn mused.
And then a shot fired.
Kirby detoured, running serpentine off the side of the road, hedges whipping at his head and shoulders.
Littlejohn sighted his rifle where the muzzle flash had come. It had to be over 1000 meters away. He frowned. Littlejohn knew he was one of the better marksmen in the platoon with the M1, but in this light he couldn't hit the proverbial side of a barn. Still, a burst from his weapon might make the Krauts keep their heads down and hold their fire.
But could he afford to waste the ammo on an impossible target? If Caje and Kirby didn't make it back and the Krauts did attack the village, he would need every clip.
One moment of indecision.
Another shot cracked the dusk.
And Kirby fell face first into a ditch.
Before Littlejohn could line up his rifle again, another M1 barked a reply. And then Kirby was up and on the run again. Littlejohn lowered his weapon with a sigh of relief. Caje was closer and providing cover. They would make it.
Kirby slid across a patch of wet leaves and Caje thrust out an arm to stop him from tumbling headfirst down the ravine that edged the east side of the road. Kirby gulped in huge gasps of air.
"You okay?" Caje asked, eyes still monitoring the tree line to the west.
"Mmmmm. You?" With rubbery legs, Kirby sank to a more comfortable position and started to arrange his ammo to be more readily accessible.
"Never better," Caje lied. "When you get your breath back, I'll cover your run back with the supplies."
"Not me. You," Kirby said. "I've got the better fire power and you've got fresher legs."
The Cajun couldn't argue with that. But he didn't like the idea of leaving Kirby stranded behind. "It's getting dark enough. We can both go."
"Nope. I figure someone ought to stand sentry duty. Make sure no-one sneaks up on the village at dawn. I'll move a little closer to the village if it looks safe, but I'm stayin'. Besides," he added, "you had outpost last time; it's my turn."
Kirby volunteering? Caje's eyes grew round with disbelief. It was amazing what you discovered about other people from their actions when no-one was giving orders, he thought. Then he pulled the two satchels over his shoulder. One carried the Composition C, primer cord and detonator. The other was a medical aid bag. Caje gave the tree line a last, suspicious glare.
There was no sign of movement.
Just as he rose from a crouch, a bush rustled nearby.
Caje froze. The tension in his posture alerted Kirby, who silently brought up his BAR.
Another bush moved, closer still. Clearly, they were being observed. Why hadn't the Kraut fired on them?
With a quick glance at his partner to be sure he was covered, Caje summoned some of the handful of German words that he had learned the hard way. "Komme sie raus!"
Slowly, a tall, thin youth rose out of the greenery. Over his uniform he wore a white bib marked with a large red cross, indicating a corpsman. He raised his hands to show he was unarmed.
"What do you want?" Kirby demanded. It didn't matter that the Geneva Convention said that a medic couldn't be armed, or that he couldn't shoot one. Kirby didn't trust anyone wearing that German gray.
The young man looked gaunt with hunger and he swayed with fatigue. He seemed to have been separated from his company and supplies for a long time. "Bitte," he pleaded, and pointed toward the medical aid bag marked with a white cross, which Caje had retrieved from the smoking shell casing.
"Nein," Kirby growled, waving his BAR. "Forget about it, Fritz!"
The young man continued to plead, and uttered a few words that the Americans could recognize. "Mein Feldwebel" and "verwundeter". My Sergeant. And wounded.
Caje and Kirby exchanged looks. Another time, another place, they'd have no sympathy for the enemy. There was no room for compassion in this war. But they'd spent the last few hours with the prospect of losing Saunders weighing heavily on their hearts.
And they had to admire the Kraut's nerve in just walking right up to them and asking for help.
Kirby shrugged. Caje opened up the aid bag and eyed the contents. The iodine and plasma and IV bottles, even though cushioned and wrapped in a waterproof bag, hadn't survived the fall. But other supplies seemed intact. Caje didn't know what everything was for, but he recognized morphine and gauze bandages and sulfa powder. And he guessed they could share those and still take care of the sarge. So he took some of those out, and the olive drab blanket too. There were surely blankets in the village if they needed them. Caje wrapped the meager supplies in the wool and handed them to the young German medic.
"Danke. Danke." The boy's eyes were moist with gratitude. Kirby waved his BAR in dismissal, away from them and away from the village too, and the young medic disappeared the same way he had come.
Dusk settled over the woods with a gray gloom. It would be dark soon, another moonless night. Caje and Kirby exchanged glances, the same thought running through their minds. The Krauts couldn't be traveling any more that night. Just how far away from the two Americans were the Krauts' foxholes, they wondered. Caje nodded at his friend then, a look that said nothing and everything. And then he took off in a low run down the road.
When the German fire came, it didn't come from the corpsman's squad.
Billy sat folded up like an accordion pleat in the confined space beside Sarge, arms twined across his bent knees, chin resting on top of one hand. He had just finished telling a long story about how he and Brian Harrigan accidentally blew up their high school chemistry lab. "But we passed, Sarge," he concluded with a rueful smile. "Mr. Cunningham said if he flunked us we'd have to repeat his class, and he didn't want that to happen. He never wanted to see us in his chem lab again!"
Billy looked down at Sarge to see if there was any reaction. He'd been mostly unconscious since Billy had come down, but in the last few minutes he'd started to stir slightly. His head tossed restlessly on the pillow that had until recently been Billy's jacket.
"Shoulda seen it …" Saunders muttered, eyes still closed.
"What, Sarge?" Billy's features softened with relief at the prospect of Sarge coming to. Leaderless, he felt like they were no better off than a flock of baby ducks paddling around in random confusion, helpless without someone to follow.
"Should'a seen … tank tracks …"
"What? Sarge, wake up! You're dreamin'!"
"It's mined! Harmon! Nelson! Look out!" The cry, hoarse and raw, was forced from his throat and Sarge started to sit up, eyes wide with panic.
Billy grabbed Saunders' shoulders and eased him back down. "It's okay, Sarge. It's okay." He didn't let go even after he felt the injured man sag back against the ground. "It's okay," he repeated, more softly.
"Billy?" The name was a whispered prayer. Sarge's blue eyes were boring into his, dull with pain and uncertainty, afraid to hope.
"It's me, Sarge. Don't worry. You're gonna be okay." Billy patted him on the shoulder awkwardly and leaned back.
"They were American mines," Saunders muttered, his eyes falling shut again. "Not on the map. But should'a seen …." He coughed and winced, and in drawing another breath his face tightened with new pain.
American mines? Billy plucked at his blood-stained sleeve uneasily. That shrapnel had come from his own side? Harmon had been killed by….
"Sarge," he started to ask, but then was dismayed at the other man's now increasing physical distress. "What's wrong?"
Before he could answer, a Kraut MP-40 submachine gun chattered from the forest outside Moissy. A Browning Automatic Rifle taunted a reply. "That's Kirby…" Sarge whispered. Another raspy inhale followed, and another wince.
Instinctively, Billy reached out a hand to lightly touch Sarge's shoulder. They'd cleared all the debris off his upper body hours ago. Even his jacket, streaked with blood from Doc's hand, was open and folded back off his chest. There wasn't anything pressing on his lungs now. There was nothing Billy could do to relieve the sudden pain.
