(2009) No infringement upon the rightful owners
of "Combat!" and the characters thereof is intended. This piece of fan fiction
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"In Little Stars"
by Thompson Girl
Boots walking on his grave.
Saunders sidled beneath the arched entrance into town, and the sinister, fey feeling wrapped around him like an invisible cloak. There were boots walking on his grave. Jackboots. Which was probably more than accurate, if their intelligence was halfway true. The Germans weren't going to relinquish this town without a fight.
Town? Little more than a village crossroads, barely a quarter mile long. Chausonne had one road leading in from the west. It split at a Y intersection in the middle of town, and the two roads departed town on the east side. The Americans had been holding the straight part, the Germans the fork, but the report had come back that Third Squad had pushed the Krauts out and the deserted town was back in American hands.
The country here was hillier than what they'd been pushing through so far. The little rural town lay tucked in beneath a broad, wooded slope. That hill would have been pretty once, but when the Germans in Chausonne had been shelled, the hill had taken a beating too. Saunders was used to seeing the ruined, scarred earth, the craters and pulverized matter that had once been trees and plants, but every now and then, he could superimpose an image of what it might have looked like, once upon a time.
He felt the boots again and shuddered.
This town was no different from any other he'd fought through, and it was back in American hands. But no matter how many times he tried to tell himself that, the sense of impending doom would not shake loose. I'm gonna buy it here, he thought. Maybe the whole squad is. He knew better than to vocalize such thoughts. It gave them power, gave them a flavor of fate, when it was merely the only way he could rationalize the impression of wrongness that permeated the town. It was just gut instinct coupled with morbid speculation. Not real. But that didn't stop the dread from overrunning all other thoughts.
"Sarge?" Littlejohn stood close behind him, his voice barely above a whisper.
Saunders realized he'd been uncharacteristically hesitant on the threshold of this town, and he shook off the bad feelings. They didn't change anything anyway. Hanley's orders said to strengthen Third Squad and hold the town until reinforcements arrived. And that's exactly what he intended to do.
Doc pressed the bandage down against the gaping wound in Sgt. Hamilton's gut. It was hopeless and he knew it. He tried anyway.
Hamilton groaned and gasped. "O'Reilly? Corsey?"
"They're dead, Sarge," Doc said. He'd been in France for six whole days. Six. And he'd said those words too many times already. He hadn't even been there for D-Day; he'd still been in the States getting ready to be shipped overseas. But once in France, they'd sent him straight to the front lines, to the 361st, K Company, assigned to replace the medic in Third Squad, under Sgt. Hamilton's command.
Loud footsteps tramped closer. The lanky farm boy frame of Champ came through the door, the B.A.R. clutched possessively, its tripod dangling open from the barrel. "Doc?"
"When's that ambulance coming?" Doc demanded. He pressed harder with the bandage, but it was soaked through. "I can't stop the bleeding," he said. It was easier than saying the man was dying, though it meant the same thing.
"Couldn't get them on the radio." Champ pursed his lips, a wad of chewing gum puffing out his cheek. "But Saunders is bringing First Squad up now. They got a medic with them too. Maybe he can help."
Doc just nodded. It wasn't another medic Hamilton needed. It was a hospital and a surgeon and nurses, and he needed them half an hour ago. Doc tugged another bandage out from his bag and ripped it open with teeth and blood-slicked hands. He pushed it down over the first bandage, kept the pressure as steady as he could. Hamilton was moaning, over and over.
"Can't you give him something?" Champ asked. He blew a lopsided bubble that popped immediately.
"I'm outta morphine. Just whadaya want me to give him?"
Champ's brow furrowed, and he faced out the doorway again, watching the town. "Damn Krauts," he muttered and spat into the street. "Goddamn lousy Krauts. I can smell 'em, sitting out there, waiting for their own reinforcements so they can come back in here and push us out. We won't be able to hold this town, that's for damned sure."
Doc's lips compressed into a thin line. Champ might be right about their chances, but it galled Doc to hear it said. Hamilton hadn't tolerated that kind of negative talk, and he'd dressed men down for a lot less. But Doc didn't have the authority to say what he wanted. He was just a replacement, hadn't been with them long enough to speak his mind.
The building they sheltered in had been someone's home. A buffet and hutch nearby had toppled, and broken plates, glasses, and silverware glittered among the remnants of antique polished wood. He'd had a hard time finding a section of floor clear enough to lay Hamilton down when they'd first retreated inside. Afternoon sunlight slanted through a hole in the roof, spotlighting a painting hanging askew on the wall. The portrait showed an austere matron from some bygone age dressed in black with white lace at her collar, her wrinkled hands folded primly in her lap. She seemed to stare straight out of the painting, and no matter which way Doc shifted, her eyes stayed on him, condemning him.
"Here comes First Squad," Champ said, then raised his voice. "Heya, Saunders! Sergeant Saunders! Over here!"
Doc could hear their approach through the rubble outside: the footsteps, the clatter of disturbed masonry and wood and glass, the jingle of weapon straps and packs, the muted voice of someone outside acknowledging an order. A man glided past the door so quickly Doc almost thought he was a ghost, then two others stood silhouetted in the doorway. Champ swung his B.A.R out of the way and let in First Squad's sergeant and medic. The sergeant was of average height, with blond stubble on his cheeks and blue eyes that took in the room's layout and occupants in a single sweep. "Doc," he said to the medic at his side and gestured to Sgt. Hamilton. "Give him a hand."
First Squad's medic was a small fellow with brown eyes set in a thin, forlorn face that looked like it had forgotten how to smile. He knelt on the other side of Hamilton and looked at the sergeant's pallor and the mass of sodden bandages. His gaze flicked to Doc's in mute empathy. Neither had to speak or shake their heads in their silent communication. First Squad's medic knew Hamilton was a dead man. He glanced back at his sergeant and shook his head once.
Saunders blew out a breath, then asked Champ, "Who's next in command here?"
"Corporal O'Reilly," Champ answered. "Only he's lying one street up with his face blown off."
Doc chewed his lip. How did they all talk so casually, so grossly, about dead squad members? When his heart wasn't pounding from fear, his stomach was eating itself up with nausea. And he wasn't even carrying a weapon.
"How many of you are left?" Saunders asked.
"Well, there's me and Doc there. Valuzzo and Menke are up at the end of town with the air-cooled, keeping an eye on the Krauts and discouraging them from taking a closer look at what's going on in here."
Saunders paused, as if waiting for more, then he said softly, "That's it?"
"'Fraid so, Sarge. Lincoln and Smith are out there somewhere, but I haven't heard them shooting in quite awhile. I don't think they made it." He blew a large bubble, popped it, then added, "And Saunders, I'd tell your men to keep their heads down out there. We thought we had this town swept clean, but our sarge got nailed by a sniper. I think there's only one, but I can't say for sure."
Saunders favored him with an irritated look, then returned to the door to issue orders. "Brockmeyer, bring that radio up here. Littlejohn, Nelson Valuzzo and Menke are on watch up at the east end of town. Get up there with them. And watch yourselves. Stay out of the open. Looks like we got a sniper. Kirby, Caje, Carpenter, Sloane left side. Clarke, Forester, Baker, Davis the right. Double-check the buildings, and I mean double-check them. Find that sniper. Doc?"
Both medics looked up, but Saunders was addressing his own medic.
"Go with 'em. There might be other wounded."
The small medic nodded and got back to his feet.
"What about me, Sarge?" Champ asked. "Where you want me?"
"Join the search for that sniper," Saunders said. "I want this town clean. Wait. First give me a report on what happened here."
Brockmeyer pushed through the door past Champ. "Sarge?" he asked.
"Get me Hanley," Saunders said.
Brockmeyer unshouldered the radio and moved into the house. Third Squad's new medic was tending Sgt. Hamilton, and Brockmeyer could tell from his bleak expression that Hamilton wasn't going to make it. He carefully stepped around the dying man, trying not to kick up more dust. He righted a small table by the wall to hold the radio.
While he spoke the call signs, waiting for a response, he listened to Champ relay to Saunders what had happened in the town, how Third Squad had been told to hold, and the Germans had hit them hard, pushing them back. The only thing that had stopped the Germans from taking the whole town was the mortars and bazooka team Third Squad had.
"We took out a lotta Krauts, Sarge, and we finally got them to withdraw," Champ concluded. "You want my two cents? They're waiting for reinforcements just beyond the east end of town. There's a wooded section there between the two roads that didn't get leveled by artillery. They're holed up in there, watching us like we're watching them." He chewed his gum, then said grimly, "And when they come back in here, it's going to be to steamroll us."
A shiver touched the back of Brockmeyer's neck at Champ's words, and he quickly spoke to dispel the feeling: "White Rook to Checkmate King Two, come in King Two."
Hamilton moaned one last time and fell silent. Brockmeyer stopped talking in the sudden stillness of the bombed-out home. The medic let go of the bandages and sank back on his heels, closed the man's eyes. Champ and Saunders accepted the sergeant's death with that strange mix of regret and anger and... nothing. Brockmeyer watched the medic's gaze flick from one man to the other, looking for something neither man was going to give him. Brockmeyer sympathized. He remembered how disturbed Doc Walton had been the first time Hanley had ordered someone to take up a dead man's rifle and ammo without so much as blinking. But war was a business, casualties a part of that business. This new medic was too green, too naοve to understand yet. But he would learn. He looked like a steady man.
Saunders called, "Brockmeyer?"
Brockmeyer brought his thoughts back to the job at hand. "Nothing but static."
"We never could get through on the radio," Champ said, and to Doc, there was something final about the way he said it.
Doc forced himself to shrug it off as he scrounged a blanket from a bedroom to cover Hamilton's body. He desperately wanted a basin and water to scrub off Hamilton's blood, but broken water pipes had left faucets without a drip, and what was in his canteen was for drinking. "Uh, Sergeant?" he said tentatively, approaching. "What do you want me doing now?"
Saunders seemed to look at him for the first time, and it was a deep, appraising gaze. It seemed to size him up, take his measure, and file it away somewhere where Saunders could retrieve the info when needed. It was a little unnerving, but the sergeant gave him a slight, reassuring smile and said, "Just stay right here, Doc, until you're needed."
Not in case you're needed, or if you're needed. It was always when and until. I'm not a doctor, he thought, suddenly and overwhelmingly frustrated. The Army had taught him a few things, given him supplies, and sent him out. These wounded soldiers needed doctors. Real doctors. Guys who could do more than first aid. Guys with scalpels and anesthetics and nurses. Why couldn't they have made him a mechanic, or put him in the infantry? Sure, as a medic he didn't have to kill anybody, but what he had to do was worse. He had to watch men die because he didn't have the knowledge, equipment, or experience to save them. That was worse than living with killing Germans, though he knew he spoke unfairly. He hadn't killed any Germans, couldn't know what was really worse. But he figured the Army hadn't reckoned any of that into the cost of service. Couldn't. His was a job that had to be done. Damage control. Treat the men who could be saved and keep them alive to be sent back to the real surgeons. Because if he didn't, no one else would either.
