(2005) No infringement upon the rightful owners of "Combat!" and the characters thereof is intended.  This piece of fan fiction is for enjoyment only, and in no way will the author gain monetary profit from its existence.

Author's Note #1: This story contains dialogue involving derogatory racial slurs.  These are not used for mere shock value, but to make a point about racial prejudice.  I apologize for any offense they may cause, but I feel they are necessary for the story.

Author's Note #2: This story picks up where parts of my Fog Trilogy leave off.  If you've read those three stories, you can enjoy seeing how this intersects with them.  But you don't have to read them first  --  this one stands on its own too.

 

 

"Dying Like Men"

By White Queen

 

 

"And those that leave their valiant bones in France, dying like men, though buried in your dunghills, they shall be famed..."  -- King Henry V, Act IV, Sc. III 

 

 

 Littlejohn squinted as he looked out the doorway of the tent where he'd spent the night.  His hair askew, face unshaven, he waited for his eyes to adjust to the sunlight.  Clad only in khaki pants and a hole-riddled undershirt, he tried to remember where he'd put the rest of his clothes and gear.  He couldn't even recall falling asleep.  The most recent memory he could dredge up involved relinquishing Kirby to an orderly at an aid station.

"You're awake."

The voice startled Littlejohn, it came from so close by.  "Sorta."  Sleep still clung to him, slowing his reactions.

Saunders lit up a cigarette.  After a few pulls, he asked, "How'd you sleep?"

"I'm not sure."  The scent of the cigarette seemed to clear Littlejohn's head somewhat.  "Guess I musta been pretty tired." 

Saunders smiled a little.  "You could say that.  Caje and I had all we could do to lug you here."  He pointed inside the tent.  "Your gear's in the far corner."

"Thanks."  Littlejohn turned to reenter the tent, then stopped.  "Any word on Billy?"

"Not yet."  Saunders took another drag.  "But I figure if you and Kirby made it out okay, he could too."

"Kirby's okay?"

"He will be, soon as those doctors finish pumping him full of penicillin."  He gestured vaguely to his left.  "They got a chow line set up, so get some food when you're dressed.  Enjoy it while you can; we're supposed to move out tomorrow."  Saunders walked away.

*****

Once he'd eaten, Littlejohn wandered about the partly-demolished French village.  Hands in his pockets, he tried to absorb the sun's rays, storing them up so he'd have a good supply if the weather turned antagonistic again.  He could still feel the slight weight of Kirby's gold bracelet tapping against his chest as he walked.

He saw a few soldiers he knew, and many he didn't.  The platoon seemed to have acquired a lot of fresh manpower.  It wasn't until he'd reached the edge of town that Littlejohn found the one GI he'd been looking for.

Seated cross-legged in a patch of sunshine, his back to the remains of a stone wall, Caje was engrossed in sharpening his knife.  He caressed the blade with his whetstone, the fluid strokes forming a steady rhythm.  He gave no sign that he was aware of Littlejohn's presence until the tall soldier stood only a yard or so away.  Then he looked up and remarked, "You're awake."

Littlejohn sat down near enough so they could talk, but not so close he would impede the Cajun's knife-sharpening.  "I hear Kirby's gonna be okay."

Caje nodded, dark eyes focused on his work again.

Littlejohn frowned.  Caje seemed to be in one of his periodic silent moods.  And here Littlejohn had hoped to catch up on what the squad had been doing while he was gone.  "I take it you and Sarge got back okay.  From that forest during the rain."

Caje nodded again.

"I guess that's when you got those four new men, huh?"

"The next morning, yeah."  Caje tested the edge of his knife with his thumb, looked satisfied, and sheathed the weapon.

"They any good?  I didn't really notice yesterday.  Too focused on finding that log again, I guess."

Shrugging noncommittally, Caje stood up.  "They might be, eventually."

Littlejohn stood up too, but Caje simply walked away, leaving Littlejohn feeling slighted and lonely.  He couldn't imagine a reason for Caje to shun him.  Sure, he was probably worried about Kirby.  But Littlejohn was worried about Billy, and Kirby too, and it didn't make him want to avoid Caje.  If anything, it made him want to have someone familiar nearby.

"Hi there!"  A voice behind him interrupted Littlejohn's pondering.  He turned and saw two young soldiers approaching, waving and smiling.  At him.  He realized they must be two of the new guys.  Their names  --  what were their names?

"You're Littlejohn, right?" one of them asked, extending his hand.

Littlejohn noticed it felt strange to shake hands, part of a distant past.  No one did that anymore.  They might grunt hello, salute an officer if necessary, but shaking hands seemed an antique custom here.  "I'm Littlejohn," he acknowledged as their hands parted.

"Artie Harris."  The boy grinned.  "Figured you might not remember us; you didn't pay much attention yesterday when the Sarge introduced us.  Not that I blame you -- your buddy was in pretty bad shape."  Harris had dark curly hair, dark eyes, and well-tanned skin.  If he'd been slightly more handsome, he could have styled himself a Latin Lover.  But his round face and quick grin gave him a mischievous look instead.

With a quick tilt of his head, Harris gestured toward the soldier beside him.  "This is my pal, Warren Rosenberg."  As Rosenberg also extended a hand for Littlejohn to shake, Harris continued, "We met up at the Repple Depple just before we headed here, but it already feels like we're buddies from way back."

Rosenberg's hair was even darker than Harris's, but he had lighter skin.  Shorter and slighter than his friend, he remained quiet.  He seemed content to allow Harris to do the talking, only saying, "Hello," to Littlejohn.

"So I hear we're movin' out tomorrow."  Harris hooked his thumbs in his pockets.

Littlejohn nodded, "Yeah, that's what the Sarge said."

"Boy, that Sergeant Saunders, does he ever know a lot!"  Harris sat down on the stone wall, and Rosenberg followed his lead.

Littlejohn nodded again and remained standing.  He wondered if it was too early to go check on Kirby at the aid station.  That's probably where Caje had gone.

"Him an' Caje've been teachin' us all sorts of stuff these past couple days.  Stuff those bums back in boot camp never dreamed of."  Harris pulled out a pack of Lucky Strikes and gave one to Rosenberg, shook one out for himself, then extended them to Littlejohn.  "Wanna smoke?"

"No, thanks."

"Okay."  Harris lit his cigarette, handed the lighter to Rosenberg, and grinned.  "Best thing about the army -- free cigarettes!"

Littlejohn smiled.  How often had he rolled his eyes when Kirby said the same thing?

"So'd you get drafted, or'd you join up?" Harris asked.

"Drafted."

Harris chuckled.  "Us too.  Hey -- sorry if I'm too nosy!  I'm real curious, always askin' questions.  You ever don't wanna answer, you just say so."

"Okay."

"Warren an' me make a great team -- he never talks, an' I never shut up."

Rosenberg smiled and nodded, exhaling smoke through his nose.

"Man, I can't wait to move out tomorrow."

Littlejohn sighed.  Green recruits.  Always so anxious to fight.  And so few of them survived even their first encounter with the Krauts.  "Why's that?" he asked, impatient to go check on Kirby, but not wanting to seem impolite.

"Why, so I can kill some Germans!  Krauts, I mean.  Get this war over with!  Liberate the oppressed!  Spread freedom!"  Harris gestured expansively, his hands sweeping imaginary pawns from the chessboard of the world.  "Isn't that why we're here?"

Littlejohn closed his eyes.  He didn't even bother to try remembering his reasons for fighting anymore.  He'd landed in England, then Normandy, and acquired another little brother to look out for along the way.  Staying alive and not letting his buddies down -- those were his reasons now.  Harris's idealistic exuberance made him feel tired.  Old.  Reopening his eyes, he said abruptly, "It's great talkin' to you.  But I've gotta go check on Kirby now."

"Oh, sure!  Don't wanna keep you from that.  Hey, we'll see you later."  Harris and Rosenberg continued smoking there, perched on a ruined French wall, as Littlejohn walked away.

*****

Sure enough, Caje stood outside the aid station, arguing with an orderly.  As Littlejohn neared, he saw Caje spit angrily on the ground in obvious disgust and turn away.  Eyes narrowed in rage, he muttered vehemently in French as he stomped off.

Littlejohn hesitated.  Interfering with an irate Caje was rarely a wise idea.  Still, he had nothing better to do, and his curiosity overcame his caution.  He followed Caje, keeping a safe distance behind.

Caje continued his French tirade until he reached the edge of town.  Then he seemed to realize someone was following him, and whirled with the quickness of a cornered alley cat.  "Merde!"  When he realized it was Littlejohn trailing him, his face lost some hostility.  He switched to his accented English.  "That idiot wouldn't even tell Kirby I was there to see him.  Wouldn't tell me how he's doing, nothing."

Littlejohn nodded sympathetically.  "I figured."

"Wouldn't let you in either, huh?"

Littlejohn started to explain he hadn't actually been to the aid station yet, but Caje kept right on talking.

"Guys like that really make me mad.  Think they know everything!  Won't even let me in.  Or you, who saved his life!  And that guy knows we're the ones that carried Kirby in.  I saw him there last night."  He snorted.  "Makes me mad," he repeated.

"Me too."  Littlejohn couldn't think of much to say.  Caje's anger seemed to subside as he ranted, yet he remained edgy, pacing from one side of the alley to the other with quick, jerky strides.

"Good soldier like Kirby nearly dies, they won't even let his buddies see him."

"Maybe Kirby just needs to rest," Littlejohn offered.

"Nah, I know guys like that -- that orderly."  Caje sneered back toward the aid station.  "They get a little taste of power, suddenly they run the world.  But what has he ever done, eh?  Has he ever been wounded?"

Eyes flashing, Caje's anger built up again.  He paced faster, gesturing, vehement.  "Has he ever been shot?  Stabbed?  Had to leave a friend behind because there are Krauts trying to kill him?  No!  He stands outside his little white tent, he tells people when they can go inside and when they can't.  Well, what makes him so special, eh?  Why is it Kirby lying on a bed in there, shot to pieces?  Why isn't it that guy?  Or you?"  He turned those eyes, so sharp and accusatory, toward Littlejohn.  "Or me?"

"I don't know why," Littlejohn said, his voice flat.  He leaned against the gritty wall of some random building and folded his arms.  "I don't even try to, anymore."

Caje nodded.  "Yeah, it's easier when we don't think about it."  He stopped pacing, leaned against the wall too, and tipped his head back until it rested on the grimy stonework.  "Trouble is, how do we stop?"

"Thinking?"  Littlejohn shrugged.  "All I can ever manage is to replace one thought with another.  You know, think about something else.  Maybe a movie I saw, or a girl back home -- "  He stopped, sensing Caje flinch.  "What?"

"Nothing."  Caje pulled out a pack of cigarettes.  "Forget it.  Let's get out of here, huh?  Maybe if we find the Sarge, he can get us into the aid station."  Lighting up a cigarette, Caje pushed away from the wall and casually walked away.  Too casually, Littlejohn thought.  Something was bugging Caje, something more than not being able to see Kirby.

As they searched for Sgt. Saunders, Littlejohn reflected that it felt odd to want to visit Kirby at all.  Usually the mouthy B.A.R. man was dead-last on Littlejohn's list of squad members to spend time with.  A couple nights cramped in a hollow log trying to keep Kirby alive had changed that.  Or maybe the stories Kirby had told about his past had softened Littlejohn's attitude.

Littlejohn tried not to dwell on what Kirby had told him, respecting the privacy of those memories.  But he felt he would never again be so quick to chastise Kirby.  And he thought Kirby might not purposely provoke him so much anymore either.

They didn't find Saunders, but as they neared Lt. Hanley's CP, Littlejohn noticed the other two new members of the squad.  "Hey, Caje."  He pointed to the two, who stood together, deep in discussion.  "Maybe they've seen Sarge."

"Maybe."

When Caje and Littlejohn neared, the other two stopped talking.  "Chase, Summers," Caje nodded at each of them.  "Have you seen Saunders?"

Pvt. Ben Summers shook his head.  "Not since this morning."  With his blond crew-cut and athletic good looks, he was the type that recruitment posters always depicted.  Almost too nice-looking to be a soldier.  Almost too young too -- the kid looked barely eighteen.

Pvt. Clive Chase, on the other hand, looked at least twenty-five.  His dark brown hair was carefully combed to one side.  He looked ill at ease in his uniform, as if he missed wearing a suit and tie.  "Same here," he agreed with Summers.

"Okay."  Caje and Littlejohn started turning away to continue their search.

"Hey, if you find Saunders, could you let him know I want to see him?" Chase called after them.

"Why's that?" Littlejohn asked.

Chase motioned them closer.  In a conspiratorial tone, he said, "I just saw Rosenberg and Harris pass by an officer without saluting."

Littlejohn nodded.  "Were they outside?"

"Yes.  Can you believe that?"

"Look, Chase, we're pretty close to the German lines here," Caje explained.  He tried to sound patient.  "We're not supposed to salute officers when we're out in the open.  If we do, it could tip off a sniper about who's important."  He frowned.  "Sergeant Saunders already told you this."

"I don't remember that."  Chase frowned back.

Caje's dark mood wasn't improving.  "I was there; I know he told you.  Your first day, in fact."  He turned to Summers, who had moved away a little and lit a cigarette.  "Do you remember him telling you that?"