"Doc said you probably had some broken ribs," he told Saunders, hoping to reassure him. "Just lie still…."
Sarge nodded, but his wheezing was growing alarming.
"You know," said Nelson slowly, "I think I'm just gonna go get Doc." He uncurled himself, reached for the ladder with his good left arm to steady it, and went up the rungs two at a time.
Moments later, when the medic dropped to his knees beside his patient, his manner was calm and confident. It was a ruse. Even in the fading light he could now detect a dangerously blue cast to Saunder's face. "Let's just have a look here," Doc said, leaning forward. He reached for the shirt buttons but the fingers on his right hand were wrapped tightly together with a thin rag to splint them. He pulled that hand back with a suppressed "Damn!" and started to fumble with the buttons with just his left hand instead. After a moment Billy knelt to help him. Billy's right arm was still weak and sore, but the fingers worked fine.
After they drew aside the olive drab shirt, Doc pulled out his scissors and clumsily cut Sarge's tee shirt right down the middle and brushed it out of the way. A bruise the size of his helmet darkened the right side of Saunders' rib cage. Even more alarming was asymmetrical shape of his chest wall.
Doc rocked back on his heels. What did that mean? He KNEW he'd been trained briefly on this … it had to do with sucking chest wounds … but Sarge didn't have a sucking chest wound, there was no penetrating trauma…. What was it?
Boots made two quick thumps against the top rungs of the ladder and then landed lightly just beside them. Doc looked up to see Caje bent over beside him, head hanging, hands on knees, sucking wind and shiny with sweat. The Cajun nodded at him, saved his breath, and slid a satchel off his shoulder without a word.
Somehow just the feel of the medical bag in his hands seemed to steady Doc, triggering memories of lessons learned and experiences in the field. He rummaged through the contents, growing more certain of what he was searching for.
First thing, morphine. There was a case with room for five syrettes, but only three remained. Puzzled, he looked up at the Cajun.
The other man just shook his head. "It's a long story." He drew a flashlight out from his pocket, another far-sighted gift from Lt. Hanley. Then he flicked it on and wedged it between some fallen beams to restore some of the visibility that was bleeding away as night encroached.
Doc didn't question him. He'd heard of soldiers stealing drugs and morphine, but he had no doubts about any of the men in this squad. There'd be time for that story later. Right now Sarge was starting to gasp for air.
"This'll help," he said soothingly and quickly gave Saunders the benefit of a full one quarter grain dose of the morphine.
"Littlejohn said," Caje panted, "something was wrong?" When he had skidded to a stop in the church after his pell-mell dash down the road under fire, he'd met Littlejohn there looking frantic with worry. He told Caje that Billy had just come racing in to get Doc because Sarge was getting worse. It was all Caje could do to convince Littlejohn to stay put on sentry duty instead of following Doc back to the cellar.
Worry now settled across Doc's face like a mask. He looked at Saunders and saw that the morphine may be dulling the pain of broken ribs, but it wasn't making it any easier to breathe. The medic skimmed his good hand across each side of Sarge's chest, feeling the left side rise and fall as he breathed. The right side, bruised and swollen, rose slightly but did not relax on the exhale.
Sarge groped feebly for Doc's hand, speechlessly asking for help. His eyes, Doc thought, were growing frantic, like a drowning man.
"We're gonna fix you up, Sarge. Just hang in there," he said, forcing a bravado he didn't feel. He understood now what was wrong, and knew Sarge wouldn't live through the night. Unless Doc could perform an emergency surgical procedure he had never attempted before. And with his crushed right hand, that was out of the question, wasn't it?
He went back to fumbling through the supplies Caje had brought, and said, "Billy, bring me the rest of that cognac that kid brought over."
"Doc, don'tcha think - - oh." The mental light bulb went on in Billy's tired mind. He wasn't sure exactly what Doc had in mind, but he was pretty sure getting drunk to forget his problems wasn't it. "Never mind. I'll be right back." He skipped up the ladder, and Caje took his place next to their sergeant.
"How're ya doin' Sarge?" he asked, as casually as if they'd just been reunited after a weekend leave.
Saunders tried to answer, but nothing came out but a painful wheeze. He closed his eyes and lay still, shivering.
Caje laid one palm across the sarge's forehead. It was cold and clammy with sweat. But Sarge seemed to breathe just a bit easier with the comfort of a friend's touch, so Caje left his hand there a moment longer. Sarge coughed and his eyes flew open, and he blinked back tears at the fierce pain in his ribs. Feeling helpless, Caje shrugged off his field jacket and spread it across Sarge's bare chest, tucking it in around him.
Billy came charging back down the ladder. "Here, Doc," he said, brandishing a bottle.
"Okay." Doc took a slow, deep, breath. He knew what had to be done. If Sarge were unconscious again it would be a lot easier - - easier on Sarge, who wouldn't have to feel the procedure, and easier on Doc, who wouldn't have to tell him about it. But Sarge wasn't unconscious.
"I know you're having trouble breathin', Sarge," the medic began. "But I know why and I know what to do to fix it. So don't you worry." He waited until he got a slight nod in response - - he wanted to be sure Sarge was ready to hear what came next.
"What you've got," the medic explained, "is a punctured lung. I think when you came to a little while ago, that sudden movement caused one of those broken ribs to pierce your lung. The problem is," he went on, "when you breathe in, the air is getting through that hole in your lung and getting trapped in your chest. The next breath you take, you can't get as much air in your lung, because the trapped air in the chest cavity is pressing back on it, and keeping your lung from inflating."
Doc took a breath, never more aware of the simple unconscious act of breathing in and breathing out until now. "That next breath," he continued, "leaked through the punctured lung back into your chest too. Every breath you take gets trapped there and puts more pressure on your lung and leaves it less and less room to inflate. That's why you feel like you're suffocating."
Understanding the problem didn't make Sarge feel any better. One look at his face told Doc that. So he hurried into the plan. "We need to put a tiny tube in your chest to let the air out," he said.
Caje and Billy turned to stare at him, appalled.
They were going to be even more appalled in a minute, Doc thought. Because, with his messed up hand, he wasn't going to be able to do it. One of them would have to.
"That will give your lung room to expand again," Doc concluded. "You'll see. This will work." Or so a doctor had told him once, months ago. He turned to the others. "I need something to use for a flutter valve."
They looked at him blankly.
"Something to fasten to the end of the needle, like a little balloon. The air will come from Sarge's chest through the needle, into some kind of bag that with a hole punched in the bottom of it. Air will seep out that hole but won't flow back 'up' though the balloon and needle and back into his chest. A flutter valve."
Caje got the picture. But he shook his head. He didn't have anything that fit that description.
Billy flushed. And then he glanced sidelong at Sarge and finally reached for his wallet and took out a small flat package. "Like this?" he ventured.
Tension had strung the men tighter than an apron of barbed wire, but Billy's contribution produced wire-cutter sharp giggles. "Have you been carrying that since D-Day?" Caje asked. He wiped a tear of mirth from the corner of one eye.
"Don't worry, Billy," Caje said. "It's GI issue. You can get a replacement when we get back."
"I'm sure Lt. Hanley will authorize it," Doc added mischievously.