"Shouldn't I help your medic?" he tried.
"No, Doc," came the quiet response. "Just stay put here."
Chafing, Doc subsided. Hamilton had always said good things about Saunders. How smart the sergeant was, canny about the business of war. Doc had gotten the impression Hamilton had been envious of Saunders' experience, but Doc had thought Hamilton was being unfair to himself. He'd followed orders, and his men had respected him. And he'd taken back the town.
Doc wondered if Saunders could hold it.
The homes at the east end of Chausonne gaped open to the air. Blown out walls formed a barrier of uneven debris that fronted the intact woods beyond the town. Littlejohn kicked the spiky remnants of a chair out of his way and gently touched a child's painted wooden truck with the toe of his boot. Often, residents still remained, even when their towns had been destroyed around them. Cellars and basements frequently sheltered people who refused to give up that last physical tie to their lives, even with the water pipes busted and the pantries bare of all food.
But not this town. The squad members combing every building and rubble-created crawl space for the German sniper had disturbed no hiding French. No dogs, no cats, no song birds in a gilt cage, either. No life of any kind. Littlejohn didn't know if the town's population had been evacuated or had fled, but the town lay still as a graveyard at midnight. With the quantity of dead bodies German and American lying around, the town really was nothing more than an open cemetery.
Littlejohn preferred that no civilians remained to catch a stray bullet, but he also found it a little unsettling. Not even a whisper of a breeze stirred the warm afternoon. Sunlight fingered the torn-open houses behind him with macabre, bayonet-like shadows. It was just his mind, he thought, playing tricks with the light, but those shadows seemed to shelter malicious ghosts that eddied the dust into the sunbeams. Chausonne seemed devoid of any lingering humanizing touch, and that sent the hairs rising on the back of his neck. He did not want to spend the night in this place.
Billy had settled in to his right, the muzzle of his rifle resting on the lip of a concrete block. The two Third Squad men, Valuzzo and Menke, huddled farther down, manning a .30 caliber air-cooled machine gun. Littlejohn looked left, then right, eyeing each of the roads that angled out of town. Directly ahead, the thick woods between that vee hid whatever Germans might be gathering and preparing. The woods lay almost as quiet as the town behind him, but that was only an illusion. Germans lookouts watched the town. Every now and then, they fired at any hint of movement that caught their attention, and then Valuzzo would rake the woods in return with the machine gun. Neither side had done any damage, but it was enough to keep both sides on edge. The battle was in a lull only.
"Littlejohn," Billy murmured suddenly.
"I got a bad feeling about this place, Littlejohn."
Startled, Littlejohn said nothing for a long moment. Too long, he realized, when Nelson turned to him with a sudden frown and said, "You too?"
"Nah," Littlejohn lied. He let his gaze roam the countryside and the hills to the right, using the need for constant alertness to hide from Billy what he really felt. Up there... they needed an OP up there. He wasn't sure it would afford the view they really needed, but it would be better than down here. Except the few trees still standing afforded little cover. From the quantity of craters pockmarking the hills, he guessed that Third Squad might have already tried that, and the Germans had blasted the observers out with mortars. Still, it was better than nothing.
"Sssst!" Valuzzo poked his head up.
Littlejohn thought he was scolding them, but he understood a second later the Third Squad man was just trying to get their attention.
"Do you guys hear that?"
Littlejohn held his breath, closed his eyes to block out the visual stimuli. Then he heard it all right. Tanks, more than one, still distant, but approaching steadily from out of sight beyond the vee of woods. And with them would be a jillion more German soldiers. He opened his eyes.
It was beginning. The Krauts were coming to take the town back.
"Billy," Littlejohn said, calmly. "Get back to Saunders. Tell him the Germans are coming, and they have at least two tanks. And tell him we need an OP up on that hill," he added and pointed up to their right.
Billy tightened his grip on his rifle and nodded grimly, then took off at a crouch through the debris back into town.
Littlejohn met Valuzzo and Menke's gazes, then the three men settled down to wait and watch.
Billy hurried back along the southern Y fork. The warning about the sniper who had killed Sgt. Hamilton rang in his memory. Where the northern fork was mostly clear, the southern road was heavily strewn with rubble, and he figured that would afford him more cover on the way back to Saunders. Several of the still-standing buildings teetered precariously. He picked his way carefully, creeping alongside the nearest wall. When he crossed an open area, he could feel the crosshairs of someone's rifle on his back, and that bad feeling tightened around him. Littlejohn had felt it too; Billy knew his friend had lied to him. Littlejohn tried to protect him all the time, but in a place like Chausonne... the very brick and mortar around them seemed evil. He'd never felt anything like it before. Not even when Tommy Murphy had dared him into that old cemetery at night when they were young. That place had been spooky, but somehow at peace. Not malevolent, not waiting to reach up and grab him and kill him.
That's what it was, he realized. It wasn't just that constant but diffuse threat of death he'd carried since arriving on the front lines. This was something more definite, as if there already was a bullet engraved with his name.
Maybe it was just the knowledge that the sniper hadn't been found yet. That the German killer was holed up in some nice spot with a rifle waiting for the next American to stick his head out. The thought was enough to make Billy freeze up against the side of the building. He shuddered and forced himself to keep moving. Those German tanks were still coming. It didn't matter what he feared. He still had a job to do, and he wasn't going to let the squad down now.
The exposed, sunny intersection of the Y junction lay directly before him. Grimacing, he glanced around at the high spots still standing with most of Chausonne two-storied, there were an awful lot and tried to pick which one he'd choose if he were the sniper.
Stop it! he told himself and ran before he could continue that line of thought. Heart pounding, he zigged across the street to the shelter of a collapsed building. He snugged in behind a busted brick wall, sucking in air. Nothing, no shot, nothing. He sighed and licked dry lips.
Ahead of him, Kirby and Doc Walton crouched over a body, another of Third Squad's men. Billy felt that ice-cold trickle of dread. Hanley could have sent any of his squads in here first; it had just happened to be Third Squad. Only four men remained alive, and one of those was a medic. It wasn't much of a force to augment Saunders' squad.
He thought of that sound, the one that would stay with him the rest of his life the clunk and groan of a tank's treads churning. When it was your tank, there was no better sound in the world. When it was the enemy's....
Billy moved up to Doc's side and recognized the dead man. It was Hobie Dennis, one of Third Squad's bazooka team. Young guy from Rhode Island. Billy had traded him cigarettes for chocolate just a few days ago. He couldn't tell how he had died.
Kirby was kneeling under cover nearby, inspecting the bazooka. "Undamaged," he reported. He handled it almost as lovingly as he did his B.A.R., and a brief moment of anger surged through Billy.
"Find the sniper yet?" he asked pointedly.
Kirby gave him a look, then carefully set the bazooka down. He stepped past without a word.
"Doc?" Billy asked softly. He moved closer to the medic and the dead man. "You okay?"
"I was thinking of that baby," Doc Walton said. "The one we just rescued. What would have happened to him if we hadn't been there at that barn? And that girl Caje helped, Micheline? Sometimes we're in time, sometimes we're not."
"Doc, you think too much," Billy said.
"Yeah, I know. I can't help it."
Such misery filled the slighter man's voice that Billy wanted to touch his shoulder, at least give him that physical contact, however brief, that would let him know he wasn't alone. But their medic had always been an aloof figure, and Billy couldn't quite bring himself to breach those walls Doc kept locked around himself.
The rifle report reverberated around the intersection, and even as Billy ducked, the sniper's bullet creased the brick wall, sent chips flying at his face. Heart thumping, he ignored the stinging of his cheek and scanned the opposite buildings, keeping his head down. That had been close.
From nearby, he heard Kirby's urgent voice: "Where'd it come from?"
Billy concentrated, systematically looking for any sign of movement or a flash of metal. Anything that would give the sniper's position away. But the sunlight slanting down into the junction caught him full in the face and left the eastern-facing facades deep in afternoon shadow. He tipped his helmet down to help block the glare and squinted. He saw Davis peek out from a building across the way, studying the demolished town as anxiously as Billy was. They had to find this guy.
"Nelson!" Kirby called again. "You see anything?"
Billy shut his eyes, trying to recreate the moment and let his subconscious fill in the blank spots, but he couldn't; he hadn't been facing the right direction. Then he realized he'd almost forgotten about Doc... he was right there too and he had been facing out toward the Y junction. Maybe he'd seen something from his angle.
"Doc," Billy asked over his shoulder. "Didja see where that shot came from?" He caught his tongue between his lips, his gaze darting over the sweep of buildings. Why wouldn't his heart stop beating so hard? His cheek stung where the bits of brick had scratched it, but he didn't take his hands off his rifle to touch it. He wanted to be ready to shoot. He realized Doc hadn't answered him and repeated, "Doc? Did you see anything?"
It was another moment, spent scanning the buildings and rooftops, before it sank in that Doc had never answered him.
Doc still sat on his knees on the other side of Hobie Dennis's body. Adrenalin surged through Billy Doc knew better than to stay sitting in the open like that. "Doc, get down!" Billy whispered urgently. Then he saw Doc's hands folded over his stomach, and he saw the blood, bright red in the sunlight, seeping through Doc's fingers.
Doc raised his eyes to meet Billy's. "Billy?" he said, softly, almost in surprise, then he slumped sideways, his helmet rolling away.
Kirby was still calling, asking something, but Billy ignored him. He reached out, grabbed Doc by the arm, and tugged him forward, upset that he had to move him, but needing to be able to stanch the blood flow, knowing that if he moved out to where Doc lay, he himself might be a dead man if the sniper took another shot.
He set down his rifle and ripped open a bandage, stretched it out, and pressed it down over Doc's wound.
"Billy..." Doc tried speak.
Kirby was still shouting, trying to get information.
Billy tried not to show his fear at the bandage growing wet beneath the pressure of his hand. Doc was staring at him, his dark eyes oddly vacant. "Come on, Doc," Billy murmured. "Hang in there." He wasn't afraid for himself any longer. The sniper had found his next American target... a noncombatant too. Anger rose in Billy and he yelled to Kirby, to anyone who could hear him: "The sniper shot Doc. He shot Doc!"
He heard Kirby swearing, and the sound pleased him, mirrored his own feelings in ways he couldn't express himself.
And he heard Saunders too, from the other direction, the fury in his voice making clear he'd also heard Billy's yell. "Get that sniper!"