Ben Summers nodded.  "I do."  He glanced at Chase, who glared at him.  "He told us a lot of stuff that day though."  He shrugged and exhaled a stream of smoke.  "I don't know if I've remembered everything either."

Caje glared at them both, started to say something more, then changed his mind.  "Let's go, Littlejohn."

As Caje and Littlejohn walked off toward Second Platoon's CP, they spotted a familiar camo-covered helmet settled atop straggling blond hair that had grown far longer than regulations allowed.  But who ever had time for a haircut?  Sgt. Saunders was lucky to even shave once or twice a week.

"Hey, there you are, Sarge," Littlejohn greeted him.

Saunders flicked away the remains of a cigarette.  "You two filling up on hot chow and sleep?"

Littlejohn nodded.  "Tryin' to."

Saunders noted Caje's gloomy expression.  "What's wrong?"

Caje looked away and muttered something in French.

"We wanted to see how Kirby is, but they won't let us in," Littlejohn offered as explanation.

Saunders nodded.  "I see."  He tipped his helmet back and scratched his head.  "Let's see if they'll let me in."

*****

When the three reached the aid station, they found Caje's nemesis still guarding the entrance.  Saunders turned on his authority full blast.  "We're here to see Private William G. Kirby," he announced in a tone that made it clear he fully expected to be obeyed.

The orderly checked his clipboard, frowned, then shook his head.  "Private Kirby has been moved to the evac hospital."

Caje's jaw twitched.  "Why didn't you just tell me that earlier?" he growled.

The orderly shrugged.  "I might have, if you'd asked the right questions the right way."

Caje lunged past Saunders, seizing the orderly by his white coat and shaking him vigorously.

"Caje!"  The sharp tone of Saunders' voice was usually enough to stop his men from doing whatever they shouldn't be doing.  Caje didn't seem to hear him, but kept shaking the orderly and roaring French invectives.  Saunders grabbed Caje's arm and tried to haul him away from his victim.  The orderly's eyes were wide with fright, and his head snapped back and forth with every shake.

"Caje!  Stop!" Saunders commanded again.  He tried to pry one of Caje's hands from the white coat, but he might as well have tried to loosen a tiger's jaws from the jugular of its prey.

It seemed to Littlejohn that Sarge wasn't going to get anywhere trying to separate Caje from his victim just by pulling on his arm and hand.  So he calmly walked up behind Caje, grabbed him by his jacket collar and belt, and hoisted the Cajun off his feet and away from the orderly.  Caje's weight surprised him -- he looked so lean, almost skinny sometimes.  Must be all muscle.

As his feet left the ground, Caje went wild.  He tried to twist out of Littlejohn's grip, flailing his arms and legs.  Sgt. Saunders pushed the trembling orderly out of the way and stepped in front of Caje and Littlejohn.  "Caje!" he said quietly.  "Calm down."

Caje's writhing slowed, and Littlejohn gradually lowered him to the ground.  The fury drained from Caje's face, although his nostrils still flared with every breath.  "You just keep that guy away from me, Sarge."  He shook a menacing finger at the orderly, who hastily ducked inside the aid station.

Saunders nodded.  "I think we can manage that.  But how'm I supposed to keep you away from yourself?"

"Myself?"

Littlejohn had an idea of what would come next, and wondered if he could wander away without the other two noticing.  If Sarge was going to talk about whatever was bothering Caje, he didn't really want to be around.  It felt too much like eavesdropping, even if they were surrounded by a whole platoonful of soldiers.

"Something's been bothering you since the day we left that forest.  More than just Kirby and Littlejohn and Billy being lost."  Saunders didn't seem to notice as Littlejohn slowly edged away.  "Now, you don't need to tell me what it is.  That's your business.  But you do need to tell me if it's gonna keep you from doing your job."

Caje shook his head, fierce and determined.  "It won't.  I swear to you, it won't."

Saunders looked stern.  "Out there, these next few days, I need you to be one-hundred-percent.  I need you alert and I need you focused.  What I don't need is you flying off the handle because somebody annoys you, or daydreaming when you think you don't have to be paying attention.  Or going who-knows-where for hours at a time to brood.  Can you do that?"

Caje nodded.  "I swear it," he repeated.

As Littlejohn moved away, a familiar-looking medic smacked into him.

"Hey, sorry 'bout that," a mellow voice drawled, as the medic kept hurrying by.

"Doc!  It's me!"  Littlejohn lightly whacked the medic in the arm.

Doc spun around.  "Why, so it is!"

"You just get back?"

"Just this very minute."  Doc saw Caje and Saunders just finishing their discussion.  "Hey, Sarge, you mind waitin' around?  I gotta sign in here, and then report to you."  He jerked his head toward the hospital tent.  The white circle and red cross on his helmet looked cleaner than usual.  In fact, Doc looked unusually well-rested.

"Go ahead," Saunders nodded.

"Thanks."  Doc ducked inside the tent.

Littlejohn raised his eyebrows.  "I think being at that evac hospital agreed with him."  He decided it was safe to rejoin Saunders and Caje without feeling like an intruder.

Doc reemerged in a jiffy.  "Gosh, am I glad to be back.  I don't think I coulda survived any more hot showers, fresh chow, and friendly nurses."  He chuckled, then glanced around.  "Hey, where's everybody else?"

"Kirby's in the evac hospital -- " Saunders paused.  "Billy's missing," he finally finished.

Doc frowned, his eyebrows drawing together, forming worry-wrinkles above his nose.  "Kirby's at the hospital?  He musta arrived after I left.  What happened?"

Saunders shook his head.  "War."

"I see.  And Billy's missin'?  Kinda puts us under strength, huh?"

"We've got four new men."  Saunders checked his watch.  "Caje, Littlejohn, show Doc our billet.  I've got to be at Hanley's CP in five."

"Sure thing, Sarge," Littlejohn acknowledged, then informed Doc, "We thought you were never coming back."

"I wasn't gone that long," Doc protested.

"We heard rumors you'd eloped with some nurse," Littlejohn deadpanned.  He noted a momentary change in Caje's expression.  It reminded him of the way Caje had flinched earlier, and he began to wonder what might have happened in those few days he'd been gone.  Caje seemed awfully touchy about women suddenly.  Maybe that's what Saunders had talked to him about...maybe Caje'd fallen for a girl in this town and been turned down or something.  That usually happened to Kirby, but Littlejohn supposed Caje couldn't be entirely immune to romantic failure.

Caje's mood hadn't lightened by the time they reached the tent where Littlejohn had awakened that morning.  "I'll see you guys at chow time," he said, then wandered away.

Doc didn't seem to observe Caje's sour attitude.  He began unpacking his gear in the tent, and said, "To tell you the truth, Littlejohn, I did get pretty well acquainted with one of the nurses at that evac hospital."

Littlejohn started to smile.  "I thought you seemed different."

Doc looked up at the tent's ceiling and sighed.  "She has green eyes, and her name's Nan."  He looked over at Littlejohn and grinned sheepishly.  "Her hair's auburn, she smells like lavender, and she's lived in Bay City, Michigan, all her life until she joined the Red Cross and came over here."  He fumbled around in his knapsack, drew out a small snapshot, and handed it to Littlejohn.  "We swapped addresses just before I left yesterday."

Littlejohn studied the black-and-white picture.  It showed a dark-haired woman in her mid-twenties, with dimples and a turned-up nose.  She was laughing at the camera, and not in the fake "look-how-vivacious-and-carefree-I-am" way of laughing either.  She seemed genuinely amused.  Littlejohn couldn't help smiling, both at the photo and at the way Doc reached to take it back.  "She looks nice," he commented.  "And happy."

Doc nodded.  "I feel like a kid," he confessed.  "I can't stop thinkin' about her."  He pulled some writing paper and a pen from his knapsack.  "I think I'll write her a letter right now."

"Good idea.  We're moving out tomorrow."  Littlejohn walked to the tent door.  Doc was already so busy writing he didn't notice Littlejohn's departure.

*****

The next morning, Sgt. Saunders assembled his squad at 0600 hours.  "Everybody ready?"  He scanned the seven men clustered around him.  "You all draw ammo and rations?"

"Yes," they chorused.

"Doc, you get your supplies?"

"All I can carry."  Doc patted his medic's bag.

"We'll be moving out any minute, soon as Lieutenant Hanley gets here."  All around them, other squad leaders were checking their men too.  A few soldiers broke away from their groups and ran back to their tents or off to supply areas, hurrying to gather forgotten items.

"Hey, Sarge," Harris asked, "where're we headed?"

"To the south, back toward St. Lô."

All the men exchanged glances and moved around uneasily.  "I hear things ain't goin' so well down there," Harris said.

"What would you know?" snapped Chase, who stood on the opposite side of the group.  "All any of us hear are rumors.  Or have you been doing a little listening at keyholes?  Spying on the officers, maybe?"

"Whoa!"  Harris held up his hands, palms out toward Chase.  "All I said is I heard we've been gettin' clobbered down toward St. Lô."

"Alright, cut it out, both of you," Saunders ordered.  "I didn't say we were going directly to St. Lô.  King Company's been ordered to a place called Le Hameau."

"What're we gonna do there?" Harris asked.

"Shoot Germans, what do you think?" Ben Summers joked, trying to diffuse the tension Chase had created.

Lt. Hanley rode up in his mud-covered jeep.  Caje and Littlejohn exchanged smirks as Chase gave him a smart salute.

"What'd I tell you about not saluting officers out in the open?" Saunders snarled.

"Sorry."  Chase quickly dropped the salute.

"You ready?" Hanley asked Saunders, ignoring Chase.

Saunders nodded.  "Yes, sir."

"Then head out."  The jeep roared away, churning up the seemingly ever-present mud.

"Let's go.  Saddle up."  Sgt. Saunders led his squad out of town, and the other squads in Second Platoon followed.

*****

"You'd think the Army'd let us ride in trucks."  Harris shifted his rifle and looked over at Rosenberg, who trudged beside him.  "You know?  All those trucks they got, and we've gotta march through this slop."

Caje walked in front of them, skillfully avoiding the stickiest patches of mud.  "See any trucks on this road?" he asked, not turning around as he addressed the two men behind him.

"Just some jeeps," Harris admitted.

"Road's too wet for trucks.  They've got to wait for them to dry out more."

"If it's too wet for trucks, how come it ain't too wet for us?" Harris persisted.  "It don't seem like we're gettin' anywhere anyway.  If we're goin' nowhere, why can't we ride there?"

"This's the Army, not the Cavalry," Rosenberg remarked quietly.

Caje nearly smiled.  He moved around Summers and Chase, who marched in front of him, and fell in beside Sgt. Saunders at the head of the long line of grubby soldiers.  "I think we've got Kirby's little brother on our hands."

"Harris?"

"Yeah."

"There's always somebody."  Saunders walked along easily, as if the mud didn't bother him.

Caje avoided a particularly large mud puddle, then asked, "So what're we in for at Le Hameau?"

"We captured the railroad station there," Saunders answered, "but the Krauts still hold the town, and they're starting to retreat to the south.  We're supposed to try to cut off their escape route."

"I see."  Caje dropped back behind Chase and Ben Summers.

Ben Summers looked back at Caje.  "I heard what the Sarge said.  If the Krauts are retreating, why don't we just let 'em go?"

Caje shrugged, avoiding another large puddle of glop.  "The Army says 'go', so we go."

Littlejohn walked at the rear of the squad, also trying to avoid as much mud as possible.  It was good to see Caje in a better mood than the past few days.  Maybe the chance to get back into the war had somehow cheered him up -- Caje usually seemed happier when he was active, rather than sitting behind the lines and waiting.

Sgt. Saunders hadn't told them not to bunch up or keep quiet, and Littlejohn noticed that up ahead, Harris and Rosenberg were carrying on a friendly conversation -- or at least, Harris was talking while Rosenberg listened.  But neither Chase nor Summers seemed inclined to talk, either to Littlejohn or each other.  That gave Littlejohn plenty of time to think.

Except he didn't want to think.  If there was one thing in the world that Littlejohn was good and tired of, it was thinking.  And mud.  And rain.  And not knowing where Billy Nelson was.  And Krauts and bullets and artillery shells and pain and blood and danger.  And fear.  And marching -- he'd definitely gotten tired of marching.

Doc dropped back behind Summers and Chase until he walked next to Littlejohn.  "How's it goin'?" he asked.

Littlejohn shrugged.  "Just thinking how much I hate mud."

Doc nodded.  "I hear ya there!"  They moved along in silence for a bit, and then Doc asked, "So Kirby got an infection?"

"I guess so."

"Uh-huh.  But Sarge says you treated it with somethin'?"

"Yeah.  Moss."

"Moss?  What kind of moss?"

Littlejohn sighed.  He knew Doc was just trying to make conversation; Doc was probably as bored as he was.  But he really didn't want to think about what had happened during those rain-soaked days.  He'd just end up speculating about Billy's whereabouts yet again.  How he'd ever let himself start feeling responsible for the kid, he'd never know.  Hadn't that been one thing he'd liked about the army?  No more little brothers to watch over and worry about and be held accountable for.  Everyone in the army was their own man, responsible for their own actions.  At least, that's how it'd seemed at first.

Realizing Doc was waiting for an answer, Littlejohn tried to smile.  "Sphagnum moss," he replied.

Lt. Hanley's platoon camped a few hundred yards from the road that night, near two other platoons in King Company.  With orders not to make any fires, the footsore soldiers ate cold rations and spread their blankets on the soggy earth.

