(1999) 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.

  

"The Escapist"

by White Queen

 

  

"Hit the dirt!" yelled Sgt. Saunders as a Kraut bomb hurtled screeching toward his squad.  He and the five men following him instinctively threw themselves to the ground.  The bomb exploded off to their right, in the dense forest that all but surrounded the weary soldiers. 

Once the dust and debris settled, the group struggled to their feet and brushed off their already dirty clothes.  Caje retrieved his helmet while Kirby checked out his B.A.R. to make sure he hadn't damaged it.  He knew, as did all the men, that taking care of his weapon was just as important as looking after himself; when it came right down to it, their lives depended on their weapons just as much as on their leaders.  Billy and Littlejohn quietly reminded each other how lucky they were that Saunders had decided to take the road and not skulk in the woods on either side.  Doc looked around the scattered men to make sure none had been hit by shrapnel or flying debris.

Saunders unobtrusively looked at Doc to see if the squad had sustained any injuries.  When he got a thumbs-up from Doc, Saunders settled his camo helmet firmly on his head and tried not to think about how many close calls this made for him.  "All right, saddle up," he commanded in a voice just loud enough to be heard by all his followers, but not by anyone a few more feet away.

Falling into a loose, fluid formation, the first squad of King Company's second platoon resumed their journey along the hot and dusty French country road.  It didn't take long for Kirby's uppermost worries to surface.  "Sarge, when do you think we'll get there?"

Saunders ignored him, his eyes scanning the area ahead.

"How much longer?" persisted Kirby, "It's awful hot out here.  What I wouldn't give to be at camp, sittin' in the shade an' drinkin' some nice cool -- something."

Still Saunders seemed oblivious to Kirby's questions.  He walked along at an easy pace, his submachine gun tucked familiarly under one arm, his finger ever covering the trigger, ready for action.

When his sergeant gave no sign of answering, Kirby gave up his inquiries and fell back into step with Caje.  "Man, it's hot.  I sure wish we'd already got to wherever-it-is-we're-going.  I'm gettin' awful tired of all this walkin' around.  Maybe we could take a break."  Kirby winked at Caje and looked hopefully toward the sergeant.

"Aw, quit your bellyachin', Kirby.  I thought you wanted to get there as soon as you could, and now you want to take a break?"  Caje raised an eyebrow, giving himself a look of jaunty amusement.

"A break wouldn't hurt," Kirby answered, glowering at the figure ahead that pushed on relentlessly.

Finally Saunders spoke.  "Lieutenant Hanley expects us to be at his CP by 1600 hours."  While his words were noncommittal, his tone left no room for protestation.

Kirby sighed, rolled his eyes, and resigned himself to a fate of plodding along for hours.

At the end of the small parade, Doc walked quietly by himself, contemplating the possible assignments that lay in store for the squad.  A low humming caught his attention, and he focused all his energy on identifying the sound.  It didn't take long.  Trotting past his comrades, Doc made his way to Saunders.  "Sarge," he said urgently, "sounds like there're some trucks behind us."

Saunders nodded in acknowledgement, then turned around.  He motioned for the squad to follow him into the brush and trees lining the road. 

Each man held his weapon ready, wondering what would appear on the twisting road before them.  A convoy of German ammunition?  Kraut reinforcements?  A bunch of enemy tanks?

The rumbling came closer, and the ground under the GIs vibrated subtly.  As the first vehicle rolled into sight, a collective prayer of relief ascended from Saunders and his men.  The camo helmet popped up, its wearer still wary about leaving his cover.  But there was no mistaking the bright white star emblazoned on the sides of the four trucks wending their way through the woods.  Saunders rose to his full height, signaling his men to do the same.  They poured out onto the road, and the little convoy halted when it saw them. 

"Hey, Sergeant, you and your men headed to Hanley's CP?" called the driver of the lead truck.

"Sure are," Saunders replied, thumbing his helmet back from his eyes.

"Want a ride?"

Saunders looked around at his men and grinned unexpectedly.  "Whaddaya think?" he asked almost playfully.

"Yeah!" the squad cheered as one.

"Hop in back," the driver invited.

"Man, this is the life," remarked Kirby as he settled gratefully onto the floor of one of the trucks. 

"You ain't just a-whistlin' 'Dixie'," agreed Billy, plopping down beside Littlejohn.

 

***

 

"Thanks for the lift."  Saunders shook hands with the driver as he climbed down from the cab.

"You bet," the driver replied as he lifted his foot from the brake and slowly let the truck roll forward.

His squad clustered around him once more, Sgt. Saunders scanned the demolished town for any clue as to which basement Lt. Hanley had picked for his CP.  Movement near one of the buildings caught his eye, and he watched a young soldier hurry into view.  "Hey, Soldier," Saunders called, "can you tell me where to find Lieutenant Hanley?"  Confident that now he would be directed to his destination, Saunders absently wiped his nose with the back of his hand.

Much to the astonishment of the first squad, the soldier glanced at the ragged little bunch and simply continued on his way.