Billy tried not to look at Doc's face, focusing only on the wound. The cuts on his own cheek were stinging harder now, and he spared a moment to swipe the back of his hand over them. Suddenly, he wanted to kick himself. The answer was staring him in the face. He looked at where Doc had been sitting when he'd been hit, followed the line from there to the groove torn in the edge of the low brick wall by the sniper's bullet. Not a steep angle at all. It was nearly parallel to the ground. The guy wasn't perched up on a roof or second story, Billy realized, and he was yelling before the thought had even finished forming: "The sniper's on the ground floor! The ground floor!"
Men moved on the opposite side of the street, searching through the standing buildings, relaying Billy's words among each other and hurrying. The sniper would be already shifting his position.
The bandage was soaked through and Billy didn't have another. Doc's bag was too far away to reach. Quickly, he yanked off his jacket and pushed that down on top of the blanket. Then someone was beside him. It was the other Doc from Third Squad, stepping in quickly and efficiently, pushing Billy out of the way to take over care of the downed medic.
A savage burst of B.A.R. fire ripped through the intersection, followed by a couple M-1 shots. Billy saw Saunders slinking along the opposite wall and started to get to his feet to join the hunt. "Sarge!" Billy called.
"Stay down!" Saunders shouted, waving one hand at him, and Billy dropped back behind the wall wondering what he'd been thinking, exposing himself like that.
More rifle fire and then someone's victory whoop cut through the air.
"You got him?" Caje asked, his question echoed by a couple of the other squad members.
Carefully, Billy risked peeking over the broken concrete. Clarke came out of a building down the street. "I got him, Sarge!" He was lofting a German rifle.
Billy sighed and let the tension drain out of his shoulders. But he couldn't help letting his gaze flick briefly to the top of the buildings down the street, his next thought impossible to prevent: what if that wasn't the only sniper?
Saunders crossed the street toward him at a jog, his Thompson resting sideways across his forearm. His apparent confidence that the sniper was indeed gone reassured Billy. Saunders leaned in across the low wall and asked, "How is he, Doc?"
Billy found it incongruous how easily Saunders called the new medic Doc, almost without thinking. As if all medics were Docs, stripped of their names when they put on that red-on-white cross.
"It's bad, Sarge." The new medic had a Southern-sounding twang that couldn't disguise the worry in his voice. "We need to get him to a hospital now."
Saunders turned. "Brockmeyer! Get the radio out here."
Billy realized abruptly that in his concern for Doc, he'd been sitting there blankly, forgetting Littlejohn had sent him with news. "Sarge..." he began.
Hunting the sniper was already a distant memory for Saunders, replaced by the urgent need to deal with the German threat Nelson had reported. But it still hurt to leave Doc Walton's side. Third Squad's medic seemed capable and was treating Walton with speed and compassion. That helped, but Saunders knew the new medic was right: Doc Walton needed a hospital and he needed one immediately. Walton had been with him since before D-Day. That made him nearly an old-timer now. Thoughts of Grady sliced through his mind, but only fleetingly. It was easier to push it aside now, not let that old grief return.
He touched the new medic on the shoulder and said, "Take care of him, Doc," then gestured Nelson to follow him back to the eastern edge of town.
Littlejohn, Valuzzo, and Menke crouched hidden behind the wall of rubble, ruined Chausonne at their backs, the woods starting fifty feet ahead. All three men looked grim but calm as Saunders and Nelson joined them.
"Stay low," Valuzzo advised. He was older, heavy set, with dark, nearly black eyes under a thick brow. "They're just waiting for a good target, Sarge."
"They got two tanks," Littlejohn said. "I haven't heard a third. A lot of voices out there and engines, but they haven't shown themselves yet, other than to take pot shots at us to let us know they're there."
"They don't have to," Valuzzo muttered. "They gotta know we're licked here."
"Why?" Saunders said. "Your squad kicked them out, and they ran."
"Sure," Valuzzo agreed. "We kicked them out by the skin of our teeth."
"But they don't know that. And they don't know how many Americans have come up as reinforcements."
"Are you kidding me?" Valuzzo said. "They outnumber us at least six to one."
It might have been an exaggeration, but Saunders wouldn't have put money on it. And with the tanks, that upped the odds against the Americans even higher. But it didn't change one fundamental fact. Softly, he repeated, "But they don't know that."
Saunders studied the woods. The front row of trees had borne the brunt of the American machine gun's wrath, their trunks torn and splintered. German bodies lay half visible on the ground under the shadows of the trees, so some of the bullets had found their mark. He could hear voices distantly shouting in German. They were organizing, preparing. His gaze jumped to a grey figure slipping stealthily from one tree to another. Valuzzo saw the German too. He pulled the trigger and loosed a short spray of machine gun bullets, Menke feeding the ammo belt for him automatically. Mauser bullets slammed into the rubble around them in return, and the men all sank lower behind their cover.
"All right, hold your fire," Saunders said.
Valuzzo sat back rather reluctantly from his weapon and tugged on the edge of his helmet.
Billy asked, "What do we do now, Sarge?"
Saunders didn't answer immediately. The skin prickled at the back of his neck and, behind him, the ruined building creaked loudly. It just the weakened structure shifting under its own broken weight, but it sounded disconcertingly as if it were laughing at his dilemma. This damned town, he thought.
Brockmeyer had been unable to get through to Hanley, and without radio contact, he couldn't call in an artillery strike on the massing Germans. Neither could he find out how soon Hanley and the rest of the platoon were moving up to join them. He had to assume he would have to hold Chausonne with the men he had for awhile. That left only one choice, really, but he sampled the alternatives anyway, one by one, until he'd ruled them out as suicidal, and he was left with his original idea. It wasn't any less reckless a plan, but it gave them a chance. He studied it from all sides and then nodded to himself. There wasn't anything else to do. Aloud, he said, "We hit the Germans first, now, and goad them into returning the attack before they're ready."
"What?" Valuzzo sputtered. "Are you crazy? You have any idea what we're up against?"
But Saunders wasn't interested in the Third Squad man's complaints. He watched Littlejohn instead and the way his thoughts played across his face as he deliberated through what Saunders was proposing. Saunders waited for Littlejohn's objection, waited for his agreement with Valuzzo and he wouldn't have blamed Littlejohn in the slightest but the big man just nodded once in acceptance, and Saunders relaxed ever so slightly.
Valuzzo went on, "Those Krauts will overrun us without even breaking a sweat. We can't win."
Saunders said, "We don't have to defeat them, we just have to stall and hold 'em long enough for Hanley and reinforcements to get here."
"No, this town layout favors us, and we have our pick of the land. If we can control where they go, we can trap them."
"Are you kidding me?" Valuzzo's face reddened. "Are you forgetting they got two bloody tanks?"
"We take out one or both first," Saunders said evenly. "We have the bazooka we use it."
"Let me go, Sarge," Kirby said. He already held the bazooka in his hands.
Except for Menke and Forester manning Valuzzo's machine gun at the end of town, Saunders had gathered the rest of the men together for orders. They clustered in the Y intersection, all of First Squad and the remaining members of Third Squad. Fourteen men, plus Doc Walton lying nearby on a stretcher the new medic had set up.
Brockmeyer watched Saunders chewing over Kirby's request, and he knew the sergeant's first instinct was to deny the B.A.R. man the job. Whoever took on the bazooka assignment had the truly risky job. But it was also the critical piece, the one that determined whether the rest of the plan would succeed or fail. And Brockmeyer knew if Saunders accepted Kirby, then he would volunteer to go as well, to cover Kirby's back, because Kirby was going to need it.
Saunders nodded once. "Okay."
"Me too," Valuzzo said. "I'll be his loader."
Littlejohn favored him with a sour look and said sarcastically, "You? After all your griping about how bad this plan is? That it'll never work?"
"That's why I want to go," Valuzzo snapped. He glared at Littlejohn, then at Kirby. "To make sure it does work." He looked over at Saunders, dropping the hostility. "I'm qualified, Sergeant."
Saunders agreed softly, "Go."
My turn, Brockmeyer thought. "Sarge, they're going to need someone to cover them."
"No," Saunders said.
"No. Leave one of the walkie-talkies with Nelson and get that main radio up on top of that hill. Your job is to get hold of Hanley. I need to know how soon he can get here with the reinforcements."
Disappointment tore through him, but he passed one of walkie-talkies over to Billy as ordered. Saunders was right, they did have to get a hold of the lieutenant, and, while he wasn't one to complain out loud, why did it have to be him? The cratered hills bordering the south side of Chausonne seemed miles away, as remote as Paris. It was here he wanted to be, here with the squad, fighting. He was no longer Hanley's aide, but being assigned radio duty felt just as restrictive sometimes.
Saunders touched him on the arm and gestured to the stretcher behind them. "Help Doc get Walton up there, will ya? I want them out of the line of fire."
Brockmeyer exchanged a glance with the new medic, saw the same frustration on his face, that they were being sent away when they were about to be needed most. But there was Doc Walton, pale and teeth gritted, uncomplaining, and Brockmeyer put his own protests aside. Walton had been one of the first to befriend him when he'd joined the squad. He couldn't desert him now. And if he could get through to Hanley, he could make sure an ambulance was coming up with the reinforcements. The height of the hill just might let him get through. Saunders was right. That was important too, even if he didn't like that the task fell to him. It had to fall to somebody.
"How many mortar rounds did Third Squad have left?" Saunders asked.
Davis answered, "Nine."
Saunders seemed to absorb that. "You and Sloane, fire them from here. We don't have a spotter, and that forest is going to hide how effective they are anyway. Vary your range between..." Saunders glanced down the street past the end of town toward the dark green of the woods. "...eleven hundred and twelve hundred yards. That should be close enough to shake things up."
"All right, check your ammo," Saunders said to the rest of the men. "Nelson, get back to the end of town with the walkie-talkie and wait until you hear from Brockmeyer. I'll be joining you shortly. Littlejohn?"
"Go bring up the truck."
Littlejohn trotted back through the wrecked village toward the parked truck, trying not to think about what Kirby and Valuzzo would be up against. He climbed into the driver's seat of the deuce and a half, twisted the key, revved the engine, and threw the truck into reverse. The wheels bounced hard over debris. He spun the wheel and drove back to the Y intersection. Third Squad's medic and Brockmeyer had just crossed into a tiny alley on the right to head out of town up the hill. The rest of the squad were still checking their ammunition supplies, redistributing clips and grenades among themselves where needed. Caje gestured him down the southern side of the fork, and Littlejohn had to slow even more to skirt the heavy chunks of masonry lying in the narrow street.
Saunders was three-fourths of the way down, back just far enough that the last standing buildings blocked the view of any German watchers in the woods. He waved both arms at him, and Littlejohn braked the vehicle sharply.
"Okay," Saunders said. "Get out."
Littlejohn opened the door, then paused, watching Saunders hand his Thompson to Caje. "What are you going to do, Sarge?"
Saunders pointed to the left side of the narrow street. "This is the weak point. That building on the left there. It's ready to come down with a good shove. Well, I'm gonna give it one. With any luck we'll block this half of the town entry and the Krauts will have to come down the other side."