"I don't see why we couldn't have made just a little fire," Clive Chase grumbled.  "There're plenty of trees and bushes around for fuel."

"They probably think there are Krauts around, scouting, you know?  A fire'd make us into a great target."  Ben Summers flipped onto his stomach, trying to get comfortable.

"But without a fire, I can't read.  I always read a little before I go to sleep, you know that," Chase whined again.

Littlejohn was already nearly asleep.  "Shut up," he growled, knowing he'd pull sentry duty in a few hours.  Saunders and Caje were out on the perimeter now.  Lucky them -- they didn't have to babysit the four wakeful new soldiers.  Maybe he should sing them a lullaby.

*****

Lt. Hanley called his squad leaders together early the next morning.  "We're not too far from Le Hameau," he informed the men clustered around his map.  "The main body of Germans has left the town, and the other platoons are pursuing them to the south, toward St. Lo."  He tapped a lean finger on the oft-folded map he held.  "But Captain Jampel thinks we're special."

The two sergeants and one corporal groaned.

"We get to flush out the buildings in Le Hameau -- whatever's left standing, anyway."  He pulled out a smaller, newer map.  "This is the layout of the village.  I want two squads to a street, one on the right, one on the left.  Clear every building, and I mean clear them.  The Germans are holed up everywhere, and they're determined to hold this town to the last man."

Lt. Hanley pointed to the map.  "First and second squads, take this first street.  Third and fourth, take the second street.  I'll lead third squad, since we lost MacIntyre.  When both squads finish a street, bypass the one the other squads are clearing, and start in the next street."  He folded his map, glancing around his seemingly ever-changing group of squad leaders.  "Get your men ready to move out in thirty minutes.  We hit Le Hameau around oh-eight-hundred."

Sgt. Saunders slogged through the mud back to his squad.  When still several yards away, he began snapping orders.  "Gather up your gear!  We're moving out in thirty minutes.  Make sure you've got all your ammunition.  I'll inspect weapons in ten minutes."

Littlejohn and Caje rolled their eyes.  A weapons inspection?  That was the trouble with having all these new soldiers -- the Sarge had to hold their hands all the way, and Littlejohn and Caje had to help.

"And Caje -- have them clear this mess up!"  Saunders gestured around the group's sleeping area.  Bedrolls still lay rumpled on the ground.  Chase and Rosenberg were shaving out of their helmets.  Ben Summers had attached a small mirror to a nearby tree and stood before it, combing his hair.  "NOW!"  He turned on his heel and strode away again.

Caje had nearly forgotten he was still an acting corporal.  With Littlejohn back, it had started feeling a little like old times again.  "You heard the Sarge!" he ordered.  "Get moving!"

The four new soldiers leapt into action.  Summers yanked down his mirror and stuffed it into his pack.  Harris started rolling up his bedroll.  Rosenberg gave up on shaving and dumped his helmetful of water onto the ground.

Some of the frothy water splashed onto Chase's left boot.  "Look what you've done!" screeched Chase.  "I spent hours last night polishing these boots!  You filthy yid -- you've ruined them!"

Harris leapt to his feet.  "It was an accident, and you know it," he said, his voice barely calm.  "We're gonna be marching in the mud again in half an hour, so who cares what your boots look like?"

Rosenberg said nothing; he wiped out the inside of his helmet, then started stowing his shaving kit and other gear in his pack.

"I care!" Chase ranted.  "What if we have an inspection?  If Sergeant Saunders is going to inspect our weapons in ten minutes, he might inspect our uniforms too!  I, for one, don't want to disappoint him."  He pointed a trembling finger at Rosenberg.  "And he's splashed his dirty water all over my boots."

Ben Summers walked over to Chase and snatched up his helmet, also full of sudsy water.  He calmly dumped the water on the ground near Rosenberg, splattering his boots with mud.  "There, now you're even."  He winked at Rosenberg, then clapped the still-dripping helmet on Chase's head.  "Right?" he added, smiling innocently at Chase.

Chase clenched his fists and drew the right one back.  "You think that's funny, do you?" he bellowed.

"Alright, everybody knock it off!" Caje roared, stepping between Chase and Summers.  "Weapons inspection in nine minutes, remember?"  He looked Chase in the eye, almost daring him to throw a punch in his direction instead of Summers's.

Chase dropped his arm, relaxing his fists.  Muttering something Caje chose to ignore, he stomped away, water from his helmet trickling down his face and neck.

*****

First and Second Squads gathered on the outskirts of Le Hameau.  Sergeants Pryce and Saunders quietly addressed their respective squads, keeping their voices low enough that someone hiding in the street ahead wouldn't be able to make out their words.

Saunders rested his Thompson on his hip and leaned against the side of the first building on his appointed side of the street.  "Alright, listen up," he told his men.  "We're gonna clear the right side of this street; second squad's takin' the other one.  We'll split into two groups, and each group checks a building.  When you've got yours cleared, go to the next one up the street, and just keep leap-frogging to the end of the street.  And be careful what you touch.  You never know what the Krauts've booby-trapped."

The sergeant nodded to each soldier in turn.  "Chase, Rosenberg, you're with Caje, and you'll go first.  Then Harris, Summers, and Littlejohn, with me.  Doc, you'll start out with me, then go wherever you're needed."

Chase frowned.  "Sergeant Saunders?"

"What?"

"Would it be possible for me to go with you instead?"

"No."

Chase's frown deepened.  "Why?"

"Because I said so."

"Could I just talk to you a minute?"  Chase stepped closer to the sergeant, and his voice took on a wheedling tone.

Saunders shook his head.  "Let's go."  He moved to the edge of the building, and peered into the street.

Chase followed him.  "But, Sergeant -- "

Saunders turned back to face him, his eyes narrowed.  "What is your problem, Chase?"

Caje edged close.  "You know what his problem is.  He doesn't like Rosenberg."

The sergeant glared at Chase.  "I didn't ask you to like him.  You have to work with everyone in the squad, whether you like them or not, same as everybody else."

"I'd really rather not."  Chase looked away.

"Why not?" Saunders snapped.

Chase faltered.  "Because -- because -- "

"Because why?" Saunders insisted.

"Because he's a kike!" Chase burst out.

Saunders' voice dropped to a growl.  "Now you listen here, Chase.  You are going with Caje and Rosenberg.  You are going to help them clear those houses.  Whether Rosenberg is Jewish or Irish or Hungarian or anything else doesn't matter.  You got me?  He is a U.S. soldier.  You're supposed to be one too, so start acting like one."

Sgt. Saunders turned back to the street, looked around the building's corner again, then glanced back at the squad, with a particular glare at Chase.  "Alright, everyone, move out!"

*****

The first two houses they checked were clean.  Not physically clean, of course -- grime and dust covered everything in them.  Smashed furniture littered the rooms, along with the ruins of other everyday items.

The third house towered above the others; it obviously belonged to someone wealthy.  The bits of furniture had tattered remnants of expensive upholstery clinging to them, and the remains of a lovely painting leaned against a wall in the main hallway.

"We'll start at the top again, and work down," Caje instructed Chase and Rosenberg.  He led them quickly up the majestic staircase, pausing to poke his rifle into the open doorway they passed on the second-floor landing, just in case.  Once they reached the third floor, he scanned the five closed doors that surrounded them.

"What're you looking for?" Chase asked, curiosity bringing him out of his sulky silence.

"Attic."  Caje continued examining the hallway.  "Looked like the house had one, from outside anyway."

Rosenberg looked around them, at the five closed doors that surrounded the head of the staircase.  "Caje?" he said quietly, pointing to one door that looked a little smaller than the other four.

Caje walked toward it.  "Could be."  He motioned the other two to stand behind him, then stood to one side of the doorway, twisted the doorknob, and pulled the door slowly toward himself.  He whipped around into the opening, rifle leveled and ready for business.  When no noises came from within, he relaxed a little.  "Good goin', Rosenberg," he whispered.  "These are stairs."

A faint light filtered down from above.  The attic must have had a skylight or window of some sort.  "I'll search up here," Caje told them.  "You two start checking these rooms, one at a time.  Together."  He emphasized the last word with a hard stare at Chase.

"Right."  Rosenberg nodded.

"Leave this door open," Caje instructed as he began walking up the attic stairs.  "And remember, be careful what you touch.  Just make sure the rooms are clear, don't mess around with stuff in them."

As soon as Caje was out of earshot, Chase hissed, "We start over here."  He gestured to the first door to the right of the attic.  "You go first."

Rosenberg frowned, then shrugged.  His rifle at the ready, he put a hand on the doorknob, turned it, and pushed the door in quickly.  It crashed against the wall.  Chase followed Rosenberg inside, and they checked through the room, looking under an iron bedstead and inside a large wardrobe.  There was no closet.

When they felt satisfied the room was clear, Chase led the way back out into the hallway.

Up in the attic, Caje held a flashlight along the barrel of his rifle, using it to peer around in the cavernous gloom.  The attic was mostly empty, except for a tangle of old furniture along one wall and several trunks pushed against another.  Caje had just finished opening each of the trunks and was looking behind the furniture pile when a burst of gunfire below sent him racing back to the stairs.

In the house next door, the rest of the squad heard the shots too.  They sounded like a German Schmeisser and an American Garand.  After the initial outburst, however, all was quiet again.

"Doc, check it out.  They may need you over there," Saunders ordered.  "Littlejohn, you go with him; stay over there if Caje needs you.  Summers and Harris'll stay here with me.  Doc, report back as soon as you can."

"Right," Doc acknowledged.

Littlejohn nodded.  "Let's go."

When Doc and Littlejohn entered the other house, Caje appeared at the head of the impressive, elegant staircase.  "Doc!  Up here!"

Littlejohn wondered how Doc could climb those stairs so calmly, knowing that at the top of them lay yet more wounded men for him to try to patch up.  Oh, Doc hurried, that's for sure.  He never took his time about getting to a wounded man.  But Littlejohn felt certain that if he himself had to mount those three flights of stairs, knowing that at the top he'd have to staunch more blood, touch more mangled flesh, soothe more fearful soldiers -- if he had to do that, he just might turn around, run back down those stairs and out the front door, and never stop.  Saving lives seemed like a terrible responsibility.

Caje stood outside an open door on the third floor.  "They're in here."

Littlejohn could smell the blood and gunpowder, their sweet and acrid scents blending in an all-too-familiar way.  He followed Doc as far as the doorway, then stopped to take in the scene before him.

A dead German soldier lay on the floor in front of a large wardrobe, the kind you could hang clothes inside if you didn't have a closet.  He'd obviously been hiding in it, then slid out and onto the floor when he was shot.  The bullet between the eyes had probably killed him instantly.

Across the room from the wardrobe, Warren Rosenberg lay in a widening pool of his own blood.  Doc knelt beside him, the knees of his trousers soaking up some of the blood.  "Take it easy, kid," he crooned, pulling Rosenberg's shirt open to examine his abdominal wounds.

Littlejohn saw Doc's eyes widen, took a look for himself at the young private's stomach, and looked quickly away.  He would not vomit, he told himself over and over.  He had seen a lot of wounded soldiers, a lot of dying men.  He would not vomit.  If Doc could take this, so could he.

Bullets from the German's Schmeisser had caught Rosenberg directly in his midsection.  At such close range, they had practically cut him in half.

Doc closed Rosenberg's tattered shirt again, if only to keep the boy's insides from spilling all over the floor.  Unbelievably, Rosenberg was still alive.  Worse, he was still conscious.

"I'm a goner, right, Doc?" he managed to sputter, blood filling his mouth.

"Shh, you just get some rest, Rosenberg."  Doc couldn't bring himself to lie to the kid.

"Rest.  Sure, Doc."  Rosenberg took a shaky breath.  "Tell him -- "  He gagged, coughed up more blood.  "Tell Sarge I'm sorry."

Doc shook his head.  "I'll tell him no such thing.  You did good, kid."

Rosenberg coughed again.  "Then say 'goodbye' for me.  To…Harris…and the Sarge."

Doc couldn't find any more words.  It was all he could do to stop the tears that begged to spill down his cheeks.  No matter how many men died, each one was a tragedy.  Especially when there was no way he could ease their passing.  All the morphine in the world wouldn't work swiftly enough to blunt the pain filling this boy's final moments.

With one last wrenching cough, Private Warren Rosenberg died.  Doc reached over and tenderly closed yet another pair of eyelids with his blood-stained fingers.  Somehow, Doc's tears retreated.  He couldn't cry now, now that he'd be willing to.

No one spoke for a few moments; they barely dared to breathe.

Clive Chase, sitting on the floor with his back against a wall, broke the silence.  "Uh, Doc?"  He pointed at a hole in his left shirtsleeve.  Blood soaked the cloth, and dripped onto the floor.

Doc nodded, numbly picked up his bag of supplies, and moved over toward Chase.  He ripped the sleeve open, glanced at the wound, dug around in his pack.  "Just a scratch," he muttered, more to himself than to Chase.

"Just a scratch?" Caje asked, lighting a cigarette and moving closer.  "Oh really."  He stared at Chase, who couldn't meet the acting corporal's fierce gaze.  "You mind telling me what happened here?"

"Sure, Caje."  Chase tried to make his voice sound normal.  It trembled anyway.  "We were checking the rooms, just like you said to.  I opened up that wardrobe over there, and the German was inside it.  And he shot us.  So we shot him."