"Geez, I don't have to get him to sign for it, do I?" Billy asked naively. As they started snickering again he realized he was being taken for a ride.
"Don't - - " gasped Sarge, "make me laugh!"
Immediately they remembered the gravity of their situation. "Caje," Doc said, clearing aside the jacket to expose Sarge's blue and purple side. His fingers gently palpated along the rib cage until he found the spot he wanted. "Find me a 13 to 15 gauge needle in that aid bag. A big one," he amended at the blank look he received.
The Cajun's hazel eyes grew solemn and huge as he found what Doc wanted. That looked to be a painfully large needle. The medic splashed some of the cognac on Sarge's ribs, primitive sterilization but all they had available. Then Doc indicated the target. "Insert the needle, exactly there."
Caje blinked. But he didn't protest. He positioned himself steadily on two knees beside them, as though preparing to insert a cotter pin in freshly dug up mine.
"Not all the way into the lung, just into the chest cavity," Doc said. "Just deep enough to pierce that air bubble."
"Well, how deep is that!?" Caje protested, letting his anxiety show. The needle nicked skin.
"More. More." Doc verbally coached him.
Caje watched Sarge's face, saw him try to hide the grimace as the needle was forced slowly deeper, and he felt his own resolve slipping. And then Sarge took another breath and terror flashed across his face - - he was starving for air and couldn't get enough. And Caje knew then that he would do anything to erase that terror and he steadied his hand and guided the needle another millimeter, another, another….
"That's it; you got it!" Doc exclaimed. "Now," he had them move swiftly, "tape the needle in place." Billy fished some white surgical tape out of the aid bag and handed it to Caje, who followed Doc's instructions.
"Next, attach the - - uh - - flutter valve - - to the end of the needle," Doc said. Caje deftly unrolled the condom and secured it in place with more tape.
"And now, punch a tiny hole in the end of it," Doc concluded. Billy found a safety-pin in the aid bag and Caje completed the task, then sat back on his heels with a shaky sigh. Disarming mines was less nerve-wracking than this. He looked at Sarge. His eyes were shut again.
"How do we know if it's working, Doc?" Billy asked nervously.
"Watch," was all he said, the note of wonder in his voice revealing that he hadn't been as confident as he had seemed. Before their eyes, the rubber started to inflate.
"All right! Caje, you did it," Billy yelped, clapping him on the shoulder so hard Caje almost toppled over.
"No way, Billy," he replied. "It's all thanks to you. Isn't it, Doc?"
Even the sarge smiled weakly.
"Billy, why don't you swap places with Littlejohn," Caje suggested. He knew the genial giant was going out of his mind with worry.
Billy nodded, made an effort at fluffing his jacket under Saunders' head, and went to summon his friend.
"Looks like Sarge is gonna catch a little sleep now," Doc noted. His patient was too spent to keep his eyes open.
"Best thing for him!" Caje proclaimed, feeling he had a right to give medical advice after what he'd just been through.
"You look like you could use a few Z's yourself."
Caje shrugged. "Can't yet, Doc. I'm going back out."
"What do you mean?"
Caje started up the ladder. Once Littlejohn arrived in the cellar there wouldn't be much room to maneuver. "Doc, I can't leave Kirby out there alone. None of us have had any sleep in two days!"
"That's right - - "
"So if I stay out there with him, we can spell each other. Two hours on. Two hours off. That way we'll be sure one of us is awake if those Krauts make a move toward the village at dawn."
"But how will you find your way back? It's too dark…."
Caje raised one eyebrow, oozing confidence. "That's why I'm the scout, remember?"
The medic just shook his head. For a fleeting moment he wished Saunders were awake, could tell everyone what to do. But the sarge had been out of commission pretty much as soon as they arrived in the village and so far, the squad had been managing okay. He'd have to trust Caje and Littlejohn to guard the road into Moissy, just like he would soon be trusting Billy and Littlejohn to take care of Sarge so he could catch a quick nap himself, before he nodded off on his feet. But first, he had to check the Frenchwoman in the far room off the cellar.
From the open tent flap, Lieutenant Hanley had watched the sky fade from black to slate to gray and now a wash of pale blue slowly filled the horizon above Le Bourg-St. Leonard ridge. Below the ridge, the valley still slumbered under a blanket of early morning fog. Hanley rolled off his cot, giving up the pretense of sleeping. His long legs carried him quickly to the communications tent, where he roused a nervous private to make the call he'd been itching to make for hours.
White Rook didn't answer.
Hanley turned away from the radio; no one saw the hope and grief warring across his chiseled face. Could it be simply that their radio was dead? Dead … dead … the word stuck in his throat, unspoken.
He looked at his watch. Sometime later this day, or the next, hundreds of Allied soldiers - - American, British, Canadian, Polish - - were going to be marching toward Chambois. Walking right into an artillery trap if the Krauts were perched in a church steeple right now in Moissy and saw them coming.
"Try them again," Hanley barked at the communications specialist.
"White Rook, this is Checkmate King Two. Over."
It didn't matter how many times the sleepy monotone was repeated. There was no answer.
The lieutenant had a back-up plan. Any good commander would. Hanley had lain awake all night praying he wouldn't have to use it. His prayers that night weren't answered.
"Wake up! I hear somethin'!" Caje hissed. His boot caught Kirby in the shin and the other man woke up with a grimace. If there was anything worse than a wake-up kick, it was a wake-up kick when you'd only been asleep for half an hour. The day wasn't starting off very good and it quickly went from bad to worse.
It sounded like someone was shaking a jar filled with nuts and bolts. Behind the rattling sound was the low steady hum of an engine. But there was nothing to see; a thick fog clung to the ground like cotton candy and the tired soldiers could barely see each other. From their hiding place even the road was invisible.
But the grinding, clanging noise drew louder. Closer.
"Geez, it's a tank!" Kirby sputtered. "How in hell are we gonna stop a tank!" Not for the first time, he wished it was Sarge out here on the road to Moissy instead of Pvt. William G. Kirby. Sarge would find a way. No matter how much he cudgeled his brain, all Kirby could think of was running. Or hiding. Or surrendering.
What would the guys do if he and Caje couldn't stop the tank? They'd have to surrender, wouldn't they? And maybe the Krauts would bring their engineers in, and their doctors, and get Sarge safely out? That would be a good thing, wouldn't it? But that would mean letting the Germans have Moissy. And Sarge would never condone that. Not even to save his own life.
"Well, we've got to try something!" Caje said, wishing he had kept some of the C2 explosives with him instead of hauling it all to the church. He patted his jacket for grenades and came up empty.
Kirby shucked off his helmet, scratched his close-cropped head, and put his helmet back on. "Okay – I got an idea. Let's make a big sign and put a skull and crossbones on it and write Mines! on it in German. Maybe that'll scare them off. How do you say Mines in German anyway?"
"Minen," Caje answered. "But that's crazy!"
"No, it's not. Look," Kirby began to sound excited. "If we put a dead cow near the sign, they'll believe it for sure, and turn around and go back where they came from!"
Caje ran a hand through wavy black hair in exasperation. "We don't have any dead cows, Kirby."