Littlejohn glanced at Caje, caught the worry there that mirrored his own, then looked back at Saunders. "I'll do it, Sarge."
"I gave you an order," Saunders said.
"And if that building comes down wrong?" Littlejohn countered. He yanked the door shut, pulling it right out of Saunders' hands.
"I know what I'm doing, Sarge." Littlejohn revved the engine. "Get back."
Caje grabbed Saunders' arm and pulled him back out of the way.
Littlejohn had the accelerator floored before he let out the clutch and the truck leapt into motion. He'd been studying the two-story target all the while. Most of the building's weight rested on the intact front corner of the building. Take that out.... The truck accelerated, and, at the last moment, he tugged the wheel hard to the left. He didn't want to slew the truck too far into the building it was too valuable as a road block all by itself just enough to take out that last support and bring down the building and hopefully slide himself and the truck clear of the aftermath. Adrenalin shot his heart rate sky high and filled the pit of his stomach with molten lead. He closed his eyes an instant before impact.
Saunders' objections were drowned under the roar of the big diesel engine. Caje gripped his arm hard enough to keep him from jumping back up on the footboard, and he had no choice but to watch Littlejohn take the risk he'd meant to take himself.
The truck rammed the building with a screeching cry of twisted metal that gave voice to his vision of disaster. But Littlejohn seemed to hit it just right. The building buckled in, the upper story swaying out as support was cut out from under it. Then it broke and collapsed over the truck and into the street with a sound like a series of grenades going off. Saunders watched in horror as a giant corner chunk of mortar and bricks smacked the truck cabin and squashed it in. Dust and fine particles of debris swirled and obscured his sight.
He yanked free of the Cajun's grip and, with an arm thrown over his nose and mouth to help filter the dust, ran into the fresh destruction. Caje scrambled over the freshly strewn rubble beside him, coughing, choking on the dust. The chunk of building had crushed the cab roof and busted the front windscreen. The top of the driver's door was bowed and bent out of service.
"Littlejohn!" Caje called.
"I'm all right, I'm all right."
Saunders heard Littlejohn's muffled response, and he closed his eyes a half-second, shoulders slumping slightly, before he pulled himself up on the running board to peer inside. Caje climbed up beside him. Littlejohn was sprawled across the seat with his head near the passenger door. The caved-in roof was inches above his hip, but the big man was untouched.
"Boy, Littlejohn," Caje said, half admiringly, half in relief. "You sure know when to duck."
"Other side." Saunders tapped Caje on the arm, gesturing.
They circled the truck, stumbling over debris. Caje set his M-1 and the Thompson down. The truck's passenger door was just bent in at the top, but it was enough damage that it took both of them to yank it open. Together, they caught Littlejohn's arms and slid him free of the crushed cab. The big man was laughing softly when they got him out, and he looked back at the devastation he had caused and escaped.
"You big dumb..." Saunders berated him. "You disobey a direct order like that again...."
"Yes, sir, Sarge!" Littlejohn said, grinning unrepentantly. He looked like someone had sifted heavy grey flour over him.
All the things Saunders wanted to say flashed through his head, but there was Littlejohn, standing alive and in one piece, and Saunders let them go unsaid. The town's silent shadows, the boots walking on his grave, death... they had lost this round. They'd lost with Doc Walton, they'd lost with Littlejohn... was that enough to discourage them, or would they just try harder? He shivered once, then shook his head at the big man, but Littlejohn's unabashed, loopy grin won out, and Saunders couldn't help but smile back, just for a moment. He turned quickly away. "Kirby!"
The B.A.R. man and Valuzzo trotted up. Kirby had traded his Browning for the bazooka. The rest of the squad followed. Albert Baker held Kirby's B.A.R. and the extra ammo.
Valuzzo eyed the ruined building critically. The truck's back end stuck halfway into the street, and the concrete, wood, mortar, and even a few busted chairs and a feather mattress now blocked the road. "Tank could bust through that easy."
"Nobody asked you," Littlejohn snapped at him.
"That's enough!" Saunders cut them both off before they could get going. He addressed Valuzzo. "They could, but why should they when they have an open route? They know the town layout. They know it doesn't matter which street they take they both end up in the same place, the Y intersection. But it matters to us. We'll make them think we're weak, ineffective, lure them to the junction, then slam them with everything we got. They should pull back and regroup, and that'll buy us the time the lieutenant needs to get here."
"And if they don't retreat?"
"We make it their only option."
Valuzzo grimaced. "Saunders, I wish I had your confidence."
"Just do as you're told." Saunders turned to Kirby. "You gotta take out one of their tanks. If you miss and we have two of them coming in here...."
"I know. Just tell junior here to stick with me." Kirby gestured at the older Valuzzo.
Valuzzo shouldered the ammo bag with a sniff and said nothing.
"Hey, Sarge?" Nelson hurried to join them. "Brockmeyer got a hold of Hanley."
Nelson's tone held panic and worry, and Saunders forced himself to ignore it, keep his own voice calm as he asked, "And?"
Nelson hesitated, then said, "The lieutenant's best estimate was an hour. And he can't give us any artillery support."
Saunders absorbed that. An hour. Such a short time when you were on liberty, when you had a beer in your hand and a girl on your arm, when you were dancing or playing pool. When you were waiting on reinforcements, when the enemy had the resources lined up to smash you... it was an eternity.
Hope... it was a dangerous thing. If Hanley's answer had been a half hour or less, then he could have let the plan go. He could have put all the men on the front and just waited for the Germans to attack. And when they finally did, the Americans could have held knowing Hanley and the rest of the platoon were minutes away. But an hour was too long, and that was only Hanley's best estimate, dependent on things out of the lieutenant's control. It could be longer. An hour gave the Germans more than enough time to prepare and launch their own attack. And Saunders knew he could not hold the town with the handful of men he had for long enough if they did. He had to attack first, use sheer audacity and surprise to make up for lack of manpower. It was the only plan that gave them a chance.
"Sarge," Caje said suddenly. "Brockmeyer was right Kirby and Valuzzo need cover. I'll go"
"No, I need you here." He watched Caje accept the refusal almost as badly as Brockmeyer had, but he held firm. Littlejohn's evasion of death hadn't alleviated his fears any. If something happened to him, he needed Caje to take over the squad. That was more important, even if there was something innately comforting in knowing how ready the squad was to defend each other.
Carpenter piped up, "What about me? I'll go."
Reluctantly, Saunders forced himself to nod. Someone had to; he couldn't deny them all. "All right." He checked his watch. "You three will need the most time to get in place. Take off now. Carpenter, after they've destroyed that tank whoever you can take out is one less soldier that's going to come after us here." He caught the man's arm and added softly, "You see any officers, take 'em out first if you can. The German army doesn't have a chain of command like we do."
"Right," Carpenter said and patted his rifle.
Saunders tapped his watch face and told the three of them, "You got fifteen minutes to get in place, no more."
Kirby glanced at his wrist and its non-existent watch, then looked at Valuzzo. "You got that?"
Valuzzo rolled his eyes at Kirby's question, and Saunders wondered if he was making a mistake sending Valuzzo with Kirby instead of Nelson or Davis or even Littlejohn. Before they could snipe at each other again, he gestured them to go. "In ten minutes, we'll start the attack from here, draw them forward and hopefully distract them so you can move in. When the last of those mortars go, that's your signal."
"Got it," Kirby said.
Saunders watched them head out and forced himself to feel the confidence Valuzzo accused him of. The town layout did suit them, not the Germans. They could make it work if they functioned as a team and had a little luck. And provided the bazooka team took out at least one tank before it could come after them.
He turned and studied the buildings bordering the west side of the Y. He assigned six of the men to positions around the intersection to wait for the trap to be sprung. They trotted off, loaded with extra ammo. That was something, at least. They had plenty of bullets and plenty of grenades, and he intended to make sure they got used. When the men had vanished, he turned to Littlejohn and Nelson. "Come on," he said and led the way back toward the edge of town.
He felt that odd little shiver up the back of his neck, that ghostly touch that made him think things weren't going to go according to plan. That deadly feeling. Doc already lay wounded, maybe dying. How many more casualties would there be in this assault he planned? He could always wait and hope the Germans held off long enough for the reinforcements to show up. And if the reinforcements didn't show in time, he could retreat and give up the town.
Ruthlessly, he crushed down that thought. All those men in Third Squad had died to reclaim Chausonne for the Americans. He wasn't about to throw that away unless the situation became untenable. All that mattered was slowing down the Germans, not letting them take the town until reinforcements got here. They could do it. Attacking the Germans directly would seem reckless and desperate, and he hoped the Krauts would not think past the "crazy Amerikaner" idea to realize they were being set up. Luring the Germans to Chausonne's Y junction meant placing just enough men on the front lines to sting but not damage the Kraut retaliation. Enough to lend credence to their pretended desperation. Those men would then retreat fast, drawing the Germans in after them, where they could close the trap.
Menke and Forester still held the front position on the machine gun. Littlejohn and Nelson moved to one side, Saunders to the other. There was no way to see what lay in that vee of woods, but he could hear the Germans. They were making no attempt to stay quiet, probably hoping to intimidate the Americans into leaving them the town without a fight.
Through his musings, he heard Nelson ask softly, "You okay, Littlejohn?" There was more concern in the young man's voice than seemed warranted by the truck situation, and Saunders couldn't figure it. It was this town, he thought, this cursed town. It was affecting them all.
"Of course," the big man responded, half warmly, half mocking, and Saunders had to hide a smile. He'd have to remember that, that Littlejohn was a good liar, better than Kirby.
"All right, keep it quiet," Saunders said, with no animosity. "Five minutes."
Littlejohn was floating high. Crashing the truck, escaping by a mere whisker... it had left him euphoric and full of energy. All those worries about German tanks, Billy's bad feelings, and even his own... they faded to nothing next to the blood singing through his veins. He was ready! He checked his watch fourth time in a minute and grinned at his own impatience, even as he fought down the urge to check it again. Impatience was Kirby's province. It wouldn't help Billy any. Billy would think he was fretting, and he was just not the way Billy would assume.
He was ready for more action. Fear had vanished, and it was hard to control the need to laugh out loud. He was alive and untouched! He would get out of this war and make it home. He knew that now.
Saunders said, "You all know what you have to do?"
Littlejohn nodded, his gesture mirrored by Billy, Menke, and Forester.
"Forester, not too heavy on the trigger," Saunders said. "Make it look like you're conserving rounds."
"Okay, Sarge," the private said.
Littlejohn wished Kirby had not volunteered so fast, or that instead Saunders had picked him for the bazooka team, but he knew his size made him an impractical choice. The bazooka's accuracy depended on range, and for Kirby and Valuzzo to close up to a hundred and fifty yards of the German position required speed, and above all stealth. The two smaller men, covered by Carpenter, were better choices than he was. Surprise was the critical key to Saunders' plan. Sting 'em, sting 'em fast, and retreat even faster.