"I see.  'We' shot him, eh?"  Caje leaned over, grabbed Chase's rifle, and sniffed it.  "I think you mean Rosenberg shot him.  You haven't fired this today."

"Okay, yeah, Rosenberg shot him."  Chase winced as Doc started wrapping a white bandage around his arm.

"So how is it, if you opened those doors, that Rosenberg got the belly full of lead, and you just got a scratch?"  Caje's voice was level, almost conversational.

"Well, he sort of pushed me."

"The Kraut pushed you?"  Caje sounded amused, as if Chase were telling him a droll anecdote over dinner.

"No," Chase admitted.

"Rosenberg pushed you?"

"Yes."

"And Rosenberg shot the Kraut?"

"Yes."

"After the Kraut shot him?"

"I guess so."

"So what were you doing during all this?"

"Well -- I -- I -- "  Chase shrugged with his good shoulder.

"You froze."  Caje's eyes glinted.

Littlejohn stiffened.  Something in Caje's voice warned him that whatever simmered inside Caje might be ready to boil over again.  The way it had when he'd tried to wring a certain aid station orderly's neck.

"Not exactly," Chase denied.  "I was just a little scared…"

"A little scared?"  Caje mocked him.  "Just a little scared?"  He pointed a long finger at Rosenberg's limp body.  "Don't you think he was scared too?"

Doc, done bandaging Chase's arm, moved back to Rosenberg.  He pulled out the dead man's dog tags, snapped their chain with a sudden grimace of anger.  "I'll take these back to Sarge," he informed nobody in particular.  He left without another word.

Caje hauled Chase to his feet.  "Well, guess what."  He kept one hand clamped on Chase's shirtfront.  "You aren't done being scared.  You and I and every other sane person in this insane war are going to be scared every day, every minute until this thing is over.  Got it?"

Littlejohn observed that Chase looked plenty scared right then and there.

"Now the sooner you get used to being scared and find the guts to act anyway, the longer you'll live."  Caje pushed Chase away, back against the wall.  "Next time, someone might not be there to save your worthless hide."

Littlejohn moved away from the doorway so Caje could stomp through it.  Chase picked up his rifle with his good hand and followed.  Caje stopped at the head of the staircase and turned back.  "I know you're scared," he sneered at Chase, "but do you think you can do just one thing right?"

"What?"  Chase squared his shoulders, lifted his head.  Tried to look confident.

"Go back down these stairs and stay at the bottom of them.  Make sure no Germans come down them and leave this house.  Littlejohn and I'll finish flushing these rooms."

"I can do that."  Chase moved off down the stairs, relieved to escape Caje's wrath for the moment.

Caje turned on Littlejohn.  "And don't tell me I was too hard on him," he warned, eyes still glittering.

"Thought you went a little easy, myself."  Littlejohn nodded toward the next door.  "Want to start here?"

*****

Doc handed Rosenberg's dog tags over to Sgt. Saunders.  "Nothin' I could do," he said, sounding almost defensive.

Saunders nodded.  "Okay, Doc."  He peered at the tags, read the name imprinted on them.  "Oh no, not Rosenberg."  He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment.  "The others okay?"

"Chase got a scratch, left arm.  Should be okay."

Saunders squinted, studying his medic in the dim light.  "Stay here on the stairs, Doc.  You'll know if we need you."  Doc looked unusually tired.  Especially compared to how well-rested he'd been when he got back from the evac hospital yesterday.

"Sure."  Doc sank down onto a step, leaning against the railing, his eyes already closed.  Maybe they wouldn't need him again today.

"Hey, Sarge?"  Ben Summers and Artie Harris poked their helmeted heads out of the second-floor room they'd just checked out.  "What happened over there?"

Saunders took a deep breath.  "Rosenberg got killed."  He avoided Harris' agonized gaze.  "C'mon, let's finish this house."  He shoved the dog tags into his favorite inner pocket in his jacket.

Harris made a low noise, halfway between a gasp and a cry of pain.  Summers grabbed his arm, pulled him along the hallway to the next room.  Sgt. Saunders headed up the stairs to join them.

Harris refused to go into the next room.  He planted himself firmly against the wall outside it and shook his head.  "I can't," he moaned, his eyes focused somewhere beyond Summers.

"You've gotta," Summers urged.  "Sarge said to keep checkin' the rooms."

"Warren's dead," Harris murmured.  "Warren's dead."

"Yeah, I know, but -- "  Summers stopped, realizing that the sergeant was behind him.  He turned, smiled apologetically.  "He don't feel too good, Sarge."

Saunders nodded.  "I know."  It looked like he'd have to talk the kid through this, at least a little.  He glanced at Ben Summers.  "You okay?"

"Yeah."

"Think you can handle checking that next room on your own?"

"Sure, Sarge."

"I'll be right here by the doorway if you need me."  Sgt. Saunders turned his attention to Harris as Ben Summers kicked in the flimsy wooden door.  "Harris, you hear me?"

Harris nodded, still staring off into nothingness.

"Look at me, Harris," Saunders commanded.

Slowly Harris focused on his squad leader.

"I know it hurts, Harris, I know."  The sergeant placed one hand against the wall that supported the grieving private and leaned forward, giving the conversation a bit more privacy.  "I know you and Rosenberg were pals."

"Yeah, pals," Harris repeated, his voice husky.

"But right now, I need you to set that hurt aside.  Just set it aside, where you can think about it later.  Right now, I need you here.  I need you alert and ready to act.  We all do -- me, Summers, Doc, all of us.  We have to depend on each other.  It's the only way we'll get through this.  So I need to know that when you go in one of these rooms in one of these houses, and there's a Kraut hiding in there, you're ready to do what it takes, to fire before the other guy does."

Harris nodded, just barely.

"Good."

"But, Sarge -- "  Harris gulped, tried to steady his voice.

"Yeah?"

"I only knew him for eight days.  Eight days."  Harris squeezed his eyes shut.  "They were just eight more days for me, but for Warren they were all he had left to live."  He took a deep breath, then another, and reopened his eyes.  He looked straight at Saunders.  "I'm ready to go."

"Good."

*****

Although it took the rest of the day to clear Le Hameau to Lt. Hanley's complete satisfaction, First Squad didn't lose any more men.  The other three squads were not so fortunate.  All told, the platoon lost six men, with three more wounded, including Sgt. Pryce of Second Squad.

In their last house on their last street, Caje, Littlejohn, and Chase managed to capture one of the Germans they flushed out, an older man who reminded them of their fathers or uncles.  He wept when they took his rifle away.  Whether the tears expressed sorrow or relief, the three GIs couldn't tell.  Littlejohn suspected they were a mixture of both.

The capture pleased Lt. Hanley.  It was more than S2 had dared expect: an un-hurt prisoner so frightened he couldn't stop talking.  Too bad no one in Hanley's platoon understood German.  The weary lieutenant sent the prisoner and the three wounded GIs back behind their lines, to S2 and an aid station, respectively.  Then he and his platoon settled down on the outskirts of Le Hameau, one squad on each side, and prepared to spend yet another summer night under the Normandy sky.

 

 

Artie Harris pulled Caje and Littlejohn aside when Sgt. Saunders was summoned to Lt. Hanley's CP after supper.  He led them away from their billet on the north side of town, far enough so that the others couldn't hear them, then asked, "How'd it happen?  I've gotta know.  How'd Rosenberg die?  Sarge won't tell me much."

Littlejohn shook his head.  "I wasn't there, you know that."

"Yeah, but you went there with Doc...never mind.  Caje?"  His voice was quiet, but tinged with dread.

"I didn't see it," Caje admitted.  "Rosenberg and Chase were clearing rooms together.  Why don't you ask Chase?  He's the only one who was actually there."

"Because I don't know if I'd believe a word he said.  He hated Rosenberg.  And he hates me."

Littlejohn frowned.  "Why?"

"Because Rosenberg is -- was a Jew.  And I'm a Mexican.  Well, half, anyway.  And Chase don't like anyone who don't look and act and sound exactly like him."

Littlejohn was surprised by how calmly Harris stated these things.  If someone hated him for something he couldn't help, like who his parents were, he didn't think he'd be standing around discussing it the way other people talked about the crops.  Then again, maybe Harris was used to this.

Caje nodded, agreeing with Harris.  "I've noticed that."

"He only tolerates you because you're acting corporal."

Caje sighed.  "Okay, you win.  What happened, as far as I can tell, is this: Chase opened a wardrobe that a Kraut was hiding in.  Chase froze up, so Rosenberg pushed him out of the way and killed the Kraut.  One shot in the head, dead center."

Harris winced.  "And the Kraut got him at the same time?"

Caje and Littlejohn both nodded.

"And Chase did nothing."

Caje shrugged.  "He got grazed by a bullet; sat there bleeding until Doc and Littlejohn got there."

Harris closed his eyes.  "I knew it.  I did."  He reopened his eyes, looked back and forth between Littlejohn and Caje.  "Was he -- was there a lot of pain?"

Caje shrugged and looked away.  "He died pretty quickly -- if he suffered, it wasn't for long."

Littlejohn nodded, confirming the half-truth.  "Doc didn't even have time to do anything for him."

"Thanks."  He started to walk away.

"Hey, Harris," Caje called after him, "don't do anything stupid.  Chase isn't worth spending a month in the stockade."

"Yeah, sure, thanks," Harris called over his shoulder.

Littlejohn and Caje looked at each other, worried.  "I haven't known this kid as long as you," Littlejohn said, his words slow, measured.  "But it seems to me he's headin' off to find Chase and have a few words."

Caje lit up a cigarette, inhaled, then blew two quick streams of smoke from his nostrils.  "I think you're right."  He tilted his head in the direction Harris had taken, back toward the empty town.  "Think we should follow him?"

Littlejohn shrugged, then grinned.  "You're the acting corporal.  And with Sarge still off talking to the lieutenant..."

Caje nodded.  "True.  And I'd sure hate for Harris to get in trouble.  He'll probably mess Chase up real good."

"Wouldn't want that."

"Nope."

A muffled yell echoed through the darkness, followed by many loud thumps and grunts.

"I suppose," Caje sighed, dropping the remains of his cigarette and carefully grinding it into the dirt.

"Yeah."  Littlejohn nodded.

They took their time finding the source of the scuffling noises.  They finally located the culprits behind an outbuilding at the edge of Le Hameau.  Harris knelt on Chase's chest, punching his face over and over, while Chase tried feebly to ward off the vengeful blows.

"Okay, break it up," Caje said.

While Littlejohn hauled Harris away from his victim, Caje yanked Chase to his feet, perhaps a tad rougher than might have been necessary.  "Do you two want the sergeant to hear you?"

"He started it," Chase mumbled, his bottom lip cut and swelling, one eye already shut and turning all sorts of interesting colors.  He pointed accusingly at Harris.

"I didn't ask who started it, I'm just stopping it."  Releasing Chase, Caje folded his arms across his chest.  "You two ready to behave now?"

"Yeah," Harris nodded, his own mouth bleeding but his voice triumphant.

"Yes."  Chase glared at Caje.

"Good.  Go clean yourselves up.  I don't want to see either of you anywhere near each other for the rest of the night.  Behave yourselves, and I might not have to report this to Saunders."  He gave Chase a little shove.  "Get going, soldier."

As soon as Chase had stumbled out of earshot, Caje turned to Harris.  "Feel better?"

Harris grinned awkwardly, wiping away a streak of blood from his mouth.  "I sure do.  Thanks, guys."

Caje shook his head.  "We didn't do anything for you.  You remember that.  Now go wash up before Saunders gets back and sees you like this."

As Harris walked away, Caje turned to Littlejohn, eyebrows raised.

Littlejohn shook his head.  "Don't look at me.  I'd've liked to've busted him one myself, after seein' what happened to Rosenberg."

Caje nodded.  He started to say something, but a loud shout behind them interrupted him.

"Caje!  Littlejohn!  It's me!"  Kirby bounced out of the darkness that filled the abandoned town.

"Kirby!"  Caje laughed aloud and grabbed the lean private in a sort of manly one-armed hug.

Littlejohn smiled.  Caje sounded genuinely happy at last.

Kirby pulled away from Caje, hand clutching his side.  "Ow!  Watch it!  I been wounded, ya know."  He caught Littlejohn's eye and nodded.  "Hey there."

Littlejohn nodded back.  "Hello, Kirby."

"They fix you up at that evac hospital?" Caje asked.

"Yeah.  I tell you, that place is somethin' else!  Nurses every which way you turn."  Kirby grinned.  "I tried to stay a couple extra days, but they said they needed my bed for some fresh wounded.  Hey," he looked around, "where's Doc?  I got somethin' for him."

"He should be over by our bedrolls.  C'mon, let's go find him."  Caje led, the other two close behind.

"Say, Kirby," Littlejohn said, keeping his voice low, as they walked together behind Caje, "I figure you want this back now."  He unbuttoned his shirt pocket, pulled out the metal bracelet, and held it out toward Kirby.

"Oh, yeah, thanks."  Kirby tried to sound nonchalant as he took the bracelet and clasped it around his right wrist.  "I kinda missed it."  He slid a sidelong glance up at Littlejohn's face.  "Uh, you know all that stuff about my past I said while we was in that log?"

Littlejohn shook his head.  "I haven't repeated a word of it, Kirby.  And I won't, you know that."

"Okay.  And thanks."