"Why, they're all over the countryside! We can't go on a single march without havin' to cover our noses over the stench of dead cows. Just once, you think we could find one when we needed one!"
Their banter was interrupted by the sound of a .30 caliber machine gun, tearing through the air like a bayonet tearing through taut cloth.
"Who the hell are they shooting at?" Kirby exclaimed.
"Let's go see." Caje tapped Kirby's leg and flowed to his feet, with a feline grace and none of the I-just-woke-up stiffness that made Kirby's joints creak. Kirby had to move fast if he didn't want to lose Caje in the fog, but he was nearly as quick as the Cajun when he was motivated. He was motivated now.
They came to the spot at the lip of the ravine where the eastern woods met the road. Kirby gestured to show that he was going to go first, heading for a culvert that ran under the road 20 yards closer to the village. Caje nodded and stayed hidden behind a massive oak tree, prepared to offer covering fire.
There was a blur of movement through the trees on the other side of the road. More machine gun fire came from the southwest and tree branches snapped and crashed to the ground in the wake of whatever stumbled through the mist.
Kirby slid feet first into the culvert and turned back to position his BAR.
The grinding and clattering noise swelled closer.
An American tank materialized out of the fog.
Its machine gun barrel swiveled toward the west side of the woods and fired. Leaves and twigs burst from the trees like confetti. And then a pair of unarmed German soldiers erupted from their cover, galloped across the road and headed right for the stand of trees where Caje was hiding. One of the men wore the corpsman's medical cross.
The tank's gun tracked them and sprayed the stand of oak trees on the west side of the road. Three bodies hit the ground hard and tumbled out of sight.
Without thinking, Kirby stood up in the culvert and waved his BAR over his head. "Hey!" he yelled. "Stop!" He clambered back out of the concrete gully and advanced a dozen steps.
The turret rotated slowly until its gun was pointed straight ahead, right down Kirby's throat. The unmistakable sound of the tank treads clattering against the road surface grew louder as the light M3 tank came closer and closer to the culvert and the solitary soldier silhouetted against the misty morning sky.
"I'm American!" Kirby shouted. "Hold up!" Damn, he thought. In this visibility, they can't tell? He took a step backward, his gut knotted with the helpless realization that even the culvert would be no shelter against a 37mm cannon.
The tank gunner took a bead. And then, there was a tremendous explosion, that knocked Kirby off his feet and left the tank blackened with smoke.
It took a minute for Kirby to recover his senses, and his helmet, which had flown off in the blast. He staggered to his feet and leaned on the BAR until his head stopped ringing. I'll be damned, he thought. Those Krauts were really laying mines after all.
The tank was ablaze, too hot to approach. After being beaten back by waves of heat that rolled off the metal like billows of steam, Kirby gave up and trotted over to the tree line where he had seen the others fall.
There was no one there.
At first Kirby thought he had the wrong spot. Sure, the thick weathered tree bark looked familiar, and the way the two trunks seemed to be joined at the base was just like the tree Caje had chosen, because its broader base provided the most cover around. And sure, the ground was littered with shredded leaves and broken branches. But it couldn't be the right spot, because the Cajun wasn't there. And he wouldn't run and leave Kirby alone. So it had to be a different spot.
Kirby ran his hand through the pile of leaves, one last sweep for evidence before looking elsewhere. His fingers felt a patch that was wet and slick and he knew then, even before he brought his hand up to look, that it would be smeared with blood.
Indecision gnawed at his gut. His first instinct - - every time - - though he somehow overcame it when push came to shove, was to keep William G. Kirby safe at all costs. Dig a hole and crawl in it and not come out until peace was declared, that's what his head told him to do. But now other responsibilities pulled at him. Should he stay in the woods, try to find out what happened to Caje - - if he needed Kirby's help? Or return to the village and figure out what the squad should do next, to hold the church, accomplish the mission, and keep Sarge alive.
What to do? Somebody, tell me what to do! His fingers scrabbled helplessly on the BAR and he searched the sullen sky for answers.
He needed the sarge….
Saunders wasn't there. Might never be again, if they didn't figure something out. A chill ran down Kirby's spine at that thought. He had to tell the others what had happened. But - -
His feet felt rooted to the mud; he couldn't lift them. Couldn't leave Caje behind….
Then, unexpectedly, he heard the Cajun's laughing voice in his mind. "Next time, pal, don't bet against me!" Kirby felt a smile tug at the corner of his mouth and the paralyzing indecision lifted. Reluctantly, but surely, he shuffled back toward Moissy.
"What happened?" Billy Nelson was the first soldier to greet Kirby as he came through the church doors. "We heard…."
Kirby waved a hand, panting, then unslung his BAR and sank gratefully onto a pew, setting the Browning Automatic Rifle at his feet. "We got ourselves a problem," he said finally. "Is the sarge awake?"
"Let's go find out!" Billy led the way down the street to the ruined cellar. At the top of the ladder they peered down, to see Doc sprawled alongside Saunders, his mouth open, snoring gently.
"Doc!" Kirby made it a loud whisper. "Doc!"
The medic stirred, and hauled himself out of the quicksand of body-numbing fatigue. First instinct was to check his patient; he waved a bandaged hand at the others to give him a minute. Then he counted respirations, tested Sarge's pulse.
"How is he?" Billy asked.
"He needs a hospital," Doc told them. "I gave him the last of the morphine when he woke up awhile ago. He took a little water then too. He's out now." At least Saunders seemed stable enough for the moment. "But the kids' mother died during the night," Doc added.
Kirby jerked his head in the direction of the church. "We need to talk. All of us."
They summoned Littlejohn down from the steeple; the fog still obscured the valley and there was nothing to see that they wouldn't hear first. The four men assembled in the nave of the church, falling into familiar positions of semi-comfort. Billy found his favorite pew. Littlejohn dropped onto the floor where he could stretch out those long legs and rest his back against the side of Billy's pew. Doc sat on a stone step that led up to a side altar, in front of a statue of a dying saint, pierced by arrows. Kirby sagged against a wall and let the weight of his exhaustion pull his bones down into a heap. A crack in the stone wall formed a cockeyed halo over his bristled head.
He looked around, and thought about the men who were missing. Caje always had a knack for finding a padded kneeler; Kirby could picture him sitting there with his sleeves rolled up and his back against the high end of the kneeler, making it rock like a rocking chair. And Sarge's place was always slouching nearby, facing the door, Thompson within easy reach; one hand swiping off that camo helmet, the other running through his disheveled blond hair.
Two men who belonged there, absent. Two so far.
"So, what's up?" Littlejohn began.
"FUBAR," Kirby said succinctly. "I think we've got more to worry about than the damn Krauts."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean our command wants this church so bad they're gonna destroy it themselves, whether we're here or not. That was an American tank out there! Listen, where's the radio?"
"It's no good, Kirby. We tried it already this morning. Either they've moved out of range, or our batteries are too weak."
"Harmon was carryin' the spare."
"Oh. Yeah." Kirby rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. "It's like this. We've got Krauts in the woods. I don't know how many; I don't know if they're still there. I think it was a small patrol sent out to mine the road - - they got the tank, by the way. Whether the other group was part of the same squad or not, I don't know."