He resisted checking his watch once more, but time dragged interminably before the sergeant finally raised his hand slightly, then gave them the signal. Littlejohn held his fire at first, letting Menke and Forester stir things up with the machine gun. While they did, he sighted in on a tree trunk he was sure sheltered one of their observers. His heart rate accelerated, but he kept his aim steady, waiting. Sure enough, when the air-cooled fell silent a moment, a figure jerked around the side of the tree, rifle raised. Littlejohn pulled the trigger and the man jerked backward, falling. Conserve rounds, Saunders had said, but that didn't mean he wouldn't make the ones he was expending count.
The German counter fire came swiftly and furiously and in quantity, and Littlejohn yanked back down. He realized that meant the Germans had reinforced their front line, sneaking more men up to the edge of the forest. Saunders was right: the Germans had been almost ready to launch their own attack.
Saunders' Thompson crackled, a higher staccato next to the air-cooled, and the fight was on in earnest. A bullet sang by his ear, and adrenalin surged through Littlejohn. Billy was inching farther to the right, Saunders to the left, no one willing to stick their head up in the same spot twice against that much rifle fire.
Then the first American mortar whomped into the forest. Littlejohn used the distraction to pop up, sight in on a German carelessly looking behind him into the woods, forgetting that danger still lay before him. The enemy soldier died where he stood.
The mortars continued to fall, and Littlejohn counted off each high explosive detonation, waiting for number nine and the end of their limited artillery support. The mortar team was shifting their aim ever so slightly each time, hoping they'd get lucky. The screams from within the forest told Littlejohn at least some of the rounds had scored.
No sooner had the last mortar fallen, then another explosion thundered through the woods, and Littlejohn nearly whooped out loud. Kirby and Valuzzo had not wasted any time during the brief mortar attack. He couldn't tell what Kirby had hit, but whatever it was had made a satisfyingly loud bang. A cloud of black smoke rose over the treetops in front of them. He prayed it was one of the tanks. Small arms fire opened up somewhere in the woods, and Littlejohn gritted his teeth, knowing who the distant Germans were targeting.
A second explosion followed with another billow of smoke, then, incredibly, a third blast, the last in a different area, and without quite the same impact. The rifle fire from the woods dwindled, and Littlejohn suspected the Germans hidden along the front of the forest were torn between keeping up their fire on the Americans harassing them from the town, and heading back to their own camp to help counter the unexpected flank attack.
"Keep firing!" Saunders yelled, and Littlejohn sighted down his rifle at the last location he'd spotted a muzzle flash and fired.
The Germans were shouting now, and some of those guttural sentences were commands from superior officers, quickly regrouping. The Schmeisser and Mauser fire increased, pinning the Americans down behind the wall of rubble.
Littlejohn thought of Kirby, Valuzzo, and Carpenter, now faced with escaping the hornet's nest they'd stirred up and retreating back into Chausonne alive, with the remainder of the squad in no position to help them. Grimly, he emptied the last of that clip into the woods.
Then, he heard a German tank start up.
Forester swore under his breath, but Saunders held his breath, held his fire, and listened to the tank cranking into gear. Would there be one, or two coming after them? Had Kirby and Valuzzo succeeded or failed? Those were the questions he needed answered.
Forester unloosed another few shots with the machine gun, and Saunders gestured urgently to him. "Hold your fire."
The German bullets whizzed over their heads, unrelentingly. Whatever else they might have done, Saunders knew his multi-edged attack had at least forced a reaction. The tank still approached. It took another long moment before he accepted that there really was only one coming. Kirby and Valuzzo had succeeded. He smiled briefly and grimly.
"Get ready to retreat," Saunders said.
He'd barely finished speaking when he heard the tank's cannon fire. He didn't even have time to cover his head before the high explosive round slammed into the half-standing building behind them. Wood and plaster pelted him, and the sound of gunfire faded into a soft patter, like rain on a window as the explosion deafened him.
The tank's long snout edged into visibility along the road beside the eastern edge of the forest, a group of soldiers sheltering behind its bulk. He dropped back down behind the wall of debris. The Germans hiding in the tree line opposite increased their rate of fire so much that none of them could risk a return shot anymore. Saunders knew that as soon as he and the squad retreated, the Krauts would pour out of those woods like bees out of a broken hive.
The Kraut focus seemed to be on eliminating the machine gun position. Their concentrated gunfire narrowed in on Forester and Menke and the weapon that was keeping them at bay.
"Forester" Saunders started to shout, but the rest of his command was lost under the ripping concussion of a German grenade. It knocked him sideways, and he hurriedly rolled himself back up on his knees, one hand slapping his helmet back on this head.
Menke was dead, the air-cooled twisted and thrown six feet away. Forester lay stunned and bleeding.
"Sarge!" Littlejohn shouted.
Saunders waved at him and Billy to retreat. "Get out of here! Get back to the junction!"
They went, scrambling past him, keeping low until they could skirt the last building and sprint down the road toward the Y intersection and the rest of the squad.
Saunders crawled to where Forester lay sprawled. Saunders thought he was just stunned, but when he reached to grab him, he saw the man's side and back. He sank back on his heels, realizing Forester wasn't going anywhere. The man blinked blearily at Saunders. "Sarge? They're still coming, aren't they?"
"Don't let 'em get me, Sarge," Forester said. "I don't want to die in a Kraut camp... please, Sarge, don't let 'em...." His voice trailed off and his eyes went sightless.
Saunders hurried away, following Littlejohn and Billy's path, until another two grenades exploded ahead of him. He spun, curling his face away. The tank was now loud, louder than the roar and crash of gunfire. He swiftly changed direction. It wasn't safe out in the open anymore. The Germans knew the Americans no longer held the front line, the town supposedly theirs to invade. Saunders plunged into the ruined building behind him and scrambled through a jagged hole in the wall, scraping his leg and nearly getting stuck in the process. He yanked free and took off, angling for blown-open doorways and wrecked, half-standing walls, using the maze of damaged and destroyed structures to keep out of the Germans' field of fire.
The tank cannon fired again, and Saunders felt the shell rip through the buildings nearby. Something thumped him hard across the back, knocking the air out of his lungs with a whoosh. He heaved in a breath, ears still ringing, shoving the debris off him as he straightened. The Thompson was gone, his hands painfully empty. He cast about for it; it had to be right there. He spotted it a few feet away, but when he reached for it, a spray of Schmeisser bullets pegged his position. He dropped to the ground, cursing. The weapon was out of reach and in a place where he would have to expose himself too much to reclaim it. He was about to try anyway, when another cannon shell ground up the wall to his right, kicking wood and masonry at him. He scurried sideways, deserting the Thompson, made it through another doorway, and got to his feet. A body lay outside the door of the building. It was one of Third Squad's dead from the earlier battle. Saunders grabbed the man's fallen M-1, praying there were bullets left in the clip.
The rifle felt wrong in his hands, though the comfort of holding any weapon offset that. He paused, his eyes drawn back to where the stock of his Thompson stuck up out of the debris. Losing it, losing it now, in this cursed town, with the Germans furiously coming at them after the loss of their tank.... If he'd been the superstitious type, it would have been a bad omen. He'd lost the Thompson before, but it had never felt quite like this. Like he'd been abandoned.
He forced himself away and staggered out into the clear, coming out on the southern street, just about exactly where Littlejohn had crashed the truck to form the roadblock. A glance behind showed the Germans steadily advancing. He ran for his position.
Littlejohn pulled up in the doorway Saunders had assigned him to, watching to make sure Billy, made it to his own post much farther down the street. He could make out Albert Baker hiding near Billy, Kirby's B.A.R. cradled in his arms. The others he couldn't spot, but he knew they were there, all in position now, waiting for the Germans. His heart still beat fast, but it was in excitement, not fear. The elation hadn't worn off yet. He knew he shouldn't, but he felt invincible. Let the Germans come! So far, Saunders' plan to spur the Krauts into hasty and uncoordinated action seemed to have worked beautifully. And Kirby he'd come through for them when they needed help. This was the luckiest squad in Normandy, he thought.
Then he remembered Doc, and he sobered. Involuntarily, his gaze raised toward the hill where Brockmeyer and the Third Squad medic had taken him. He took a moment to spare a prayer for the wounded man. His fingers tightened around his M-1, and he settled down to do his job. Luck was a fickle thing, and he had no right tempting it any further.
Two sets of movement caught his attention at the same time Saunders coming around the other street into the Y junction to take his own place across the street, and the first Germans entering the town.
He and Saunders were the decoys, the men who would keep the Germans occupied at first, retreating steadily with no assistance from the others until the Germans were in the Y for the ambush.
Then, out of the blue, a third set of movement caught his attention, and he spun... He almost couldn't believe his eyes. It was Kirby, Valuzzo, and Carpenter, the bazooka still over Kirby's shoulder. They appeared briefly, coming down an alley from the north side of town and ducking swiftly into a building. He glanced across the street at Saunders and saw a brief smile there. The sergeant had seen them too. Not only were three squad members safely back, but there was still ammo for the bazooka and that just increased their odds of success even more.
And then the first bullet ricocheted off the wall over Littlejohn's head, and he was too busy to think any more. He returned fire, trying to pick off the German scouts who were moving into the street in twos, each set trying to cover each other. He could hear the tank, rumbling smoothly and loudly, efficiently, and then its snout nosed around the far buildings, choosing exactly the path into town Saunders had wanted it to take. It pivoted on its treads to come directly down the street at them.
It fired as soon as it was oriented, a giant boom reverberating between the buildings. The shell blew into the building at the end of the Y, and Littlejohn tried not to look, not wanting to see if that was where anyone had been stationed.
Saunders was shooting, and Littlejohn was surprised to hear the distinctive crack of a Garand. He hesitated in his own firing to look toward the squad leader. Sure enough, the Thompson was gone, and Saunders had the M-1 up to his shoulder, aiming at the oncoming German soldiers.
As expected, a lot more Germans were pouring into town behind the tank. Littlejohn caught Saunders' wave and made the first move to retreat. This was the dangerous part, the part where he had to expose himself to move. But if the Germans didn't notice him retreating, the plan wouldn't work. Saunders increased his fire, and Littlejohn ran for all he was worth, zigging and sticking as close to the buildings as possible until the next doorway. Then he did the same for Saunders, providing cover while Saunders retreated in the same manner.
"Littlejohn!" Saunders shouted. "Ammo!"
Littlejohn had six clips inside his jacket. He pulled one out and threw it underhanded across the street. Saunders fielded it and was reloading before Littlejohn fired again himself. They fell back in another leapfrog move, and the Germans came on faster, clearly aware they were pushing back the lone Americans and that the American defeat, capture, death, or all-out rout was at hand.