A sleepy Sgt. Saunders joined them just before they reached their billet.  "We're movin' out again tomorrow, searchin' for stragglers."  He noticed his newly-returned squad member and smiled, although the smile was as tired as his eyes.  "Kirby!  You finally got back."

"You know me, Sarge, always ready and willin' to do my duty!"  Kirby grinned.  "I miss anything important these last few days?"

"Oh, you know, the usual."  Saunders shrugged.  "USO show, free booze every night, milk and cookies every morning."

"Aaaannh," Kirby made his trademark skeptical sound.  "I know there ain't been no USO show here."

"Are you sure?" Caje smirked.

"Sure, this ol' nose can smell an American girl a mile away -- even after she's been and gone!"  Kirby tapped the side of his nose and winked at Caje.  "Besides, you'd'a kept a couple girls around for me -- that's what buddies are for, right?  You wouldn't let me miss out on all the entertainment."  He punched Caje's shoulder, grinning like a playful half-grown puppy.

Littlejohn saw that odd twinge of emotion crease Caje's face and figured it confirmed his earlier theory.  Caje was having woman trouble, or had had some recently.

Caje managed to smile.  "Right, Kirby, right."  He put his hands in his pockets.  "Hey, Sarge, who pulls sentry duty first?"

"You and me."  Saunders unshouldered his Thompson and nodded to Kirby.  "Good to have you back."  They moved off through the darkness, leaving Kirby and Littlejohn in awkward silence.

The silence didn't last long.  Doc spotted them and ambled over.  "Hey, Kirby, you're back."  He still looked tired and a little pale.

"Not of my own free will, I can tell you that much.  I don't know why you was in such a hurry to leave that evac hospital and get back up here -- I coulda stood a week or two more of that kind of medical attention."  Kirby licked his lips.  "Man-oh-man, there was this one girl in particular -- I only met her the last day I was there, but I will never forget her."  He slid a glance in Doc's direction, just to make sure the medic was listening.

Convinced he had his audience's attention, Kirby continued, "Was she ever a looker!  Red hair, green eyes, and this figure that just wouldn't quit!"  He winked at Littlejohn.  "And when I say 'friendly', you can just bet I ain't exaggeratin' none."  He sighed.  "I forget her name though…" he paused, then turned to Doc.  "Hey, you were there quite a while, weren't you?"

Doc blinked.  "Uh, yeah."  He looked worried.

"Meet up with any nurses that fit that description?"  Kirby shook his head in sorrow.  "I can't believe I forgot her name, after all she did for me."

Doc swallowed.  "Wouldn't be 'Nan', but any chance?"  He tried to sound casual.

Kirby grinned.  "That's her!  Nan.  Good old Nan.  Man's best friend."  He stuck his hand in his jacket pocket.  "Matter of fact, she gave me somethin' to remember her by."

"Like what?"  Doc sounded mad now -- and he rarely lost his temper.  But sure enough, those blue eyes glinted with anger.

"Aw, heck."  Kirby pulled out a crumpled envelope.  "I was just kiddin', Doc.  Nurse Nan only came over to my end of the hospital 'cause she heard I was from King Company and headin' back up here.  She wanted me to give you this."  He held the envelope out toward Doc.  "Sorry it got a little mashed up on the ride back."

Doc's easy grin slid back into place.  "I guess I knew all along you was just messin' with me."  He took the envelope, squinted in the gloom as he tried to make out the writing.  "Reckon I'll go find some light and read this.  Thanks, Kirby."

As Doc left, Harris returned, his face and hair still wet from trying to wash away the traces of his recent fight.  He held out his hand toward Kirby.  "Artie Harris.  You must be Kirby."

"That's me.  You in our squad now?"

"Yup."

Littlejohn added, his tone as jocular as he could make it, "He was tryin' to take your spot, Kirby, as chief loudmouth and fight-starter."  He wanted to keep this truce they'd worked out, but making snide remarks about Kirby was a hard habit to break.  Still, he hoped his former antagonist would know he was kidding.

Kirby shrugged.  "Well, sorry, Harris, but I'm back now, so you'll have to settle for second-loudest-mouth.  And if you start fights, I sure hope it ain't with this guy," he jerked his thumb at Littlejohn, "cause he'll pound you into mush."

"Naw, I know better'n to mess with Littlejohn."  Harris walked over to his bedroll and flopped onto it.  "Besides, I've had enough scrappin' to last me a day or so."  He lay on his back and put his hands behind his head.  "Or at least until somebody riles me up again."

Littlejohn found his own bedroll and lowered himself wearily onto it.  "You take my advice, Harris, you'll forget Chase for now and get yourself some sleep.  Your turn at sentry duty'll come all too quickly."

"Who's Chase?" Kirby asked, spreading out his own blanket by the others.

"A real creep," Harris responded.

"He kinda got a buddy of Harris's killed today," Littlejohn elaborated.  "So Harris thrashed him just now.  He should be getting back any minute."

Footsteps on the grass nearby seemed to fulfill Littlejohn's prediction but, instead of Clive Chase, Ben Summers materialized out of the blackness.  "Took me forever to find this place again," he explained to no one in particular.  "Geez, walk off to do a little business and it's so danged dark you can't find your way back."

"Summers, Kirby's back from the hospital," Harris announced.

"I take it he's the guy I almost stepped on?" Summers found his bedroll and sat down cross-legged on it.

"Yeah, that's me," Kirby confirmed.  "Holy cow, I'm gone for a couple days and they bring in a million new guys to replace me?"

"Not just you."  Littlejohn spoke quietly, eyeing the same stars he'd watched so often back home.

"Hey, yeah."  Kirby sat up.  "Where's Billy?"

"Still missing."  More than a week had passed since they'd all gotten separated in the fog.  Littlejohn knew he needed to give up on Billy, stop torturing himself with the hope that the kid had somehow managed to stay alive, much less evade capture.  All this worrying was his own fault for letting himself start feeling responsible for Billy.

"Oh."  If Kirby had any intention of saying anything else, it was circumvented by the reappearance of Chase.

"You'd think they could have put us a little closer to the town," he grumbled.

"It's only a hundred yards away," Kirby retorted.

"Who're you?"  Chase carefully picked his way through the others until he reached his own bedroll.

"Private William G. Kirby, at your service."  After giving an elaborate salute, he lay down.

"Oh, the guy who got shot.  We helped carry you out of that godforsaken forest."

Littlejohn shook his head, remembering that all Chase had carried out of the forest was what he'd carried in: his rifle.

"Yeah, thanks.  You must be Chase."  Kirby squirmed about on the lumpy ground, trying to find a sleeping position that didn't hurt his still-healing wound.

"I take it you've heard of me.  I suppose somebody was shooting off their big mouth as usual."

"Naw."  Kirby shifted some more.  "Unless you mean Littlejohn namin' off the new personnel to me just now.  Been a long time since this squad got more'n one or two replacements at a time."

Chase seemed to have tired of the subject.  "Why can't we have a fire again tonight?" he asked the empty darkness.  "That makes two nights in a row I couldn't read before I go to sleep."

Harris made a sarcastic noise, a cross between a laugh and a disgusted snort.  "All you ever read is those Edgar Rice Burroughs books anyway."

"What's wrong with them?" Chase growled.

"I'll tell you what: you've read one, you've read 'em all," Harris shot back.

Littlejohn sighed.  He'd let them yammer for about two minutes before he threatened to shut them up for good.  He definitely needed sleep after all the house-clearing that day, and with a fun-filled day of straggler-hunting ahead.

"That's not true.  I've read nearly every book he's written so far, and they're all quite different."

"Okay, sure, whatever."  Harris snort-laughed again.

"They are!"

"Right.  Okay, since you can't read your precious E. R. Burroughs book tonight, how's this?  I'll summarize it for you."

"You don't even know which one I'm reading now," Chase protested.  "I finished The People that Time Forgot three nights ago and started a new one when you were on sentry duty."

"I think I can tell you how it goes anyway.  There's a hero, he ends up in some strange place.  He doesn't know how to do anything in this new world, but he learns real quick.  He picks up the new language with the help of a pretty young woman.  He thinks she's a savage, just a kid not worth noticin' other than as a helpful and trusty guide.  Then he ends up savin' her life, and she saves his, and suddenly they're in love.  They defeat some evil creatures, the girl nearly dies, but they're reunited at the end."  Harris snickered.  "Sound about right?"

Littlejohn couldn't help laughing.  "That's perfect, Harris.  I read about ten of those when I was a kid."

"Me too!" agreed Ben Summers.  "Chase, you've gotta admit, they're all like that."

"Fine, a few of them follow that basic plotline," Chase huffed.  "Still, they're very inventive."

"Yeah, they're fine literature all right.  Ideal readin' matter for a college boy," Harris sneered.

Chase sat up.  "What is your problem, Harris?  Is this still because of Rosenberg?  You know, it's not my fault he's dead!"

"Oh really?"  Harris sat up too.

"You weren't even there!  You don't know how it happened!"

"I know Warren is dead and you're not."

"So that makes it my fault?  Just because I'm alive, you think it's my fault?"

"Could be."

"Well, what about Caje?  He's still alive too!  Does that make it his fault Rosenberg died?  Or you -- you're alive.  Or Summers, or Littlejohn.  Or Doc, or Sergeant Saunders.  Is it their fault too?"

"Look, all I know is, Warren Rosenberg was a good soldier."

"You're saying I'm not?"

Harris didn't respond.

"You think just because you made friends with some Jewish kid, that makes you a saint?"

"No, Chase, I don't think that makes me a saint.  I think it makes me a human being."

"Why you lousy little spic!  I oughtta -- "  Chase jumped up from the ground and started toward Harris.

Littlejohn stood up, too, and blocked Chase's path.  "Okay, that's enough," he said.  "You can finish this in the morning if you need to, but not now.  I hear one more word out of either of you, and you're gonna have trouble talking for the next few days.  Got it?"

Chase seemed to realize it would be foolish to argue.  He lay back down and glared in Harris's general direction through the darkness.

"Boy, am I glad to be back," Kirby muttered.

*****

Daylight arrived, right on schedule.  There'd been enough sunshine and warm weather in the past two days to dry the roads out a little.  Littlejohn thought it was a pity they wouldn't get to use those nice, non-muddy roads.  No, they had to push through the hedgerows and fields to the south, searching for retreating Germans.

Lt. Hanley called his entire platoon together as soon as it was light.  "We'll be working in two teams," he told them.  "Sergeant Saunders and Corporal Kimble will lead First and Second Squads, since Sergeant Pryce's been wounded.  They'll support the tank."  He smiled at the low murmur this announcement created.  "Yes, I said 'tank'.  We've got one, and it's a Rhino.  I'll take Third Squad again, and we'll protect the flanks and rear with Fourth Squad.

"Some of you have worked with tanks before, but some of you haven't, so here's what'll happen: the Rhino smashes through a hedge and drives through the gap.  Then Saunders and Kimble, you'll lead your men through the gap, and fan out.  Watch for landmines and snipers, but mostly we're trying to flush out and capture any stragglers.  Capture when possible, kill if necessary."

Hanley glanced around his platoon.  "Questions?"  No one spoke, so he concluded, "Right.  Get some chow, and we'll move out at oh-seven-thirty."

*****

Breakfast consisted of runny scrambled eggs, blackened toast, and chewy sausage.  And lots of coffee, of course.  Ben Summers sat next to Kirby and Doc and offered to trade his sausage for their toast.  Caje moved away from the others and sat with his back to an abandoned farm cart.  He pulled a crumpled piece of V-mail from his pocket and smoothed it out on his knee.

Harris sat next to Littlejohn.  "Mind if I talk a little?" he asked.

"Go ahead."  Littlejohn scooped some of the egg concoction onto his toast.  Maybe that'd soften the bread a little.

"Does it ever get any easier?"

"What?  Eating this slop?"

"No, not the food.  I mean the way it feels when you lose a buddy."

Littlejohn closed his eyes.  Why did Harris have to pick him to talk to?  When he was trying so hard not to think about Billy being gone.  "Sure, kid, eventually."

"You know, it wasn't just me making friends with Rosenberg.  He made friends with me too.  He was from a nice, respectable family -- he didn't have to pal around with some dumb zootsuiter."

"What's a zootsuiter?"  Might as well be polite.  Littlejohn tested the toast, and it seemed to be chewable now.

Clive Chase didn't give Harris a chance to answer.  He sat down beside them and answered, "A zootsuiter is a wetback with too much time on his hands and too much cloth on his back."

Harris glared at him.  "Shove off, Chase," he growled.

"What's wrong -- you don't want to hear about the riots from someone on the other side?"

"You rich boys don't know nothin' about it."

"Hold on, hold on," Littlejohn held up a palm toward each of them.  "Would one of you just tell me what a zootsuit is?"

"It's a real swingin' set of threads.  Loose pants, wide lapels, flashy, really swell," Harris answered.

"It's a waste of fabric, that's what.  And with rationing on, it's an illegal waste of fabric," Chase spat back.

"Hey, you wanna talk wasted fabric?  A zootsuiter might have one, maybe two suits to his name.  How many suits you got hangin' in your closet back in your mansion, huh?  Five?  Six?  More?  Who's usin' more than their share, huh?"

Littlejohn cut in again.  "People rioted because of clothing?"  He took another unappetizing bite of breakfast.

"Two years ago in LA.  Los Angeles, you know?" Harris replied.