Saunders' eyebrows shot up.  With a swiftness his casual stance had belied, he crossed the rutted street and blocked the insubordinate soldier's path.  "I asked you a question, Private," Saunders stated quietly.

The private looked Saunders up and down, taking in the muddy uniform riddled with rips and stained with blood.  "Look, Sergeant," the private suggested in a gratingly patronizing voice, "why don't you go get some rest and let me get on with my work."

He started to brush past Saunders, only to find himself held back by a grimy hand that gripped his arm authoritatively.

"Private," the sergeant spat out, "just answer my question before you get in such a hurry."

The private's bravado disintegrated.  "Third house on the right, in the basement," he replied sullenly.

Saunders relinquished his hold, turned on his heel, and started back to his men.

Kirby found it physically impossible to hide his grin as the quelled private quickly slunk out of sight.  "Man-oh-man," he snorted gleefully to his buddies, "he sure found out what happens when you lock horns with the Sarge."

"Get your laughs while you can, Kirby," Caje warned, "The Sarge isn't goin' to be too happy right now."

As Caje predicted, Saunders' mood had soured.  "Okay, let's go," he curtly ordered.  The squad silently followed their leader to what was left of the third house on the right side of the street.  Only one wall and a few random timbers remained of the upper stories.  The still-intact basement was obviously why Hanley had chosen it as his new headquarters.  Scavengers had found a few tables and chairs to furnish the medium-sized room.

Saunders gestured for his men to stay above ground as he descended the rickety wooden staircase.  Lt. Hanley was bent over the radio trying to explain his situation to Captain Jampel.  Saunders smoked a cigarette patiently at the foot of the stairs until his superior officer was finished arguing with his superior officer.  Finally Hanley slapped the radio in disgust as he ended the discussion with a curt, "Yes, sir.  King Two out."  He sighed wearily, then his brain seemed to acknowledge the fact that he wasn't alone.

"Well, Saunders, what's your report?"  Hanley asked wearily as he perched on the edge of the radio table.  The strain of command became visible as the young lieutenant momentarily let down his guarded aloofness and reached almost eagerly for the cigarette the sergeant silently offered.  Saunders zipped his Zippo and lit the thin white stick dangling from his friend's lips. 

The little ritual completed, Saunders removed his helmet and plunked it onto an adjacent table.  "The roads are clear, sir, but we encountered quite a bit of enemy shelling in this sector," he said, pointing to the appropriate places on the map spread out on the table.

Hanley leaned over and squinted at the places Sgt. Saunders was indicating.  "We had reports that the area was free from bombardment just a few hours ago," he objected mildly.

"Look, Lieutenant, all I know is, we encountered shelling in this sector.  Maybe it was quiet earlier, but it wasn't while we were out there."

"I'm not disputing your word, Saunders," Hanley snapped.

The sergeant stiffened, the camaraderie gone from his expression.  "Yes, sir."

Hanley rubbed a thin hand across his forehead, disgusted at his own outburst.  "Anything else?"

"No, sir.  Any further orders?"

Hanley sensed his friend seal up, and it twisted his gut to know that a little thing like metal bars on a collar could separate them.  "Yeah.  I've got a kind of temporary replacement for you.  A kid straight from Repple Depple.  You're the only... squad I trust him with."

"Thanks a lot, Lieutenant."  Saunders picked up his helmet.

"Look, watch this one, okay?  He's a grade-A genius with a photographic memory, and a wizard with tactics.  But he's a little short on common sense, so look out for him.  I need you to get him to Captain Jampel."  Hanley almost added, "Please?"

"You're the one givin' the orders."  Helmet in hand and swagger in place, Saunders prepared to leave the temporary CP.

"Yeah, I am."  Hanley sighed.  "But you know I didn't ask to be."

"I know.  But I ain't nursin' no child prodigy.  What's his name?"

"Private Puling.  I told him to report to you."

"Okay."  Saunders started up the stairs. 

"Oh, and Saunders?"

"Yeah?"  The sergeant turned half around and waited on the stairs.

"Puling is carrying important information.  You've got to get him to Jampel's HQ so he can give his report.  If he doesn't get there every man in the division could be wiped out.  Understood?"

"Understood."  The sergeant turned and took the stairs up two at a time.

Once back above ground, Saunders looked around for his squad, which seemed to have vanished.  As he turned in a circle, scanning the area, he came face-to-face with the sullen private he had encountered earlier.  In no mood to talk with anyone, much less this particular soldier, Saunders glared at him and started to walk off.

"Hey, Sergeant," the private said to the retreating figure, "your name doesn't happen to be Saunders, does it?"

Stopped in his tracks, Saunders felt an invisible weight settle on his shoulders.  "Don't tell me," he said, turning around mechanically.  "You're Puling, right?"

"So glad to have found you, Sergeant," Private Puling replied with a smirk.

 

***

 

The members of the squad managed to hide their amusement as Puling introduced himself to them.  Saunders gave them a few minutes to get acquainted...or was he giving himself a few minutes to compose himself?  While the men were talking, he leaned up against a grimy grey brick wall and consulted his map.  After making sure he knew where he was leading his men, he stuffed the oft-folded map into his jacket and shouldered his Thompson.  "Okay, saddle up," he ordered.