Littlejohn was all the way at the back side of the junction now, and he felt rather than saw the trap spring into action at Saunders' signal.
Mayhem erupted, and gunfire was deafening between the walls of the buildings. The leading Germans, the ones who had been coming along each edge of the street, were left alone at first. They were much less of a threat. The squad targeted instead the Germans who could most easily take cover behind the tank and regroup. These had been fanning out to each side of the tank when it became apparent to them the Americans' resistance was minimal.
Littlejohn could no longer tell where anyone was. He tried to spot Saunders, knowing the one clip wouldn't have lasted him, but the sergeant had taken cover somewhere. Then, nearby, Valuzzo and Carpenter appeared in a lower window of building behind with the bazooka. Littlejohn blinked, but he hadn't seen wrong Kirby was no longer with Valuzzo. He had no time to worry over it, with the sudden concentration of fire that came their way. He yanked back, felt a sharp stinging across the back of his left hand. The barrel of his gun drooped, and he pulled the hand back to his chest, clenching and unclenching his fingers to make sure they still worked.
In that time, Valuzzo got off a round, but it only struck the tank a glancing blow as German gunfire targeted their hiding spot. Carpenter went down, flung backward. Valuzzo yelled urgently for help. Littlejohn looked around and didn't see anyone else nearby. He realized he was probably the closest. He dove sideways, smacked some debris hard enough to wind himself, then he was rolling and scrabbling toward Valuzzo, who was trying to tug the ammo bag from Carpenter's grip.
A hail of bullets drove Littlejohn back under cover, and he realized he couldn't reach Valuzzo, not with the remaining Germans behind the tank concentrating on Valuzzo and the threat to their tank. He pulled himself up behind the corner of the building and focused instead on targeting the soldiers, trying to give Valuzzo enough time to get the bazooka up and aimed.
Time, he needed to buy the man time.
Because Valuzzo was kneeling directly in front of the oncoming panzer, and from that position, he couldn't miss. If he wasn't hit first like Carpenter. Unfortunately, Littlejohn was in much the same position, and he found the oncoming tank blocked his view of the soldiers behind it, who were now much more wary.
The other squad members stepped up their attack, and a couple grenades landed beyond the tank, taking out some of the opposition.
"Valuzzo!" Littlejohn yelled, but the man had finally freed the ammo from the dead man's arms. He reloaded, fumbled the weapon around to his shoulder, and fired straight at the approaching tank.
It scored a direct hit.
Littlejohn saw the hatches pop open, heard the American gunfire, and then right after it, the reverberation of a couple grenades exploding within the tank.
But the tank also didn't stop rolling. The remaining angry Germans behind the tank fired their direction, and Valuzzo screamed as he was hit. A bullet creased Littlejohn's forehead, and he fell beside the corner of the building, his rifle slipping from suddenly nerveless hands. Dully, he realized the tank was still coming straight at him. There could be no one left alive in it after the grenades, but either the controls were jammed or unchecked momentum kept it rolling because the tank wasn't stopping.
He tried to clear the haze from his eyes and force his body to respond. Desperation set him clawing at the rubble, trying to draw himself back, back around the protective corner, back away from the treads already less than twelve feet away.
He didn't make it.
The tank plowed into the corner of the building, shearing through the wood and mortar shelter Littlejohn hid behind and kept coming. Panicked, he rolled so the treads would bracket him instead of crushing him outright. The building rubble canted the tank up and over him. The right-hand tread ground skyward as it climbed the debris before the motor abruptly died and the tank halted, then began to settle. Littlejohn let out a yell of pain as the undercarriage scraped down against him and wedged in against his thighs, and he passed out.
Saunders watched the tank pile into building, the remaining German soldiers who had depended on its bulk for shelter dying in a crossfire before they could retreat. And just like that the main German attacking force was destroyed. Four soldiers lurking farther back turned and ran when their frontline comrades died. First Squad's soldiers followed, coming out of their hiding places to drive the last Germans out of town and back into the woods. After the loss of their second tank, it wasn't as hard as Saunders had feared.
Saunders leaned against the door jamb, almost weak with relief that the plan had worked. Touch and go, but it had worked. "Champ?"
"Yeah?" came a shout back.
"How much ammo you got?"
"Get back to the forward position and keep watch."
"On my way!"
Saunders called, "Caje?" and was gratified to hear the Cajun answer from across the street. Saunders went on, "Get me a casualty report and report back here as fast as you can."
Saunders rested a few seconds longer, worn out with the stress of holding the attack together, a precious, selfish moment that only lasted a few brief seconds before he heard Nelson yelling from outside, something urgent about Littlejohn, and the dread crept up and threatened to swallow Saunders whole. He straightened and pushed off the doorway, rifle in hand, jogging across the street toward the crashed tank where Kirby and Nelson stood. He couldn't see what had them so upset. Then he saw. A soldier lay trapped under the front of the tank. Littlejohn, Saunders realized, and a chill ran over him.
"He's alive, Sarge!" Billy said. "But I can't budge him."
Kirby elbowed him to one side and dropped on his knees in the rubble. "Let me."
Littlejohn groaned loudly as he regained consciousness, and he batted at the hands pulling at him. "Stop! Stop! My legs."
Kirby backed off, glancing at Saunders.
Blood ran freely from a crease across Littlejohn's scalp, but Saunders had seen enough scalp wounds to know it wasn't the problem they had to worry about. The tank was the problem. It was tipped at a sharp angle, its treads resting precariously on the unstable mound of crumpled building.
Nelson looked up pleadingly. "We've got to get him out of there, Sarge."
"We dig him out," Kirby said and started throwing chunks of masonry out into the street.
Saunders grabbed his arm. "Hold it! You can't do that. If we remove the rubble, the tank's gonna slide down on top of him. We gotta move the tank back, not the rubble."
"How we gonna do that?" Kirby demanded. "Caje tossed his grenades inside. I checked." He pointed at the smoke spiraling out of both hatches. "It's a wreck. No controls, no power, nothing."
Saunders rubbed at his stubbled jaw. Albert Baker and Davis had joined them, looking unharmed. "Get on the front end. Let's try pushing it back."
But their attempts to push it started it sliding sideways instead of backward. Littlejohn gave a cry as the tank's undercarriage pressed down harder. The closest men leapt at the vehicle and pushed back against the left side, trying to keep it from sliding any more.
"We're not gonna be able to hold it."
Saunders threw his own weight against it, and the tank seemed to stabilize. "Nelson," Saunders said. "You got the walkie-talkie?"
Nelson shook his head. "It's busted, Sarge."
Saunders kept his curse to himself.
Caje, Sloane, and Clarke ran up, jumping in quickly to help hold up the tank. "We're it, Sarge," Caje reported. "Us and Champ out at the edge of town. He says the Germans have retreated back into the woods."
Saunders took in the news, looked at the handful of men clustered around the tank. He would have felt better sending at least two out to join Champ, but as long as the tank was unsteady, he couldn't spare them. He needed reinforcements, fast. "Caje," he said. "Walkie-talkie's gone. Get up to Brockmeyer's position. Get me an ETA on Hanley's arrival."
"Do you want me to bring the medic back?"
"No, leave him with Doc. He needs him more than we do right now. But after he's contacted Hanley, bring Brockmeyer back down here. We could use him."
"Okay, Sarge," Caje said and took off at a sprint.
Doc kept pressure on Doc Walton's bandages with one hand and mopped the sweat from his brow with the other. He stole glances down at the town, wondering what was going on now that the gunfire had stopped and the Krauts had retreated back into the woods. The town appeared back in American hands, but at what cost? How many casualties were down there? The walkie-talkie had not crackled to life to bring them a report from Saunders, and the continued silence only compounded his worries.
Brockmeyer rested against the tree they sheltered beside, rifle relaxed but in ready hands, and just the last stub of a burning cigarette stuck between his lips. He had positioned himself in the shadow of the tree, his OD uniform blending in nicely if you didn't look closely.
"Doc," Brockmeyer said suddenly. "Someone's coming." Then he lowered his rifle and said in relief, "It's Caje."
Doc waited impatiently for the Cajun to jog up the hill. Before he even reached them, Caje called urgently, "Get Hanley on the radio. The sarge needs an ETA on when those reinforcements are getting here."
Brockmeyer immediately set aside his rifle and cranked up the radio. "Checkmate King Two, this is White Rook, over." He repeated the call, then looked at Caje. "What's going on? I thought the Germans retreated."
"They did. It's Littlejohn," Caje said. "He's trapped under the tank."
Doc started to push himself to his feet, but Caje's hand clamped onto his shoulder and kept him from rising. "Where do you think you're going?"
"I gotta get down there."
Caje shook his head. "Saunders said no, stay up here with Doc. Nothing you can do for Littlejohn until we get that tank off him anyway. He's okay, just pinned down."
"What about the other men?"
"They're all working on the tank. Champ is out on the front line keeping watch."
Doc settled back beside Walton unhappily. He could hear Brockmeyer repeating First Squad's call sign over and over, but the words weren't penetrating his mind. He was too mad to listen, too mad at being ordered around. Why didn't they let him do what he needed to do? Keeping him cooped up here.... But he knew Doc Walton needed the attention if he was going to live.
"I'm not getting through," Brockmeyer said.
Caje pursed his lips. "Keep at it. Soon as you get through, Sarge wants you down there to help with the tank. You reach Hanley, you tell him to hurry." He didn't wait for Brockmeyer's acknowledgement, just turned and sprinted back down the hill.
"Checkmate King Two, this is White Rook, over," Brockmeyer said into the radio's handset. "Dammit, Checkmate King Two, answer me!"
"The lieutenant's not coming," Doc Walton said, and Doc felt a shiver at the words. There was something eerily prescient and final in the wounded medic's soft voice.
"Knock that off," Brockmeyer said, roughly. "You know that's not true. Hanley'll be here soon, whether I get through to him again on the radio or not. You'll see. And there'll be an ambulance for you."
Doc Walton's face was compressed with fighting pain. "Stop trying to reassure me."
"Then hang on and fight. Don't give up."
Walton grimaced, but Doc recognized it as an attempt to smile.
Brockmeyer went on, "You're going to get shipped Stateside, and I need you to visit my mother and sister and tell them I'm okay, remember?"
Brockmeyer smiled crookedly at Doc and explained, "We have a pact. If one of us gets shipped home first, he visits the other's family. Isn't that right?"
Walton nodded, and his hand lifted off his chest, reaching, seeking.
Brockmeyer gripped it. "You'll be okay."
"You know how many times I've said that to dying men?" Walton murmured, closing his eyes. "Sounds different from this side of the stretcher."
Brockmeyer raised his eyes to Doc's, helplessly, seeking his own reassurance. What could Doc tell him? He wasn't a doctor, he didn't know if Walton would make it or not. How could he know? But he realized from Walton's words what he'd already started to learn. It wasn't always the truth that mattered out here.