"Mmmhmm."  With a mouth full of egg and toast, there wasn't much else he could say.

"Well, a bunch of zootsuiters mixed it up with some whites."

Littlejohn swallowed and asked, "Zootsuiters aren't white?"

"Naw, they're like me.  Mexicans, wetbacks, spics, you know?  So they arrested about six hundred zootsuiters, but no whites, of course.  And seventeen of us went to trial.  When they got convicted, there was more fighting."

Chase broke in, "But that time the little punks got more than they bargained for.  The Navy was in town."  He laughed.

"And you were involved in all this?" Littlejohn asked Harris.

"Sorta.  My older brother Ramon was in the riots and got arrested.  Never stood trial though, but then because of what happened with the Navy boys, he and a bunch of the others hate all things military.  So they wouldn't answer their draft notices.  The FBI came out to hunt them down and everything."

"So that's why you're in the Army!" Chase chortled.  "Because the FBI caught you!"

"No way."  Harris's eyes flashed.  "I answered my draft notice.  Figured Mama couldn't handle having both her boys on the run."  He sneered at Chase.  "You answer your draft notice, or'd you try goin' to college to duck it?"

"You can't talk to me like that!"  Chase lunged toward Harris, but Caje jumped between them, planting a firm hand on Chase's shoulder to stop him.  Littlejohn didn't even bother trying to figure out how Caje had moved from sitting propped against a cart twenty feet away to standing here towering above them.

"Okay, break it up, you two.  We're heading out in a few minutes.  So eat up," Caje told them.  Something cold in his eyes and voice made his calm words menacing.

Chase tried to shrug off Caje's hand, only to get shoved backwards.

"That's an order," Caje added.  Then he returned to his seat a little removed from the others and resumed reading his V-mail.

*****

 

With the tank bellowing along in front of them, Second Platoon moved away from Le Hameau and into the hedgerows and fields to the south.  The Rhino, really just a Sherman tank with iron 'teeth' attached to its front, behaved just as Hanley had described.  It would ram its teeth into the base of a hedge and shove on through, pushing aside or rolling over everything in its path.  Once in the field ahead, the tank halted.  Saunders and Kimble then led their squads through the gap, using the tank as cover at first.  If they didn't receive any enemy fire, they'd fan out around the field, searching for mines and hiding Krauts.  When the path in front of the tank was cleared, it would roll forward, and the process then started all over again.

The agonizing slowness of their progress had tempers sputtering before oh-nine-hundred hours.  The morning heat pressed down on the soldiers as they crept through the fields.  The tall hedges restricted the movement of air, killing any breeze that offered to relieve the sweating men.  Flies and bugs swarmed about, their whining buzz annoying even good-natured Ben Summers.  Landmines posed a constant threat, as did snipers.  While they'd found several of the former, so far the platoon hadn't encountered any of the latter.  No one mentioned this fact, as if talking about their absence might cause a few snipers to materialize nearby.  They complained about lesser foes instead.

Kirby slapped and swatted the insects attacking his bare forearms.  "They think I'm a walking lunch counter," he complained.

"It's all that fresh blood they pumped into you back at the evac hospital," Littlejohn joked.

"Alright, cut the chatter," scolded Sgt. Saunders.

Caje slunk along through tiny field after tiny field, taking the point position, where his famous keen eyes could search for any sign of hidden Germans.  Harris was next in line, and he tried to mimic Caje's fluid, cautious actions.  He moved at a half crouch, constantly turning his head to scan for enemies.

Littlejohn, working near Harris, noticed that Caje seemed distracted.  Twice the acting corporal stepped on a fallen stick or branch, snapping it.  Once he nearly tripped over a large boulder at the edge of a field.  Not normal behavior for the nimble Cajun.  Clearly, he was having trouble focusing on the job at hand.

Littlejohn considered switching places with Harris for a few minutes, so he could ask Caje what was wrong.  It was no good to have a soldier on point who was too preoccupied with his own thoughts to notice things like sticks and boulders.  But just as Littlejohn started moving closer to Harris, a loud rifle shot made everyone hit the dirt.

"Sniper!" Saunders hissed.  "Stay down!"

It seemed that Caje didn't hear the order to stay down.  He started creeping forward along the edge of the field, keeping low, but by no means down.

Littlejohn watched Caje for a minute, then shifted his gaze to the area just off to his own right.  He gasped.

Artie Harris lay on his back in the muddy field.  His dark eyes stared straight up at the sky, wide and unblinking, as if he was very surprised.  He probably had been surprised by the bullet that hit him low in the forehead and removed a good chunk of his skull on the way out.  The mud around him was turning even darker, as his blood spread out around what was left of his head.  His helmet lay nearby, blown off by the impact of the bullet.

Littlejohn closed his eyes for a moment.  Thank God he hadn't switched places with Harris.  He felt a twinge of guilt, then opened his eyes and got back to the business at hand.  Take out the sniper now, think about yet another death later.

Caje had worked his way around to the edge of the field.  He lay in the cover of some low-hanging branches and seemed focused on something in the right corner of the field, about twenty yards in front of him.

Littlejohn heard a noise to his left and turned his head just in time to see Kirby crawl under the tank, between the tracks.  He reared up on one elbow and tossed something toward the field's right corner.

The grenade exploded, scattering clods of mud and bits of foliage.  When the smoke cleared, they could all see the dead Kraut sniper, one hand still curled around the stock of his rifle.

"Hey!"  Caje jumped to his feet.  "Who threw that grenade?  I had that guy cold -- I could've taken him out with one shot.  Why waste a whole grenade?"

Kirby crawled out from under the tank.  "Relax, Caje, I threw it.  It was quicker.  Don't wanna be out here any longer than I have to."

"I could've taken him out," Caje repeated, almost snarling.

"Sure you could."  Kirby shrugged.  "I know that."

"Yeah," Littlejohn added, "we all know what you can do, Caje."  He wanted to add, "when you're paying attention," but he didn't.  Saunders and Doc knelt by Harris's body.  Littlejohn had a feeling Saunders was going to give Caje a tongue-lashing any minute now, so why add to it?

Saunders stood up, holding Harris's dog tags.  He glanced toward Caje.

"Hey, Sarge, can we bury him?" Ben Summers asked.  He looked like he couldn't make up his mind whether to stay near the tank or go over to Harris's body.  Littlejohn remembered the first time he'd seen someone he knew get killed.  It made you realize it could be you lying there covered in blood, your eyes open and vacant because a little piece of metal had separated your soul and your body before you even had time to close your eyes.  When death took someone you knew, right while you were watching, it stopped being something you whispered about when you passed a graveyard.  It became real.  Littlejohn watched the way Summers stared at Harris, took a step toward the body, then moved back again.  It was real to Summers now.

"No time," Sgt. Saunders replied.  "A grave detail will see to it later."  He kept looking at Caje.

"But, Sarge -- " Summers tried to protest.

"I said we don't have time," Saunders growled.  "Let's go.  Littlejohn, you take the point instead."

As the tank moved forward again, Chase muttered, "Why make such a fuss?  He was just some dumb zootsuiter, after all."

Ben Summers glared at him, but said nothing.

*****

Caje said maybe four words the rest of the day.  The other men were a little shocked that their sergeant would let Caje just sulk.  Usually their Sarge would shout and growl and yell and snarl until a wayward soldier straightened up.  But since he left Caje alone, so did they.

Even Kirby stopped trying to get Caje to open up.  He moved over by Littlejohn while they were waiting for the tank to smash through another hedge.  "How come Sarge hasn't hollered at Caje for not seein' that sniper?" he asked, keeping his voice low.

"I been wonderin' that myself," Littlejohn muttered back.

"Yeah, if you or me'd done that, he woulda been all over us."

"Maybe he just hasn't figured out what to say."

"Nah, Sarge don't have that problem.  Anything needs sayin', he knows what an' how."

Littlejohn shrugged.  "Guess he has his reasons."

The tank burst through the hedge with a now-familiar crash.  But as the squads moved through the opening it created, they heard something not so familiar:  German words being yelled, screamed, loud enough to be heard over the Rhino's roar.

Sgt. Saunders whipped his Thompson up and headed around the tank, bypassing Littlejohn's point position.  When he reached the front of the tank, he halted, kicked something away from the treads, then motioned the others forward and hollered, "Medic!"

Doc pushed through the others and reached Saunders the same time as Littlejohn.  "Oh God," Doc moaned.

A German soldier lay on the ground, both his legs caught under the tank's treads.  Words poured from his mouth, probably alternating curses and pleas for help, although none of the Americans could understand them.

Lt. Hanley came in from his flank position.  "What's going on, Saunders?  What's all the noise?"  He stopped when he saw Doc kneeling by the German.  "Oh."

"Doc?  How is he?" Sgt. Saunders asked.

"Not as bad as I thought at first.  He's awful lucky it's been rainin' so much.  The mud's so soft, his legs just sorta sank down into it.  Can't tell if they're broken yet, but I don't think they are..."  Doc stopped and shrugged.  "Back that thing off him, an' I'll tell you more."

Once the tank had moved back a little, Doc and Ben Summers pulled the Kraut out of the mud.  Doc felt the man's legs and feet.  When he touched the right foot, the German started screaming again.

"I think his ankle's busted, that's about all," Doc reported.

"Make a litter and we'll take him back," Hanley ordered.  "Might as well stop here and eat something.  We'll push on when he's out of the way."

*****

"I thought this day would never end."  Kirby yawned as the squad walked away from the small farmhouse where an elderly couple resided, seemingly untouched by the war.  The couple had grudgingly agreed to let the Americans park the tank -- and their own weary bodies -- on the edge of their farmyard, but refused to let the soldiers sleep in their tiny barn.

"Come on, Caje, Lieutenant Hanley wants to talk to us about tomorrow."  Saunders and Caje walked away toward the tank, leaving the other four to stake out the squad's sleeping ground for the night.

Once they'd spread out their bedrolls near the barn, though definitely not inside it, Chase wandered off, mumbling something about wanting to find a flashlight so he could read his Edgar Rice Burroughs book before he went to sleep.  Ben Summers and Kirby stood near each other and lit up cigarettes.  Littlejohn pulled a bar of chocolate from his pocket, unwrapped it, and put the entire bar in his mouth.

Summers took a long pull on his cigarette.  "I can't believe it -- two days out here, and both Rosenberg and Harris are dead."

"Happens pretty quick," Kirby agreed.

"And we were being so careful out there today!"

Kirby shrugged.  "You can't see every sniper, every landmine."

"Especially if you're not paying attention," Littlejohn muttered.

"Hey, what's that supposed to mean?  You talkin' about Caje?" Kirby jumped to his buddy's defense.

"If Caje had been keeping a better lookout, maybe he woulda seen that sniper."

"Nuts!  Even you can't see everything!"  Kirby pushed Summers out of his way and curled his hands into fists.  He planted himself in front of Littlejohn and glared up at him.  "You take it back.  Caje did everything he could.  We all get distracted for a minute or two, we all miss stuff."

Littlejohn glared back.  "He was distracted for more than a minute or two.  He nearly tripped over a boulder as big as your head -- he was out of it, Kirby.  And now Harris is dead."

"You take it back right now, or I'll make you!"

"You'll make me?  I'd like to see you try," Littlejohn sneered down at Kirby.

Kirby sank a swift fist in Littlejohn's gut.  With a grunt, the bigger soldier stumbled back a step or two, then swung his own fist, landing it alongside Kirby's jaw.

Kirby reeled backward, regained his balance, and flung himself at Littlejohn with a howl of rage, sending them both tumbling into the mud.

Ben Summers stood back, watching in astonishment as Kirby and Littlejohn rolled over and over, kicking, jabbing, possibly doing a little scratching and hair-pulling when the opportunity presented itself.  He couldn't decide which would be more dangerous -- trying to stop the fight, or getting yelled at by Saunders if he didn't try.

Before Summers had a chance to make up his mind, Caje reappeared.  "What's going on?" he demanded.

"They're fighting," was all Summers could think of to say.

"I can see that.  Why?"

"Um, about you, actually."

"Me?"

"Littlejohn said if you'd been paying attention today,  Harris might still be alive.  Kirby wants him to take it back."  Summers met Caje's gaze.  "I think I agree with Littlejohn."

Caje nodded.  "I do too," he muttered, then walked over to the wrestling match and grabbed Kirby by one ear and the back of his shirt collar.

"Yeow!" Kirby screeched.  He let go of Littlejohn's nose, which he'd been twisting.

Littlejohn took the opportunity to land one more solid punch, slamming his fist into Kirby's stomach.  That'd teach the fool not to attack him.  After he'd saved his life and everything!

"Cut it out, both of you!" Caje yelled.

"Think you're such a big shot now that you're a corporal," snarled Kirby, trying to twist away from Caje's grip.

"I'm not acting corporal anymore.  The lieutenant just bumped me back to PFC."  Caje pushed Kirby away.

"How come?"

"I asked him to."

"What?"  Kirby tried wiping the blood from the corner of his mouth, but it just smeared around.

"Why?"  Littlejohn stood up too, and shook his head.  Kirby'd landed some solid punches.

"Harris, why else?"  Caje turned away.

"You screw up once, you figure that gives you the right to quit, is that it?"  Littlejohn didn't really want to find out what would happen if he made Caje truly angry, but he'd had enough of this moody, touchy, preoccupied attitude.