"So, we have to be alert for a German attack. We already knew that. You said we had more to worry about?" Billy asked.
"I think Hanley sent that tank to take out the steeple when he didn't hear from us. And when the fog clears, I think he'll pour artillery in here, or send a bombing mission. My friends, we are on our own here. Us against the world."
Silence greeted that pronouncement. It had been dire enough, thinking that they had to hold the high ground until reinforcements came, no matter what. But now the Germans and the Allies both seemed determined to wipe them out.
The only recourse that made sense was to flee. "Doc, are you sure we can't move the sarge?" Littlejohn asked plaintively.
"I'm not sure we can even get that rubble off him," Doc answered. "But I am sure that if we did, it could kill him."
Littlejohn shook his big head.
"So, what are our options?" Billy asked. "Do we blow up the steeple ourselves first?"
"We may still have to," Kirby said. "But it could blow that gas main too." He didn't have to say anything else.
They had watched men die a dozen ways; had lain awake at night whispering to each other in morbid discussions of the worst way to die. Being burned alive was the most horrifying way they could imagine. If they set the explosives themselves they could probably get clear. One man couldn't.
"Could we send a runner to Hanley?" Doc suggested. "Maybe he could get there before the lieutenant orders an attack?"
"And say what? Pretty please?" Kirby looked dejected. "We don't have any new information to make him change his mind. And we don't even know if the HQ is still where we left it. They might have moved on - - if we can't reach them on the radio because they're out of range!"
Thinking of a runner made Doc pause and look around. "Why didn't Caje come back with you?" he asked. "He still watchin' the road into Moissy?"
Kirby dropped his head in his hands. "I lost 'im."
"You LOST him?"
"That damned tank," Kirby muttered. "It was just spraying anything that moved. It was after a couple Krauts and I think maybe it caught Caje too. I don't know."
"You left him out there?" Doc sounded incredulous.
"I'm tellin' ya, I couldn't find him! I looked!"
The silence was ominous. Were they all going to fall, one by one, defending a position that no one wanted them to protect?
Before anyone could think of anything to say, a single shot fired from the village gates. Kirby leapt to his feet and dashed up the steeple steps, showing no trace of his original reluctance. The fog was starting to lift. He could make out two shadowy figures entering the village, though he couldn't recognize them. But one of them had fired a Garand M1 automatic rifle. With more hope than confidence Kirby shouted down to the others, "Hey! I think it's Caje! He's got a Kraut with him! Littlejohn, Doc, go give him a hand."
A couple minutes later they returned, with Caje draped limply between them, but minus the German. "What happened?" Billy asked. "Where's the prisoner?"
"No prisoner," Littlejohn told him. "It was a Kraut medic."
Gently they lay Caje down on the pew that Billy had used for cat-napping - - all the soot on that one had been brushed away. Under the stubble on the Cajun's cheeks, his face was very pale.
"A Kraut medic?" Billy echoed.
"Our friend Fritz, huh?" Kirby suggested, hopping down the last couple tower steps and joining the others around the pew.
Caje nodded, hissing as Doc awkwardly tore away his blood-soaked pants above his boot.
"Who's Fritz?" Billy persisted.
Doc waved them away, annoyed at the clumsiness his injured right hand forced him into. "Give me some room to work here," he said. "You're worse than my kin folks crowding the dinner table at Thanskgivin'!"
Kirby took a step back and explained what had happened when the two of them had retrieved the artillery shell casing. He looked at the guys sheepishly and then at the floor as he confessed to the moment of sentimentality when he and Caje had decided to share the medical supplies with the enemy. "But what happened to you?" he asked Caje at the end.
Caje glanced at Doc; didn't like the worried frown that creased the medic's sun-weathered face as he bent over the wound. The Cajun turned his head back toward Kirby. "It caught all of us," he said. "Killed one of the Germans, I think; knocked the other one halfway down the ravine. Then their medic came out of the woods behind the tank and crossed over to us." He paused, with a harsh intake of breath as Doc finished his examination. "He dragged us back to the rest of his squad while the tank was heading toward you. I don't know what happened to the tank; I passed out."
"That Kraut patrol was laying mines," Kirby told him. "The tank hit one."
"Oh." Caje let his head fall back on the pew and closed his eyes. He didn't feel like talking any more.
That didn't stop Kirby. "So, the medic got you all out of there, in case the tank came back and blew up any more trees or set fire to the woods. Is that it?"
"Then he actually brought you back here!?" Littlejohn was incredulous.
"Last thing he needed was a prisoner who couldn't walk," Caje said weakly. "He argued about it with one of the other Krauts. That one didn't mind leaving me for dead. But their doc refused."
"He didn't treat you though; no bandages, no morphine?" Doc asked.
"Didn't have any left."
"What happened to their sergeant?" Kirby couldn't help asking.
Caje shook his head. Didn't make it. Or didn't know. Kirby couldn't decipher which, but when he opened his mouth to press the question, he found Doc reaching out to stop him with a touch on his arm.
"Let him rest," Doc said. "Here, you can give me a hand." He passed Kirby a field dressing kit to open and Littlejohn a package of sulfa powder. Littlejohn struggled with it, wincing, and finally handed it back, open.
"Get that arm back in the sling," Doc told him, and then sprinkled the antibiotic liberally over the entrance wound above Caje's ankle. There was no exit wound. Kirby stepped forward to fasten the bandage, grimacing at the sight of raw exposed muscle and bone fragments. Kirby didn't even like to watch when they donated blood. This made his stomach roil.
"Pull that tighter," Doc told him, "or it won't stop the bleeding."
Kirby yanked the ends of the bandage taut and tied them. "Sorry!" he muttered, seeing Caje blanch. When he finished, he straightened and scrubbed his hands against his uniform, uneasy at having blood on them.
Doc turned to Billy. "Can you find me something for a splint?"
"Sure thing, Doc." There was the sound of a heel stomping, followed by the groan of wood tearing, and Nelson came back a moment later with a couple of the steeple steps.
"Guess I better head back up there," he said, looking back up the circular stairway. "Fog will be clearing up pretty quick as the sun gets higher."
"The sun!" Littlejohn felt a smile crack his unshaven jaw. "Maybe the sun can restore a little life to the radio battery. It's worth a try!" He turned away to fetch the radio and take it apart outside.
"I'm going back to the cellar," Doc announced, when he finished strapping on the boards for a splint. Then he gathered up his aid bag. "Sarge may come to when that morphine wears off. Kirby, you stay here with Caje, okay?"
"I don't need a baby-sitter," Caje protested. "I'm just gonna … catch up on a little sleep here…." His voice faded but then he roused enough to add, "Go on, Kirby. I know you wanna check on the sarge too. Come back and … let me know how he is."
Kirby, relieved, bounded away after Doc. "You really think Sarge will wake up, Doc?"
"Don't get too excited. As long as he stays in stable condition, it's better if he don't wake up. It's better if he don't move at all, and if he's conscious he might move. And besides," Doc added as he went first down the ladder into the cellar, "we're out of morphine."
"Wasted it on a dead Kraut," Kirby grumbled.
"You don't know that," Doc reminded him. "And they probably would have left Caje to die if you hadn't shared it. Remember that. That Kraut felt he owed you one."