"Well, you should listen to Brockmeyer," he told Walton, surprising himself with the strength and sincerity he put into the words. "Because you're gonna be fine."
Brockmeyer gave him a slight grateful smile, and Doc saw Walton's fingers tighten once in acknowledgment around the radio man's hand. Brockmeyer freed his fingers and tucked Walton's hand back down. He gestured for Doc to join him, then moved away beyond the tree. "Thank you for that," he murmured.
"Well," Doc said, gesturing futilely with his arms. "What else could I say?"
Brockmeyer turned away, studying the village below. His raspy voice came back quietly, "It gets easier, Doc."
Doc swallowed. He didn't want to hear that, but oddly, at the same time, he appreciated the simple direct words. He was learning. His job was about comfort, not honesty.
The radio man stiffened, and Doc thought he heard him swear. "What is it?" he asked, trying to follow Brockmeyer's gaze.
"Krauts," Brockmeyer said grimly and gestured at the north end of town. "They're coming back."
Sure enough, the Germans were regrouping at the edge of the woods, and they seemed unruffled by the sound of the B.A.R. that was still firing. Caje's report came back crystal clear to Doc, and his mouth went dry. Doc's own eyes turned toward the middle of town, to the Y intersection where he couldn't see them, but he knew from what Caje had said that Sgt. Saunders and his men would be located, trying to free their comrade from beneath the crashed tank. And Doc realized the truth of it: Saunders didn't have the manpower or time both to free Littlejohn and hold off the Germans.
He looked back at Brockmeyer, but the worried frown there did nothing to ease his anxiety. "What are we going to do?" Doc asked. "They're all going to be killed."
Gunshots still rattled from the east end of town, the distinctive sound of Champ's B.A.R. keeping the retreating Germans occupied, countered by a few German rifles returning fire, a constant reminder to Littlejohn that his predicament was keeping the squad from doing their job. Kirby and Billy had found some long boards in the rubble. Nelson's hands were bleeding, but Littlejohn doubted his friend was even aware of the cuts. They were wiggling the boards under the treads for leverage, trying to help balance the tank's weight and prevent it from slipping any farther.
More B.A.R gunfire erupted from down the street, sporadic but persistent. "What's going on down there?" Kirby muttered.
"You didn't think... the Krauts would leave without some... argument, did you, Kirby?" Littlejohn gasped out. He tried to keep his tone light, joking, but controlling the pain was hard, and he thought the words came out sounding desperate instead. Maybe they were. Each sway of the tank bore down on his trapped legs and sent streaks of agony up his body. He wouldn't be able to take much more.
Boot steps crunched on the debris and Littlejohn craned his head to see Caje sprinting up. Littlejohn sighed and let himself relax a little. Help was on the way, maybe even closer than he'd dared hope....
But when the scout said, "Sarge," and gestured Saunders toward him, Littlejohn swallowed and forced himself to look away from the two men. If it had been good news, Caje would have blurted it out for everyone to hear. Only bad news would drop his voice to a murmur meant for Saunders' ears alone. He closed his eyes and tried to breathe steadily against the panic beginning to threaten. He'd only injure himself if he struggled against the tank's weight, but it took all his willpower to lie there unmoving while the squad worked on his behalf, the tank prevented from crushing him only by luck, resolve, and the strength of a few desperate squad mates.
It was Saunders' voice, soft, gentle, and Littlejohn's stomach knotted up. "Yeah?"
"Brockmeyer couldn't get through to Hanley. He's still trying to raise him, but you're gonna have to hang on a little longer."
"Okay," Littlejohn murmured. Well, it wasn't quite as bad as he feared. Could mean Hanley and reinforcements were right around the corner. Could just be transmission trouble. They'd been having trouble with the radio since they'd arrived in Chausonne. No reason to expect it to work better now just because he needed it to.
"Just hang on." Saunders' hand touched his shoulder reassuringly, and Littlejohn nodded because there was nothing else to do. Saunders said, "Caje, you spot anything new from up on the hill?"
Caje shook his head. "Krauts were pulling back into the woods. Brockmeyer didn't have anything else to report."
Littlejohn knew that distracted tone meant Saunders was more bothered by the Krauts and the continuing gunfire from the end of town than he let was letting on. Sure enough, a moment later, Saunders said, "Nelson, get down there and help Champ. Caje, take his place on the tank."
"Nelson, that's an order."
The Cajun slipped in beside the tank and, after shooting Saunders a glare only Littlejohn saw, Nelson picked up his rifle and took off at a run for the end of town.
Brockmeyer watched grimly through the pair of field glasses. There was no doubt now. The Germans had regrouped and were coming back. They'd split into two squads. The smaller group was at the northern Y spoke, harassing the B.A.R. man, but it was only token firing, keeping Champ pinned down and occupied while the larger force sneaked toward the blocked southern spoke of the Y.
He glanced after Caje, but the man moved too fast sometimes, and he was already out of sight and back into the village. He'd be telling Saunders the news, that he'd failed to raise anybody on the radio.
Hanley. He had to get a hold of the lieutenant.
He tried the radio once more, never taking his eyes off the eastern end of town. Faintly, he heard the reply: "White Rook, this is Checkmate King Two, over."
"Situation critical. Need backup immediately. What is your ETA?" Brockmeyer asked.
A crackle of static and the tail end of something that sounded like, "hours away."
He swallowed. "Repeat that, King Two, over."
For another interminable second he thought the signal gone for good, but the response came back, "Approximately fifteen minutes, White Rook. We're on our way. Over."
"Make it ten," Brockmeyer said, surprising himself. "We're in trouble here. Out."
He shut off the radio and snatched up his rifle.
Fifteen minutes. The rest of the platoon so close, and yet... fifteen minutes was all the time in the world for the Germans to surprise and overrun Saunders and completely change the situation. Enough time to capture or kill the squad and leave Lt. Hanley facing an occupied town again.
"What are you doing?" he heard Doc asking behind him.
"Stay with him," he told the new medic, nodding at Walton. He knelt long enough to touch Walton's shoulder and tell him, "Just hang in there, Doc." He didn't get a response, but he could see the medic's chest rising and falling and knew he was still alive, still fighting.
He heard the Third Squad medic calling after him, but he took off at a run down the hill. He had two choices. One get to Saunders and report the new German incursion. There were two problems with that. In the time it would take him to get there and for Saunders to send reinforcements down to Champ, the Germans would be in the cover of the town's ruins and twice as hard to dislodge. The second, larger problem was that from what Caje had told them, Saunders had no one to spare, not without letting that tank fall onto Littlejohn.
That left him one other alternative. Join Champ directly at the front line himself. He knew one more rifle was not the same as the firepower the rest of the squad could bring to bear, but the Krauts weren't expecting anyone from where he intended to ambush them. And one man with a well-aimed rifle, a few grenades, and surprise on his side could do a lot of damage. The extra gunfire would alert Saunders to the new danger as effectively as if he'd reported it in person, with the added advantage that Brockmeyer would already have engaged the enemy before they got any farther.
He cut down the hill at a dead run. He hit the back door to one of the standing buildings with his shoulder and gasped when it held. Two steps back and he broke it in with a vicious kick that busted the locked door handle free of the wall. He ran through the building to get to the blocked street and took stock, searching for movement ahead.
He found it immediately, but it wasn't what he was expecting. It was Billy, creeping carefully along the opposite side of the street. Brockmeyer whistled once to alert his squad mate, then, when Billy had spotted him, he crossed to join him.
"What are you doing here?" Billy said.
"The Krauts are coming back."
"What about Champ?" Billy whispered. "Sarge sent me to"
"Shh." Brockmeyer listened, picking out the soft thread of a German voice, giving orders.
Keep firing, the German said. We must make them think their men still hold the line.
Coldness washed over Brockmeyer. So it wasn't Champ firing the B.A.R. any longer. Champ was dead and it was some German soldier, pretending, letting the same steady sounds of battle fool the Americans into thinking everything was status quo. And that meant the Germans were already in the vee of buildings, working their way toward the junction. His plan to cut them off before they gained access to the town was already useless. Brockmeyer grabbed Billy's arm. "Get back to Saunders. Tell him Hanley will be here in fifteen, but the Germans have killed Champ. We need reinforcements down here now!"
He saw Billy nod and take off back down the street at a crouch. The gunfire continued from the front, but no shot tracked after Billy. Brockmeyer blew out a breath in relief. The buildings occupying the fork of the Y were wrecked and shattered, walls little more than an occasional slab jutting skyward. He moved carefully through that uneven wreckage until he had a good, solid wall for cover. He drew himself up, listening to the voices speaking German on the other side. They were doing the same thing, picking their way through the center to try and surprise the Americans at the Y junction.
Well, they'd still be in for a surprise.
Brockmeyer steadied his rifle around the corner of the wall. Three soldiers came into sight all at once. He took the lead one out with his first shot, dropped the second, and missed the third when the German reacted to the explosion of gunfire in close quarters and jumped backward. He could hear them shouting, and it made him smile. They didn't know he understood their words, didn't know that the shouted order to flank him gave away their plans.
He pulled a grenade from his jacket, popped the pin, counted three, and tossed it over the wrecked walls in the direction the German officer had ordered his men to go. He dropped down and covered his head. The explosion produced shrieks and screams. He lobbed a second grenade the other way, in the direction the officer's voice had come from. The detonation was almost as satisfying, but he'd missed the officer. He heard the man shouting furiously to pull back, and Brockmeyer jumped around the corner looking for targets.
They were retreating, and he followed, firing until his clip was empty, hurriedly shoving in the next one as he came into the room he'd just blown up. Three dead Germans lay there. But the Germans were rallying, and a burst of gunfire pinned him down behind the wall. He could hear them circling to flank him.
Then his rifle jammed.
He flung himself back under cover, fighting with the weapon, trying to estimate how far he'd have to run exposed to reach the next wall for cover. Then he spotted it, a familiar-looking stock protruding from the rubble. He scrambled forward on hands and knees to yank the Thompson free. It could have belonged to one of Third Squad's men, but the minute he picked it up, he knew it belonged to Saunders.
It made him smile grimly. He checked the magazine before slamming it back in and turning around. He never heard the shot fire, he just knew one minute he was moving, the next something had lifted and spun him and almost inexplicably, he was falling. Then the pain slammed into him, and he realized he'd been shot low in the side, below the ribs.
I got him, he heard a German yell, and, as the man came around the corner, Brockmeyer gunned him down with a burst from the Thompson.
Billy, his lungs on fire, raced back to Saunders. The B.A.R. fired again behind him, and Billy gritted his teeth and tried out one of Kirby's more colorful swear words. Those Germans were clever, too clever, and he was afraid now. The deception had bought the Germans precious time that First Squad had needed and the price was going to be Littlejohn's life. There had to be another answer, he thought. Saunders always had answers. He would have one now.