"I think it shows I shouldn't be giving orders, yeah," Caje shot back.

"You think you're the only guy out here with something on his mind?"

Caje didn't answer, just glared.

Littlejohn glared back.  "Well, you're not.  We all got stuff botherin' us, things we'd rather think about than what we're supposed to be doin'."

"Oh, just because Billy's gone, now you're the expert on what it's like to lose someone?"  Caje's eyes narrowed, and he took a menacing step closer to Littlejohn.

Before Littlejohn could reply, Sgt. Saunders returned.  "What's going on?" he demanded.  He looked around, from Doc checking the bandages on Kirby's wound to Littlejohn and Caje facing off.

Doc answered first.  "Looks like Kirby's pulled a couple stitches loose, Sarge.  Just checkin' to see if he needs to go get patched up again."

"How'd that happen?"  Saunders didn't raise his voice, but he didn't need to.  The fury in his tone was enough.

"He and Littlejohn got into it," Caje announced.  "Seems like somebody can't keep his opinions to himself."

Ben Summers stared at him.  "Hey, a minute ago you told me you agreed with Littlejohn."

"Oh, you got a problem with me too now?" Caje snarled.

"Alright, that's it!"  The sergeant stepped toward Caje, locking eyes with him.  "You listen to me, Caje, and you listen good.  You swore to me that whatever it is that's bothering you would not interfere with what you need to do.  So I left it at that.  But it did interfere -- you weren't paying attention out there today, and you haven't been for a long time.  And I'm telling you for the last time, you had better get through this, and you had better do it fast."

"Sarge, I...I can't."  Caje tried to look away, but Saunders grabbed his shoulders and forced Caje to face him.

"You can and you will.  You need to talk through it, drink through it, fight through it...you do whatever it takes -- but get through it.  You can't just keep walking around in your own private haze."

Caje shook his head.  "It's all my fault," he mumbled.

"What's your fault?  Harris?"

"Harris.  Billy.  Kirby.  Rosenberg.  They're all my fault."

Saunders switched tactics, from accusatory to compassionate.  "How?  How are they your fault?"

"Because I couldn't pay attention, like you said!" Caje cried, his voice cracking.  "If I'd stuck closer to Nelson in the fog, he wouldn't have gotten lost.  We wouldn't have split up to look for him, and Kirby wouldn't have gotten shot.  If I hadn't left Rosenberg with Chase, he'd be alive.  If I'd had my eyes open today, I would've seen that sniper.  They're all my fault!"

Caje pulled away from Saunders, faced the rest of the squad.  "I'm guilty -- you can all see it!  Then what did I do while three of my buddies were lost in the rain?  I spent the night with some woman!  I thought more about myself, my pain, than about any of you!"  He turned back to Saunders.  "That letter I got?  My girl left me for someone else.  That's my fault too -- if I hadn't joined the army, she'd still be with me, I just know it."

Sgt. Saunders shook his head.  "You can't blame yourself for all that, Caje.  Maybe you made a few mistakes, but you're not guilty...their blood isn't on your hands."

"Yes, it is."

"Billy should have stayed closer; those Krauts could have run into Kirby and Littlejohn anyway; Rosenberg died saving Chase, not you."

"What about Harris?  If I'd seen that sniper -- "

"If!  'If' doesn't count, Caje."

Caje shook his head.  "I'm guilty.  I'm to blame."  He turned and walked away into the darkness.

Saunders sighed.  He'd tried blame, he'd tried mercy...and anger...and understanding...what would it take?  How could he persuade Caje to forgive himself?

Lt. Hanley strode up to the group.  "What's all this noise, Saunders?  What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong, Sir."

"Good."  Hanley knew Saunders was lying, but if the sergeant thought he could handle it, he probably could.  "Because I need you to go out again tonight."

"Lieutenant, the men are dead tired.  Can't it wait until morning?"

"No.  That German we captured, the one with the broken ankle -- he's been just full of helpful information.  According to him, there're two enemy machine gun nests about a mile ahead."

"Two machine gun nests?  Isn't that something the tank can handle?"

"He says they have anti-tank missiles.  And that Rhino is too valuable to us to risk it getting destroyed.  If we lose it, we don't get another one.  I don't have to tell you how long it would take us to chase those stragglers through these hedgerows without it."

Saunders nodded.  "Understood.  We'll go out again."

"The more men you have, the more noise you'll make.  The fewer you take, the better -- if you fail, it'll jeopardize our whole mission.  Not to mention every man in this platoon."

"Yes, Sir."  Saunders looked at his men.  "Littlejohn, you'll come with me."

Littlejohn closed his eyes.  He hated these quiet night missions -- he couldn't slip through the underbrush like Kirby and Caje could.  He reopened his eyes.  Caje.

Hanley turned to leave.  "Oh, and Saunders?  Be careful.  You're the only man I can send on something this dangerous, but I'd hate to lose another squad leader."  He nearly smiled.

"Yes, Sir."

As Hanley walked away, Saunders nodded to Littlejohn.  "Better get ready.  I'm not taking anybody else."

"Sarge, I think you should take Caje instead."

"Well, I don't.  I said you're going."

"But Sarge -- "

"Look, I need someone I can count on.  Kirby's not up to it, Summers and Chase are too new, and Caje..."  Saunders shook his head.

Littlejohn moved away from the others and lowered his voice.  "Can I just explain something, Sarge?"

"You've got one minute."

"I know what Caje needs."

"What's that?"

"Well, he's Catholic, right?"

"I guess so."

"I'm pretty sure he is."

"What's that got to do with this?"

"See, I've got a couple cousins who're Catholics..."

"That's nice."  Saunders pulled out a spare ammo clip and checked to be sure it was full.

"Well, when my cousins go to Confession, the priest tells them to say ten 'Hail Mary's or 'Our Father's, things like that."

Sgt. Saunders looked up and nodded.  "Penance."

"Penance."

"You think that going after those machine gun nests -- "

"It's dangerous; it's important."

"You know something, Littlejohn?"  Saunders loosed one of his unexpected smiles.  "If I didn't need you in this squad, I'd recommend you for Chaplain duty."

Littlejohn grinned.  "Thanks, Sarge.  I think."

Saunders called into the darkness, "Caje, get back over here on the double."

*****

"Hey, Littlejohn, I'm here to relieve you," Ben Summers called, careful to identify himself before coming into the sentry's view.

"About time."

"Anything happenin' out there?"

Littlejohn shook his head.  "Not so far."  He'd been standing sentry duty by that little dirt road for so long, he felt like he knew every rut and mud hole like an old friend.

Just then, something crashed through the hedge off to their left.

They both raised their rifles.  "Who goes there?" Littlejohn called out, his deep voice adding extra menace to his words.

"Littlejohn, it's me, Saunders.  We've got a prisoner.  We're coming in."

"Sarge!"  Littlejohn lowered his rifle with relief.  "Thought you'd never get back."

"Yeah."  Saunders pushed through the hedge and out onto the road.  Then he pulled the prisoner through.  Caje followed.

Littlejohn moved to help them.  The prisoner seemed unusually obstinate -- he kept shrugging away from Sgt. Saunders.  And he held one of his arms close to his body, the other arm shielding it.

"Where's Doc?" Saunders asked.

"Probably asleep."  Littlejohn peered at the prisoner.  Either he was getting old fast, or this Kraut was awfully young to be in uniform.  "Want me to wake him?"

"You're on sentry duty."

"No, Summers just relieved me."  Littlejohn jerked a thumb in the direction of his replacement.

"Okay.  Get Doc, and get him fast.  This kid's bleedin' more every minute.  We'll take him over by the tank, get some light for Doc to work in."

"Right."  Littlejohn started to move away, then turned back.  "How'd it go?  Was it a...success?"

Saunders nodded.  "I think so."  Neither of them looked at Caje.

"Right."  Littlejohn hurried away.

*****

"Doc!  Doc, wake up!"  Littlejohn shook the sleeping medic's shoulder.  "Doc!" he whispered again, his voice hoarse with fatigue.

"Huh?  Wha's goin' on?" Doc mumbled.  He blinked a couple times, then sat straight up, nearly bumping heads with Littlejohn.  "Whatcha need?"

"Sarge and Caje brought back a wounded prisoner."

Doc grabbed his bag of supplies and followed Littlejohn toward the tank.  A lantern hung from the side of the tank, spilling a gentle arc of yellow light on the area below, where the prisoner cowered, still clutching his hand.  Caje and Saunders stood above him, guarding.  Littlejohn joined them.

"He'd barely let me touch him, Doc," Saunders explained.  "I tried to bandage it up, but he..." Saunders chuckled a little, but without humor, "he bit me."

"What?"  Doc stopped.  "Where?  Did he draw blood?"

"Nah, I'm fine.  Tried to take a chunk out of my arm, but he didn't even rip my jacket."

"Oh, okay."

"Why, you afraid I'd get rabies?"

"You never know."  Doc approached the crouching German.  "Hey there, fella," he crooned, as if talking to an injured animal.  "Let's take a look at that arm of yours."

The prisoner's eyes opened wider and wider the closer Doc got.

"I ain't gonna hurtcha, now you know that.  See?"  Doc pointed to the red cross on his bag.  "I'm gonna take care of you."  He kept his voice low and soothing, and moved slower and slower.  Finally he stopped near the soldier and crouched down beside him.  "Come on, now, let me take a look at your hand, okay?"  He pulled a roll of white gauze out of his kit.  "See?  I wanna bandage it up."

The soldier shook his head and tried to shrink away.  So Doc reached behind his back and pulled his canteen off his belt.  "You want a drink?"  He unscrewed the lid and took a swig himself.  "It's just water.  Pretty tasty too -- it's from that pump over there.  Want some?"  He held the canteen out toward the prisoner.

The others watched as the prisoner slowly put out his good hand and took the canteen from Doc.  He raised it to his trembling lips, his gaze never straying from Doc's face.  When he'd drunk several swallows, he handed the canteen back.  Doc took it, and set it on the ground beside them.  "How 'bout that hand now, son?"

Oh-so-slowly, Doc reached out his own hand, palm out.  The soldier looked down at it, then at the bloody bundle of bandages wound clumsily around his own hand.  And he began to cry, silent tears streaming down his face and dripping off his hairless chin.  He lifted his wounded arm and set it in Doc's outstretched hand.

Littlejohn hadn't realized he'd been holding his breath.  Now he let it out quietly.

Saunders turned to his men.  "Littlejohn, stay here and guard him.  Caje, go get some sleep.  I'll go find Hanley, have him send the kid back to S2."

"Right."  Caje turned away.

"Good work out there, tonight."  Saunders didn't wait for Caje to acknowledge this, but walked off toward the barn.  Hanley was supposed to be bunked on the other side of it.  But as he neared the barn, the lieutenant rounded the corner.

"Saunders, you're back already?"  He looked vaguely surprised.

"Yes, sir.  We took out the objective, and even captured a prisoner.  Thought S2 might like a word with him."

"You better believe they would.  Good work!  Now, where's this prisoner?"

"Over by the tank.  He's wounded, and Doc's bandaging him up."

"I see."  Hanley headed over to the tank.  When he got close enough to get a good look at the prisoner's face, he stopped.  "My God," he breathed, "he's just a boy."

"Yes, sir."

As soon as Doc finished bandaging the prisoner's hand, Lt. Hanley told Cpl. Kimble to pick a man from his squad and take the prisoner back to Captain Jampel.  As he watched them leave the dark farmyard, Hanley said to Saunders, without turning his head, "Is it just me, or do they look younger all the time?"

"Yeah, they do."

"It's not just the Germans, either -- some of our men aren't really men at all.  Just boys dressed up like killers."

Saunders shook his head.  "They may look like boys, Lieutenant, but they die like men."

"You're thinking of Harris today?"

"Of Harris, of Rosenberg, Nelson, and dozens of others."

"Yeah."  Hanley sighed.  "Get some rest, Saunders.  Morning'll be here all too soon."

"Yes, sir."  They parted, each moving off into the darkness.

Littlejohn stood nearby, forgotten by both of them.  He hadn't meant to eavesdrop, he just hadn't left when Caje did.  And he'd heard everything they'd said.  The Sarge had just counted Billy Nelson among the dead.  Littlejohn felt sick inside.  He stumbled over to the wooden trough where the French farmer watered his horses, and sat down on the edge.  Billy was dead.  Littlejohn realized he'd gradually lost more and more hope, as each day passed and they got no word of Nelson's return.  He just hadn't been willing to admit it.  But hearing Saunders count Billy with Harris and Rosenberg made him realize the truth.  Billy wasn't coming back.

Littlejohn leaned an elbow on his knee and covered his face with one hand.  He rested there, numb, hollow.  He never should have let himself make friends with the kid.  He never should have let the kid tag around behind him, all eager and innocent in the face of so much death and destruction.  It was his fool habit of protecting creatures smaller than himself, that's what it was.  He'd always done that, tried to take care of his younger brother, rescued kittens from trees, saved a puppy from drowning in the pond.  And so he'd tried to shield Billy Nelson from the war.  Or at least help him get through it without getting too badly hurt.

So now it was Littlejohn that hurt.  Because he'd failed.  Billy was gone.  Dead.  And there was nothing he could do to fix that.

*****

The next morning dawned clear and hot.  Littlejohn woke up in a foul mood.  He hadn't slept well, and he didn't care who knew it.  Not like you could sleep really well out in the field most of the time.  But this had been worse than usual.