"What Kraut owed Kirby what?" Sarge asked, his voice raspy and weak.
"Sarge! You're up!" Kirby stuttered. "Well, not exactly 'up'…."
Saunders smiled, a feeble effort, but one that eased Kirby's mind all the same. "Well, then, you better make yourself comfortable because this here's a long story," Kirby said, adjusting Billy's jacket under the sarge's head. In short order he recanted the events of the last 24 hours, ending with Caje's miraculous return.
"How is he, Doc?" Sarge asked, turning his face toward the medic.
"He'll be fine, just like you will, when we get you both to a hospital. He won't be walking there, though, that's for sure. The wound is deep and I could see bone fragments in it. I think his leg is busted."
"Okay. What's your next step?"
"Next step?" Kirby did what he always did when he was flummoxed. He scratched. "We were just waitin' for you to come around and tell us what to do."
"Now, Kirby, suppose I hadn't," Saunders sounded like a patient father lecturing a teenager. Or so Kirby guessed. He'd never had a patient father. "You guys have been doin' a pretty good job thinkin' for yourselves so far," Sarge continued. "What would you do?"
Kirby scuffed the dirt at his feet, thinking.
Then - - "Doc! Kirby!" Littlejohn's voice boomed down from above and then his head appeared at the top of the ladder.
The three men in the cellar looked up.
"Trouble. Panzer tanks, comin' this way from the west! With infantry support!"
"How far away?" Kirby asked.
"I dunno – mebbe an hour from here, Billy thinks."
"They're coming from Trun," Saunders said, mentally reviewing the map. "Then there's only one thing to do," he added, so quietly that the others almost missed it. "You've got to blow the steeple before they get here."
"But Sarge! You can smell the gas yourself!" Littlejohn protested, although he himself couldn't through his swollen nose. "The whole center of the town could become one big inferno."
Saunders looked away, thinking somehow that if he weren't looking at them, then they wouldn't see the hot tears that sprang up behind his eyes.
They all figured that he had no memory of the ordeal when he had so horribly burnt his hands. No one could re-live that experience in their dreams and stay sane, could they? So Saunders never admitted the nightmares that came, especially when artillery seared the night sky. Nightmares in which his hands and arms blackened and curled up like burnt matches and then disintegrated before his eyes, while his brother lay screaming for help out of reach.
He had gotten good at hiding things from his men. From himself.
But there was nowhere to hide this time. Either the fire would come to consume him or it would not. But he knew his life was not worth the hundreds that could be lost if the Germans took the OP.
"Blow the steeple," he said, feeling the hot splash of moisture spill out of the corner of each eye and catch on eyelashes fiercely held shut. First one tear, then the other, escaped to slide down toward his ears. Then his eyes opened again, and they were as dry and hard as his voice. "Set the charges, get clear, and blow it."
"Kirby, there isn't time to argue. You follow orders and get out of here. Is that clear?"
"Yes sir!" Kirby straightened his posture.
"And don't 'sir' me. You know better than that."
"I do, Sarge," Kirby said. He sat there beside Saunders, overcome by the awareness that this may be the last conversation he would ever have with him. The prospect, for the first time in this war, made him absolutely speechless.
"Go on, get ready," Sarge said. His eyes started to look unfocused. Pain called to him, a siren song, drawing him back toward the solace of unconsciousness. But there was one more thing he had to say first. "Tell the guys," he whispered. "Tell them they all did good out there."
Littlejohn heard, and looked away, his eyes wet.
"C'mon, you heard the man. We gotta move," Kirby ordered. He followed Doc out of the cellar and they gathered back in the church. Billy came down from the steeple and they huddled at the small altar in an alcove near the door.
"I don't get it," Billy told them. "Why would they send a patrol to mine the road, and a day later send their own tanks down that same road?"
"I dunno, Billy." Kirby sounded weary. "Maybe their objectives changed from day to day and they're bringing engineers to disarm them first. Maybe they aren't planning to take the turn-off to Moissy where the road is mined. Or maybe the German army is just as FUBAR as we are!"
"Any luck with the radio yet?" Billy asked, licking his lips nervously.
Littlejohn shook his head. "Too soon. But Sarge came to, long enough to give us orders."
Billy leaned his head back with a sigh of relief. It was so good to have someone actually telling them what to do - - finally.
"Sarge says to blow the steeple and clear out of the village," Kirby told them.
"But - - what about the sarge?"
"Maybe the gas main won't blow. Maybe the fire won't reach the cellar. It don't matter. Sarge says to leave him and go."
"I can't believe he said that," Billy said. He didn't want to believe it.
"We can't leave the sarge like that," Littlejohn protested. "Remember that time we were captured and the barn caught fire? And Saunders didn't make it out with the rest of us? Ever since he finally got back from the hospital, he quit sitting around the fire with us. Did you ever notice that?" Littlejohn looked around the group, saw reluctant nods. "When we're makin' coffee, or cooking somethin' in Billy's helmet - - Sarge can't stand to get that close to fire any more. He hangs back a little."
They'd noticed. They'd just never discussed it; felt it was trespassing on Sarge's privacy to admit it. They were all afraid of something.
Billy thought aloud with a kind of eager desperation. "Maybe - - maybe we could just booby trap the steeple stairs before we go. Use some grenades and a trip wire. That would buy us some time; it wouldn't actually go off unless the Krauts were in the church itself."
"Buy us time for what, Billy? A miracle?" Kirby was despondent. "You think the Krauts might just decide to pass Moissy by and head on straight for Chamboyse or somethin'?"
"You said yourself it could happen…." Billy said.
"It still wouldn't work," Littlejohn pointed out. "There's those kids. They might come to the church after we left. We can't booby trap it."
"I'll stay." The words came from the pew where Caje now sat up. The others stared at him. He unrolled his beret and put it on, looking dangerous. There was an unconscious symbolism to the act. In lieu of his helmet, still buried somewhere in the rubble, donning the beret seemed like a gesture of preparing for battle.
"I'll stay," he repeated. "I can't walk anyway. Leave the C2 blocks with me and take off for Hanley's position. Tell him about the Panzers. If they pass Moissy by, then I won't have to blow the steeple. If they take the village … I'll make sure they don't get the OP."
"Caje, with that leg, you'd never get clear," Doc pointed out.
"Neither can Sarge." The Cajun was adamant. "You can leave him, then you can leave me too." When his jaw tightened like that, the guys knew they couldn't argue with him.
Billy's face screwed up in a determined frown. "I'm not going either. I can keep watch from the steeple. Maybe those Panzers will take the turn-off to Mont Ormel instead of coming here."
"And maybe Hanley'll send a B-26 to take out the church. A fine target you'll make up there Billy."
"If I see a bomber, I can help Caje get out in time."
Littlejohn stood up. "If they do bomb the church, maybe we can put the fire out before it gets to Sarge. I can find some blankets in the village we can use. I'm staying too."
"What about you Doc?" Kirby turned toward the last member of the squad, his voice dripping with exasperated sarcasm. "You're not suicidal, are ya?"
"I'm not leavin' the sarge alone," the corpsman said, crossing his arms.