"Germans," he gasped, stumbling the last steps up to the tank. "Regrouped and coming back. That's not Champ firing. The Germans killed him. They're trying to keep us from knowing."
They heard the grenades explode, one two.
"Brockmeyer," Billy said, at Saunders' look. "He saw... came to help. He got through to Hanley. Fifteen minutes, he said. We gotta get back there and help him." But even as he said it, his gaze went to Littlejohn. Littlejohn had passed out. The men had been propping up the tank, rocking it onto the boards and off Littlejohn. But it still wasn't stable. If they let go now....
"Kirby," Saunders said harshly. "You and Billy are on me. The rest of you get that tank off Littlejohn."
Kirby switched places at the tank, snatched up his B.A.R. from where Albert Baker had set it down.
"We're spread too thin!" Davis said. His arms were trembling where he stood, back against the tank, fingers hooked under the edge for leverage.
"Hanley's due in a few minutes," Saunders said. "If we can just give Brockmeyer a hand, keep the Krauts at bay a little longer, the reinforcements will be here. Caje you're in command here."
Caje simply nodded.
"You know what you have to do?" Saunders asked softly, and both his eyes and Caje's flicked to where Littlejohn lay. Watching the irrevocable, tacit understanding pass between them, Billy wanted to say, I don't. Then he grasped what Saunders meant, that if the sergeant failed to stop the Germans....
"No" Billy started to say, but Saunders cut him off, quickly and viciously. "Move out, Nelson."
Billy blinked and swallowed. He wasn't scared anymore. Nausea overrode fear with its own brand of hell. He forced himself not to look back at Littlejohn, forced oddly numbed legs to work and carry him after Saunders and Kirby, while his heart seemed to drown inside him.
"You, American!" the heavily accented voice called out. "Surrender!"
Brockmeyer levered himself up on one elbow. The pain was excruciating, not just in his side where the bullet had entered. No, the worst pain was in the middle. It felt like the shot had torn him in half. He wasn't sure it wasn't true either. Sweat dripped off his brow, and he fought to stay conscious. It was hard to think, harder to focus. He knew Billy would be back with Saunders and the men, but he also knew there were still fifteen or more Germans alive. He'd taken out more than he'd expected to, but it wasn't enough. Not by half. And he knew Saunders wouldn't give up on Littlejohn, not yet. Saunders would come, but not with enough men, and the Germans would still wipe them out.
"American!" the German shouted. "Come out."
If he didn't, they'd come in and get him.
Calm settled over him. Slowly, with his back pressed against the wall, he got himself to his feet. It was the hardest thing he'd ever done. The pain and shock overwhelmed him, and he swayed against the wall. He could feel the blood soaking the lower part of his shirt, the left leg of his pants. He bit right through his lower lip as he tried to hang on.
"American, you are surrounded."
"Don't shoot, I'm coming out," he rasped and muffled a cry at the pain raising his voice caused. All those interconnected muscles that supported the lungs and diaphragm, muscles he'd studied on charts once upon a time when he'd discovered weightlifting in high school.
"Throw out your weapon," the German ordered.
He didn't have the strength. His arm wouldn't lift the way he wanted it to, and the Thompson's weight was too much. He had to move fast; he was running out of time. Two staggering steps took him to the doorway. He stretched out his right arm and let the Thompson strap simply slide off. It clattered loudly against the broken masonry. Without waiting, he kept walking, staggering through the doorway. His left arm was tucked tightly against his wounded side and stomach, his hand surreptitiously inside his jacket. His fingers were tightly curled around his last grenade.
The pin was already pulled. He just had to let go.
A German soldier caught his raised right arm and yanked him into the open area. He cried out, the sound torn from him at the harsh motion, and he dropped to one knee. He fought to stay conscious, to see around him. He had to know how many Germans were there, if there were enough.
Sure enough, they crowded around their prisoner, and he saw the expressions of hatred on their faces. They were still mad at the beating they'd taken at the Americans' hands, and he was just another target for their revenge. Their officer stepped forward through the ring, and Brockmeyer couldn't help it. He smiled as the man stepped in close, just a few feet away, right where Brockmeyer wanted him.
He counted five and dropped the grenade at the officer's feet.
Saunders stumbled on the debris as he hurried around the crashed Army truck up the blocked street. Kirby was right behind him, Billy bringing up the rear. Saunders felt the boots walking on his grave again, and he pushed himself harder, more recklessly. If he was going to die in this town, so be it. Maybe his fate was already decided. Lingering wouldn't stop the inevitable. There had been no shots for a few minutes from up ahead, and he wanted to know what that meant.
Panicked German shouting erupted ahead followed immediately by the angry ripping sound of Schmeissers. Hardly a second later, a grenade concussion tore through the noise and the submachine guns fell silent. There were different shouts now. Shouts of terrible pain, the voices crying out German words.
He was nearly to the end of the street. Two Germans backed into his view, looking at something out of sight. Saunders brought the rifle up and shot them both. Almost instantly, more gunfire opened up, and he threw himself sideways. They'd hit the rallying point all right. He wondered where Brockmeyer had taken up position. It had to be the radio man's grenade that he'd heard.
"Kirby!" he called.
"Yo?" The B.A.R. man scrambled up beside him, keeping his head down. Another couple bullets ricocheted off the wall above them.
"Cut through the ground floor, see if you can come around behind them."
Kirby crawled through the nearest hole in the wall and wriggled out of sight.
Saunders fired a couple more shots.
Then he heard it. The throaty growl of truck engines, several of them, and even better tanks. The distinctive sound of American tanks rolling into Chausonne.
The remaining Germans clearly heard them too, and it was enough. They broke and ran, running pell-mell back toward the trees beyond the road, back toward their lines.
Two Shermans came on fast, breezing right up the southern Y road that the squad had tried so hard to block. They swung clear of the crashed truck, their treads biting and tearing and rearing up and over the rest of the masonry and wood blocking the road. One of them fired its cannon after the departing Krauts, and Saunders winced at the noise. He heard Kirby cheering, and the B.A.R. man hauled himself through a half-blocked doorway ahead of him.
Slowly, Saunders got to his feet. Nelson passed him by, hurrying through the rubble in the wake of the tanks' passage. He paused by what Saunders could see was a good section of cover and looked around.
"Where's Brockmeyer?" Billy asked. "I left him here."
There were still the cries of the wounded, and Saunders saw Kirby with his B.A.R. leveled check out the rest of the Germans. He stopped suddenly and without turning said somberly, "Sarge."
Saunders came up beside him. He saw the dead and wounded Germans first. Kirby had his weapon trained on the wounded ones. He was about to say something when he saw Brockmeyer. Lying face up, his chest blown away by machine pistol fire. He'd been dead before the grenade he'd dropped had ever exploded.
Saunders' eyes were drawn beyond the radio man, to the familiar stock and barrel of his Thompson. The weapon was bloody, lying in the doorway just a few feet beyond the radio man's body.
Billy watched Saunders reclaim the Thompson, almost tenderly, before the sergeant walked away, the line of his shoulders unapproachable.
The rumble of a truck approached and stopped just before the main blockage. Hanley swung out of the passenger side, and troops poured out of the back. They took off around the rubble blocking the truck, pursuing the tanks and the fleeing Germans. Hanley watched after them with a smile, and Billy forced himself to understand. They'd won this battle. They'd fought the Germans for the town and won. But the lieutenant hadn't been here.
Hanley saw the solemn faces quickly enough, and the smile dropped off his face. "Where's Doc?" he asked.
Billy pointed up the hill. He could see two men from the ambulance with their medic brassards visible around their arms running up the hill toward where the Third Squad medic waved at them. One carried a stretcher over his shoulder. Billy left Hanley and headed back toward the Y, where the newly arrived GIs, under Caje's direction, were shifting the tank enough for Davis and Baker to pull Littlejohn free.
They carried him out into the street near the ambulance, while, on three, the soldiers leapt back and let the German tank crash free. The shifting weight took part of the building out, and they retreated farther, shaking dust from their faces and helmets. The soldiers were laughing, job completed successfully, trapped American rescued and delivered to the medics to be healed and fight another day. Billy couldn't find it in him to be resentful. They hadn't been there, hadn't fought to hold onto Chausonne. The reinforcements' arrival had sent the Germans fleeing, why wouldn't they celebrate? All they could taste was victory.
Billy crossed the street and dropped on one knee by Littlejohn, who looked tired and wan, but was conscious again. "What happened?" Littlejohn asked.
For a moment, Billy couldn't speak. Then he said softly, "Brockmeyer, he... he's...."
Littlejohn's blue eyes met his, and then the big man nodded once and said nothing more.
The Third Squad medic joined them. He started examining Littlejohn, then paused, and turned to look toward the eastern end of town. "I saw from up above," he said suddenly. "With the field glasses. Saw what he did. He...."
"I know, Doc," Billy said, and at his soft words the new medic fell quiet. It was better that way, Billy thought. Some things didn't need to be said.
Another truck pulled up, more soldiers poured out, their sergeant shouting at them to get the rest of the town mopped up. He could hear their enthusiasm as they spread out in pairs; they knew the town was back in American hands. They wouldn't ask at what cost. But then, they didn't need to. They had their own battles behind and ahead of them. This one wasn't personal.
He met the blue-eyed gaze of the new medic and knew from that shared look that Doc was seeing his own feelings in Billy's face. It was personal for the medic now.
"I'll get a stretcher for Littlejohn," Doc said, and he smiled a crooked, reassuring smile. "He'll be all right."
Yeah, Billy thought. This new doc was a good guy. With Doc Walton sure to be shipped back home, maybe Hanley would reassign him to First Squad. Billy hoped so.
Saunders stepped around a dead German. The sense of foreboding had lifted. The town slumbered now, as wrecked and weary and impersonal as the towns that had come before it. Desolate and old, nothing but broken wooden bones lying under the sun's golden glow. The afternoon shadows, no less sharp-edged than earlier, held no menace now. It was as if the town had claimed its blood and gone back to sleep.
Which was a ridiculous thought. Places didn't claim lives, people did.
But the town ignored him now, blind to the transgressors on its cobbled streets. That didn't stop him from recalling the feeling in his gut when he'd entered the town, the feeling that his death waited around the corner.
He hadn't bought it in Chausonne. Others had. Was he lucky, or unlucky? Saunders wondered. How did one weigh the value of continued life against the increasing internal burden of the loss of others under his command?
He leaned both forearms on a fallen crossbeam, hunching forward to stare across the street. He needed to go back. Hanley would be looking for him. Wanting a report, wanting to give more orders, probably for First Squad to move up after the rest of the soldiers. There was no lingering, not in this war. Precious ground had to be claimed, all the way to Berlin. He could steal a few private minutes, but there was no time for real grief, only for thanks that the casualties hadn't been higher.
The rest would come later.