Caje seemed to be almost happy for the first time in what seemed like several years.  He actually laughed at a joke Ben Summers told.  Littlejohn glared at him.  What right had he to be cheerful?  Billy was dead.  Harris and Rosenberg were dead.  Didn't that matter?

Doc also looked too peaceful to suit Littlejohn.  Sitting there, re-reading his letter from that nurse, smiling now and then.  Littlejohn just wanted to kick him.  The only thing that stopped him was the realization that if he needed Doc's medical services later that day, he'd like to be on good terms with him.

The only person in the squad that seemed to be as sour as Littlejohn was Clive Chase.  But he was never very pleasant.  So Littlejohn glared at him too.

Lt. Hanley called his platoon together.  He was even more irritable than Littlejohn, if that was possible.  He hadn't shaved in about three days, and he looked like all he wanted out of life was a stiff drink and a hot shower.  "Alright, men, listen up," he barked out of one side of his mouth.  "Today will be a lot like yesterday.  So go careful, use the tank for cover when you first go into a field, and watch out for snipers!  I want your eyes and ears open at all times.  I want you alert, and I want you ready for anything."

The lieutenant kept ranting and growling for a few more minutes, but Littlejohn stopped listening.  It was all the same malarkey as usual.  Don't get killed unless you have to.  Save your own skin, and forget about everybody else.  Fine.  From now on, he'd do just that.

They shoved their way another mile or so through hedgerow after hedgerow and field after field.

As the afternoon light waned, Lt. Hanley sent out scouts to find a good place to stop for the night.  They'd sustained no casualties at all that day.  Probably because they hadn't encountered one single German.  Wherever these supposed retreating stragglers were, they sure weren't anywhere Second Platoon had been that day.

The scouts returned and reported an abandoned farm place not far ahead.  It had a large barn, one that could probably hide the tank.  And it had a bombed-out farm house with dead Germans and a few dead Frenchmen in and around it.  It looked like a few Resistance fighters had met up with some of the hated Boshes.  Lt. Hanley thought it sounded like a good enough resting place.

When they reached the edge of the farm yard, Hanley called the platoon together again.  "Be careful what you touch," he warned them.  "The place could be booby-trapped.  I'll send a couple men to check out the barn.  Once it's secure, we'll move in.  But we're not bothering with the house or any of the dead.  So don't go near them."

*****

After another supper of cold rations and lousy coffee, Lt. Hanley called his squad leaders together in the upper floor of the barn.

"Hey, Chase, where you goin'?" Ben Summers asked as Chase headed toward the door.  "You're not goin' over to that farm house, are you? You know that's off limits."

"They didn't find any booby traps in the barn, did they?  If you ask me, they're just paranoid.  I'm going over to that farm house and I'm gonna see if I can pick me up a few souvenirs."  Chase grinned.  It didn't make him look pleasant or happy.  "Can't go home without something to show off, can I?  Prove I really met up with the enemy."

"Boy, you really are an idiot, aren't you," Kirby stated from the little pile of straw he'd scraped together to soften his bedroll.  "You never know what those lousy Krauts'll chose to booby trap.  You know what?  You go on ahead out there.  If you're that stupid, maybe you'll get your head blown off and do us all a favor."  Even the straw didn't soften the hard-packed floor of the barn, and his wounded side protested no matter how he positioned himself.

Chase drew himself up to his full height of five-feet-ten inches and scowled down at Kirby.  "Just keep talking.  When that wound heals up enough so you can fight, I'll make you eat every one of those words."

"Aw, go soak your head," Kirby snorted.  "This wound ain't stoppin' me any.  I took on Littlejohn yesterday, didn't I?  Did pretty well for myself too."

"When I get back, would you like to back up those brave words?" Chase challenged.

"Any time you think you're ready."

"Good."  Chase turned on his heel and stomped out of the barn.

"Boy, how've you guys stood havin' him around all this time?" Kirby asked the squad.  "I'm surprised you ain't ripped him in two by now."

"It's crossed my mind," Caje admitted.  He sat down next to Kirby and leaned against the barn wall.

"Mine too," Littlejohn said from his spot near the door.  The long day had tired him out so much, he didn't have the energy to be disagreeable anymore.  All he wanted to do was sleep.  He was starting to get used to the idea that Billy Nelson was gone for good, like all the others the squad had lost.  Maybe not used to it, exactly, but resigned to the fact that he could do nothing about it.  He just had to keep going, day after day, no matter what.

The squad leaders descended the ladder that led to the hayloft, each joining his own men.  For some reason, Sgt. Saunders was smiling.  They hadn't seen him do that in a long time.  "Guess what," he said, hooking his thumbs in his belt.

Before any of them could ask "what", a loud explosion shook the barn and everyone inside it.

"I knew it!" Kirby yelped.  "I told him!  We all did!"

"Who?" asked Saunders, heading for the barn door.

"Chase."

"Don't tell me he went over to the farm house."  It wasn't a question, so no one answered him.

The soldiers poured out of the barn.  They stopped when they saw the crater where earlier there had been an overturned farm wagon and two dead German soldiers.  Pvt. Chase lay beside the freshly blown hole.  He only had one arm.  A good chunk of his shoulder was gone too.

Doc didn't even have to go near Chase.  He stopped a few feet away and shook his head.

"Alright, everybody back inside," Lt. Hanley barked.  Then he looked around the perimeter he'd established.  "And you sentries!" he called louder, "Go back to your posts where you belong!  You step away from them again, I will throw the book at you."

The sentries melted back into the gathering darkness, and the others returned to the barn.

"We'll get someone from another squad to bury him," Lt. Hanley told Saunders.  "By the way, did you tell them the good news?"

"I was just about to, when -- "  Saunders gestured vaguely toward Chase's body.

"I see."

"What good news?" Kirby asked as Lt. Hanley left them to climb back up to the hayloft.  "We all bein' transferred state-side?"

Littlejohn snorted.  "We wish."

Saunders shook his head.  "When the lieutenant raised Company on the radio, they told him -- " he paused, and looked at Littlejohn.  "They told him a couple of Resistance fighters brought in some of our men today.  Men they'd treated at an underground hospital.  And one of them was Billy."

It seemed to Littlejohn that someone had poured a bucket of cold water over his head and a bottle of cognac down his throat.  "What?" he managed to splutter through his shock.

"Yeah, I guess he's been there all along, since that day we lost him in the woods.  We couldn't find him when we went back, because they'd already picked him up and taken him to this underground hospital."

"Hot dog!" Doc exclaimed.  "Well, is he alright?  Was he wounded?"

"No, he was just sick, I guess.  Anyway, he's meeting us here tomorrow, riding up with some replacements."

Littlejohn slowly smiled.  The smile spread wider and wider until eventually it felt like his face would split in half.  He hadn't lost a little brother after all.

Nobody seemed to remember that Clive Chase had just blown himself to bits.  They were too busy discussing Billy Nelson's miraculous resurrection.

*****

Lt. Hanley got new orders the next morning and promptly shared them with his platoon.  "Battalion is moving up, and they want us to stay here with the tank until they reach us.  I'm to send out squads to check the two side roads that flank us, just make sure they're clear.  They should be, but we need to be sure.  Saunders, you take your squad down the road to the north.  Corporal Kimble, you and your squad take the south road.  Move out in thirty.  The other squads can stay here with the tank, but I've got to head back to Company HQ as soon as those replacements arrive."

Littlejohn frowned.  As the others dispersed, he asked Saunders, "Sarge, what about Billy?  Isn't he supposed to get back today?  Can't we wait for him?"

Saunders nodded.  "It'd be good to have the extra manpower.  I'll find out."  He climbed up the ladder after Hanley, who was returning to his radio in the hayloft.

A few minutes later, Saunders returned.  "We can wait an hour, that's all.  Just hope Billy's back by then; otherwise, we leave without him."

"Well, that's better than just thirty minutes, I guess."  Littlejohn tried to remain hopeful.  He walked out of the barn and looked around.  Someone had buried Chase nearby, as a fresh mound of earth showed.  Littlejohn crossed his arms and leaned against the barn.  He'd just wait here then, where he could see the main road.

Kirby came by.  "Whatcha doin'?" he asked.

"Waiting."

"For Nelson?"

"Yup."

"I see."  Kirby leaned against the barn too and lit up a cigarette.  "Man, checkin' a road oughtta be a nice change after all this hedgerow business, huh?"

"I guess so."

"Listen, uh, about the other day -- I just get riled up sometimes, you know?"

"I know."  Littlejohn nodded.  He knew that was as close to an apology as he'd ever get.  And all he expected.

"Man," Kirby rubbed the side of his jaw.  "You pack a mean wallop, you know that?  I'd hate to tangle with you if you were really sore."

Littlejohn grinned.  "You landed a couple good ones yourself," he admitted.

"Well, 'course."

The sound of a motor in the distance interrupted them.  "Hey, you think that could be -- "  Littlejohn didn't have time to finish the sentence.  An army truck pulled into view, with Billy Nelson's head and shoulders stuck out the passenger side of the cab.  As soon as the truck pulled to a stop, he hopped out.

"Billy!  You're back!" Littlejohn whooped.  "When we couldn't find you in that forest, I just knew you'd gotten yourself captured or something."  He gave Billy the kind of rough bear hug you give your little brother when he wins the soap box derby.

"Yeah," Kirby chimed in, "the Lieutenant said you'd made it.  Hey, find any pretty uh -- Rezistawnce girls while you were out there?"  He grinned and socked Billy's shoulder.

Caje and Doc ran out of the barn.  "I knew you'd be back, Billy," Caje grinned.  "I just knew it."

"Sure is good to have you back," Doc added.

"Thanks, guys."  Billy smiled.

"Say, what took ya so long to get back, anyway?" Kirby asked.

"I had pneumonia," Billy announced importantly.  Littlejohn thought he sounded like he'd survived a plague.

Littlejohn spotted Saunders leaving the barn too.  The sergeant looked over his squad, then grinned as he walked nearer.  Littlejohn hadn't seen Saunders look this happy in, well, maybe ever.  It wasn't every day you regained a squad member you'd given up for dead, after all.

"Glad you made it, Nelson," Saunders greeted Billy.

"Oh, hi, Sarge."

"I hear you were over in Chatelet d'Colombe."

"Yeah.  The Resistance found me and got me over a case of pneumonia."

"Well, we're movin' out in a couple minutes, so get ready, huh?"  Sgt. Saunders returned to the barn.  He passed Ben Summers in the doorway.

"Oh, hey, Billy, you gotta meet somebody," Kirby said.  "We got us a new guy.  Only he ain't that new any more."  He motioned for Summers to join them.

"Hi, I'm Billy Nelson."

"Ben Summers."

"You been here long?"

Summers laughed.  "Forever."

The rest of them laughed too.  "Yeah, it seems that way," Caje agreed.

"So what're we doin'?  Sarge said we're movin' out?" Billy asked.

"Aaaannh, just makin' sure some road is clear so Battalion can move up."  Kirby shrugged.  "Piece of cake after the last few days."

Lt. Hanley left the barn, carrying his radio, and climbed into the truck.  "Good to have you back, Nelson!" he called as the truck rolled away.

Sgt. Saunders rejoined them.  "Alright, let's go.  Saddle up."  They followed the truck to the main road, then branched off to the north.

*****

The road was clear.  All they found during a whole day's marching were an abandoned pitchfork and a German motorcycle stuck in the mud.  After checking it very carefully for booby traps, they moved the motorcycle off the road so it wouldn't hold up Battalion's advance.

As the sun sank near the horizon, Saunders turned his squad around.  "We'll head back to the barn for the night," he told them.  "Caje, why don't you take the point now?  Summers has had enough practice for a while."

"Sure, Sarge."  Caje loped ahead and sent Summers back to the others.  They walked along one side of the road, just in case they needed to dive off to the side for cover.  You never knew when a stray plane might spot you and decide to make a strafing run.  Or when some Kraut scouting party might find you.  The road looked clear, but you had to be cautious anyway.

Ben Summers marched in front of Sgt. Saunders, and a little to his left.  He'd started getting the hang of the whole soldier thing, and the sergeant told him so.  "You're turning into regular Army, Summers," he said.

"You think so?"  Summers turned to look at his sergeant, walking sort of sideways.  "Man, I thought I'd never get the hang of this."  He took another step, and the world exploded.

The rest of the squad threw themselves to the dirt.  They covered their heads with their hands, keeping their helmets firmly in place, as bits of dirt and debris splattered them.

Littlejohn opened his eyes and tried to peer through the dusty air.  He lowered his hands and saw that they were covered with blood, and something else too.  He shook them, and bits of the something else flew off.  Oh dear God, it was flesh.  He looked around, saw Billy coughing and wiping the dirt from his face.  Doc pushed himself up and reached for his medic's bag, which had landed several feet away from him.  Kirby moaned and pressed a hand to his side, his wound probably torn open again.  Caje came running back from the point.

Littlejohn blinked.  Where was Ben Summers?  He didn't seem to be anywhere around anymore.  He should be there by Sgt. Saunders.  Wait a minute... Saunders wasn't moving.  Littlejohn stared at the blood-soaked uniform of his squad leader.  "Sarge?" he rasped out, fear making his voice shake.  "Sarge!"

 

 end

To find out what happens next, read "Lost" and then "Intermission"

 

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