"Well, you're all crazy, you know that? For once, I'm the one that wants to do what Sarge says, and nobody else is on my side!" The instinct to go along with the crowd pulled at Kirby, even stronger than the instinct for self-preservation. But he was haunted by the look in Sarge's eyes. Sarge had looked deep into Kirby's eyes, and found in their murky brown depths someone he could trust to carry out his last orders. And even if Kirby had to shoulder that obligation alone - - even if it made him look like a coward to his friends - - he was going to honor that promise.
"You go, Kirby. Somebody's got to go and get word to Lieutenant Hanley. You're the only uninjured man we've got left," Doc said.
On the verge of saying something sentimental, Kirby checked himself and retorted hotly "And I plan to stay that way too!" With his feelings safely locked up again behind the shield of his self-centered façade, he gathered up his helmet, his BAR and the radio and stalked off, muttering to himself.
An hour passed. Then another. The Panzers reached the spot on the road where the disabled American tank blocked their progress. Saunders' squad stood inside the village, tense but ready at the positions they had assigned themselves.
Some of the German infantrymen moved out to check on the tank. From the cover of the woods, a Browning Automatic Rifle cut them down.
"Hey! Did that sound like Kirby?" Caje hollered up the church tower.
"I can't see him," Billy called down.
More minutes passed. More small arms fire carried on an unfriendly conversation.
Then - - "They're at the gates!" Billy's voice cried out from above. The arpeggio chatter of a BAR still echoed from beyond the outskirts of the village. More men in gray uniforms fell, but not all.
Littlejohn waved his rifle in acknowledgment, from his position behind the one remaining wall of the house that had caved in.
Billy's boots thudded down the steeple steps. This was it! He landed at bottom with a jolt that rattled his teeth and, careful not to trip over the primer cord Littlejohn had played out, he hurried to his position on the south side of the church. With the butt of his rifle, he smashed out the lower panes of a stained glass window and heard Caje doing the same. Chewing his lip, waiting, he turned to glance at the other soldier, seeking some reassurance, glad to not be alone.
Caje stood with his weight on his good leg, leaning against the statue of St. Sebastian for balance. His M1 was already braced against a window ledge, pointing down the main street. Spare clips were lying on the base of the statue for speedy access. Against the contrast of his black hair and beret and black stubble on gaunt cheeks, his face looked very pale. It was as if his tan had drained away. Every now and then he wobbled unsteadily.
"How's the leg?" Billy asked, craving some conversation to calm his nerves.
"Don't need it to shoot," Caje said calmly. "How's that arm?"
"I forgot all about it!" Billy replied, with surprise. Unfortunately, the question made it start throbbing again.
Then there was no more time to settle his nerves; the staccato cough of a Kraut MP-40 submachine gun ripped through the air. Littlejohn's Garand rifle replied.
German soldiers leap-frogged from doorway to pile of rubble to doorway as they approached the church. The nearest one came close enough for Billy to see his face, with a clarity that Billy knew meant he would see it in his dreams - - as every man he killed that way haunted his nights. Billy squeezed the trigger. The Kraut ducked out of sight.
More came forward, in a rush. Billy emptied his clip; fumbled for another. Razor sharp chips of stone scraped his cheek as German bullets scored the ancient church, inches from his face. Blood dribbled down Billy's jaw and neck, unheeded.
Another wave of German infantry advanced. More than one squad was in the village now. Littlejohn's position was silent. Was he down, or out of ammo? Billy glanced at Caje - - sweat ran down his face and he swayed, clutching at the statue for support. Fresh blood stained his pant leg. He groped for the last clip, slapped it into the chamber with practiced ease, and wiped the sweat from his eyes with the back of his sleeve.
A pane of medieval glass exploded over Billy's head. He emptied his last clip at the German who had risen from his cover to toss a grenade in their direction. The grenade fell at the dead man's feet and the other Krauts all hit the dirt.
"Now!" Caje yelled. While the enemy lay stunned outside, under a cloud of dust, Billy ran to Caje, pulled his arm across his own shoulders, and dragged him toward the back door. Poised there, in the alley that separated church from the small stone house that served as rectory, they stood trembling, dragging empty weapons along the ground. Caje clutched the detonator in his left hand.
He glanced over his shoulder toward the ruins where Sarge lay, still trapped, and knew that time was up. There would be no last minute rescue. The sound of half a dozen men crashing against pews and trays of votive candles jerked him back. Billy's eyes were round with grief; he too had been staring at the house where they had left Saunders.
And then Caje resolutely set off the explosives.
The steeple went up like a rocket, bellowing flames at the bottom. Men screamed; hoarse cries that were no different in German than in English. The concussion from the blast knocked Caje and Nelson to the ground.
"C'mon! C'mon!" Billy pleaded, on his hands and knees now, pulling at the limp figure beside him.
Caje stirred; groaned. Billy jerked him again and the rough movement sent waves of agony up his leg, and with the pain came full consciousness again. Caje got his good leg under him and let Billy haul him toward the open cellar.
Another explosion hurled them to the street again. The house next to the church was swallowed by orange sheets of fire as the gas trapped there erupted. It became a race between the soldiers and the flames; they ran a gauntlet of falling cinders, mindless of the German troops, thinking only of reaching the cellar.
A large droning hum filled the air, swelling louder and louder, but the two men saw only black smoke around and above them.
They staggered into the ruined house. The glass from the remaining window lay in shards on the carpet, but strips of curtain still flanked the window. They were being consumed by flames, with a heat so intense the air shimmered before Littlejohn's eyes. Faster than thought, he ripped the curtain rod off the wall and began stomping out the fire with his boots. As the fire beat him back, he reached for the pile of blankets he'd prepared.
Explosions shook the earth.
Saunders was yanked back to consciousness. The first thing he saw was Doc's sleeve, with its dirty red cross armband, stretched across his face. The medic was huddled over him, wincing as a cascade of bricks and mortar rolled off his broad back. Sarge pushed Doc back feebly, raised one hand to wipe falling ashes from his eyes and tried to focus.
Beyond Doc he could see four little French children stumbling into the house, crying. Frantic with fear at each thunderous sound. They ran toward Caje and knocked the already unsteady man to the ground, as though trying to crawl inside his jacket to hide. Billy and Littlejohn swatted at flames with shabby wool blankets, but Saunders could already feel the heat, reaching for him. Closer. Hotter. He was in hell. And he had somehow dragged his own men down there with him.
Billowing black smoke obscured everything in front of him then, and the roar that had filled the sky became deafening, until all his senses were overcome.
The light hurt his eyes, even though they were shut. It was too damn bright. But it was cool. And he could hear muffled voices, talking about his squad as if he weren't even there. It took a Herculean effort, but Sarge dragged himself out of his coma to hear what was being said. He didn't have the strength to open his eyes yet, but he concentrated on isolating the words from the wool fuzz that still seemed to envelop him.
"Yeah, I think that was Lt. Hanley out there." one voice agreed. "I heard he lost an entire squad on one mission."
"That's what I heard too - - 100 per cent casualties!" Another voice answered. "And they weren't repple depple wonders either; those guys were nearly all experienced."
"They say the guys were hit by friendly fire - - do you believe it?"
"Damn! What kind of a war is this, when you knock out your own guys!"
"Who was their NCO? Saunders, wasn't it?" The two voices dimmed as they started to move out of earshot.
"Yeah. Better than a St. Christopher's medal - - that was the scoop on him. He could get his men out of the most impossible situations."
"Not this time though…." The voices faded away.
Saunders hands clutched at the sheets with helpless frustration. One hundred per cent casualties? What had happened?
"You're awake, I see." A new voice, strong and clear, was directed to him this time. It belonged to Lt. Hanley; Saunders knew that without opening his eyes. He didn't want to open them; didn't want to see the look in those piercing green eyes that he knew so well. Didn't want to see that look that Hanley had, whenever he came to tell Saunders that someone else he knew would be going home in a body bag.
And this time, it was his fault. He wasn't able to lead them when his squad needed him, and they were all gone now. He didn't want to see accusation or pity in Hanley's face either. So he kept his eyes shut.
"You are awake, aren't you Saunders? If you're not, I'll have to tell the guys to come back later."
That did it. Saunders opened his eyes, and found his bed surrounded by the sorriest looking bunch of soldiers he had ever seen.
Littlejohn stood at the foot of the bed, towering over the others, his grin stretching from ear to ear. Two black eyes made him look like a friendly raccoon, a flesh-colored bandage spanned the swollen bridge of his nose, and his eyebrows were singed off. Billy stood at the other end of the bed, making the two soldiers a pair of bookends in matching stark white slings. His boyish face was marked by healing cuts. Next to Billy slouched Kirby, cracking his chewing gum, his head swathed in a crooked turban. Doc came next, one hand encased in heavy bandages, the other steadying Caje, who was trying out his new crutches despite being a little too weak to be out of bed yet.
They all looked freshly-shaven, clean, and rested. And positively giddy at seeing Sarge finally awake.
"I heard you guys were all casualties," Sarge sputtered.
"Well, we are," Kirby said. "Just not the fatal kind."
Except Harmon. No one said it; everyone thought it.
Lt. Hanley took charge. "Look, you wanted to see him, you saw him. You know the rules. Only one visitor at a time. So you guys better get lost before they run you out of here."
"You take care Sarge."
"We'll be back real soon."
"Hey Sarge - - a house fell on you! - - that makes you the Wicked Witch of the East from the Wizard of Oz, or somethin', don't it?"
The rest of the squad dragged Kirby of the room.
Saunders turned to Hanley with a bewildered look. "What happened?"
"Well," the lieutenant said, "you want the long version or the short version? Hmm, the short version," he decided, taking in Saunders' condition. "The Allies have closed the Falaise Gap. We threw the kitchen sink at the Krauts, and since your squad held the OP, we caught them by surprise, and trapped most of them, cut off from their reinforcements. It was a good week's work. And now you're in Paris, recovering from a punctured lung and…." He paused to check Saunder's chart at the foot of his bed. "Renal insufficiency brought on by crush injury," he read aloud.
Hanley shrugged. "The doctors tell me you were lucky the cellar had a dirt floor. That saved you from having a broken pelvis or worse. And lucky, too, that they didn't dig you out and try to carry you back to our lines. You wouldn't have made it." The lieutenant paused, a silent prayer of thanks perhaps. "You already know about the broken ribs," he continued. "They're on the mend. Being pinned under that weight caused your kidneys to shut down, but they've got you on IV's to correct that and they promise me I'll have you back on the line in no time."
Fragments of memories blurred his vision. He remembered … the horror of finding a dead baby … a house crashing on top of him … looking up the long arc of Doc's nose to see worried eyes, telling him not to worry … Billy telling some crazy story about high school misadventures … Caje hovering over Sarge brandishing surgical instruments! … laughing about something until he couldn't breathe … one clear lucid moment when he told Kirby what to do and his brief shame at the two tears that decision cost him … the sight of Littlejohn fighting flames like St. George battling a dragon … and the children, filthy, frightened, but alive!
"What happened in Moissy, Lieutenant? And what's all this about friendly fire?"
"From what they've reported, every one of them - - including you - - was injured as a result of American action," Hanley told him, shaking his head. "Nelson and Harmon were caught in a minefield our engineers laid. You and Doc and Littlejohn were hurt as a delayed result of our artillery. Caje was hit by the machine gun on one of our tanks, that had instructions that anyone outside the village was unfriendly and a target. And Kirby was single-handedly trying to hold back a German platoon from a roadblock when one of our P-47's took out the Krauts and accidentally got Kirby too." He paused for breath. "It was Kirby who got the radio to work and told us about the German movements in your sector. We sent in air support and your squad held the Krauts off long enough for our planes to get there and finish the job." A note of admiration tinged with disbelief colored his words. "Nobody gets purple hearts for friendly fire, so I got the ones who didn't need an evac hospital weekend passes to Paris instead. I don't think any of them minded a bit. So - - here they are."
Saunders lay one forearm across his eyes, moving carefully to avoid jarring his taped ribs. "It's a crazy war, Lieutenant. We butchered our own side, and we killed civilians too. I don't know how we can go on, sometimes."
"Don't forget, you saved some civilians too, Sergeant. And you will go on, because your men count on you. And maybe - - now - - they go on because they know you can count on them too."
Saunders made an effort to sit up, gasped at the objection from his ribs, and sank back down. "Who was in charge while I was out?" he asked.
"No one." Hanley smiled; his eyes merry with disbelief. "Apparently that was one of the rare examples of command by committee. They just saw what needed to be done, and they did it. And they held the OP."
"They did good, huh?"
"Yes, Sergeant, they did. They even performed a minor medical miracle, with Doc's supervision. Kirby says he understands now why they call it the European Theater of Operations."
"I guess you trained them pretty well," Hanley added. "They did good."
"Well, maybe one positive thing will have come out of this whole mess," Sarge conceded hopefully.
"What's that Saunders?"
"Maybe I'll never again have to hear, 'What are we gonna do now, Sarge?' Ya think?"
Just then the door opened, and Billy stuck his head in. "Hey Sarge," he interrupted. "We just got permission to take you and your IV and a wheelchair and show you the sights of this here hospital tomorrow if you're better. Caje says there's lots of stuff to choose from - - they've got movies here, and games, and Red Cross doughnut dollies, and a garden on the roof with a view of the Eiffel tower. What do you think?"
Saunders sighed. Just being clean and dry and warm and not aching with hunger was such a luxury. He was having trouble contemplating anything more. Even electric lights - - he hadn't woken up in a room with electric lights in - - he couldn't remember how long. Whenever he was last injured, he supposed.
"Sarge?" Billy was persistent. "What are we gonna do, Sarge?"
Lt. Hanley vainly tried to stifle a grin, but one corner of his mouth curled up despite his efforts. Saunders glanced at him, Hanley started to laugh, and the sarge simply shut his eyes and shook his head.
"That wish of yours?" Hanley said. "Don't count on it!"
"Sarge?" Billy hadn't gone away.
"Private, didn't I understand that you had some paperwork for me to sign? For a requisition of some sort?" Hanley countered.
"Uh - - never mind!" Billy disappeared.
Laughing still hurt his broken ribs, but Saunders found that smiling didn't hurt at all.
* * * The End * * *