His squad knew better than to waste any time falling into a semi-straight line behind their leader.  They followed him out of the ruined town with minimal talking among themselves.  Once out in the open country, Saunders ordered Caje to take the point and Kirby to keep an eye on their rear. 

With the front and rear of the squad protected, Saunders turned his thoughts to the task ahead.  Hanley's CP was isolated in enemy territory, thanks to a Kraut push the day before.  Getting back to Captain Jampel's position could be a little tricky.  Saunders cursed his luck at having to lead his squad through wide, unprotected fields instead of the safer Normandy woods.  But there was no getting around the fields unless they wanted to waste half a day detouring. 

Caje appeared suddenly.  "Sergeant," he related breathlessly, "The whole area over that hill is crawling with Krauts!"

"Any way around them?"

"None that I could see."

"Okay."  Sergeant Saunders motioned for his men to surround him on the ground as he dropped to the earth.  "There're a bunch of Krauts up ahead.  Caje, you and the others stay here.  Puling, you and I are goin' up there to check this thing out."

Kirby tugged on Saunders' sleeve.  Quietly he asked, "Sarge, why him?  Let one of us go with you instead.  If you get in trouble or anything--"

"That's why I'm takin' him with me.  I don't want you stuck with him if there's trouble.  I can take care of him if anything happens."  His tone left no room for argument, and Kirby frowned in silence.

"Okay, Puling, let's head out."  Saunders and Puling crawled cautiously up the little ridge as Caje led the others in retreating a safe distance and hiding in the tall grain.  Bringing out his field glasses, Saunders scrutinized the German positions for any way around them.  Private Puling yawned and acted as bored as possible without actually falling asleep.  The sergeant ignored him, concerned more with the possible route around the enemy that he had found. 

Stuffing his field glasses back inside his coat, Saunders leaned over and whispered, "Follow me," in Puling's ear.  Then he crawled off to the right.  He had spotted a low culvert partially concealed by brush that just might enable the squad to bypass the Krauts and continue on their way to Captain Jampel's HQ. 

Private Puling rolled his eyes and followed Sergeant Saunders as he crawled cautiously toward the culvert.  The tall grain concealed them most of the way.  There was a distance of only about three feet from the edge of the field to the dry concrete ditch.  Quickly the two crossed the open space, landing safely in the deep culvert.

Up on top of the hill, the other men waited tensely for their leader to return.  Ten minutes passed, and the men began to get jittery.  Billy and Littlejohn kept whispering to each other, and nothing Caje said or threatened to do could get them to stop.

Angry shouting and gunfire from the direction of the German camp shattered the uneasy silence.  Leaving caution on the ground behind them, the squad swarmed up the hill.  Looking down, they saw a multitude of Krauts rushing to what seemed to be a ditch off to one side.  Some of the other Germans were fanning out, obviously searching for something.  Saunders and Puling were undetectable to the squad's anxious eyes.

As much as Caje wanted to rush the encampment, to see what had become of Saunders, he had been left in charge.  It was up to him to protect what was left of the squad.  Tersely he said, "We have to go back.  They're looking for others."

"No way, we can't just leave the Sarge down there!  What if he's hurt?" Billy protested loyally.

"There's too many of them.  Saunders left me in charge, so that's an order."

Reluctantly, the squad retraced the path they had made through the grain only a short time earlier.  Evidently, the German soldiers weren't trying very hard to find any Americans, because no one followed the desperate little group as they struggled back through the grain to the town.  All five of them poured down the steps into Hanley's basement CP, startling him from the quick nap he was snatching.

Quickly Caje related what had happened, with details sporadically added by the others.

When Caje had finished, Kirby summed all their feelings up by asking, "How're we goin' to rescue him?"

"Rescue?" Hanley threw back, eyebrows raised.

"Well, sure, I mean, you can't just leave him -- them to the Krauts!" Kirby insisted.

"Look, Kirby," Hanley barked, "For all we know, the two of them could be dead."

 

***

 

Four German soldiers pointed their Schmeissers directly at the two dusty Americans crouched in the abandoned culvert.  "Drop your weapons!" shouted a Kraut sergeant in guttural English.

Disgustedly, Saunders dropped his Thompson and raised his hands above his bare head.  Private Puling had already discarded his rifle, although he had retained his helmet.  Saunders' helmet rested in the dirt a few feet away, where it had fallen when the sergeant tripped on a large crack in the concrete while running all hunched over.  If it hadn't been for that crack, obscured by debris and the remains of last year's harvest, the two Americans might have made it past the Germans.

Saunders was furious with himself.  He should have been more careful, should have realized the culvert would be in poor condition.  Then he could have gotten Puling safely around the Germans, gone back, and brought the rest of his squad through too.  But no, he had to trip on the broken concrete, falling on his face with a clatter. 

The Krauts hauled the two Americans out of the ditch and shoved them along to what was apparently the commanding officer's jeep.  The Americans gave them no resistance, evidently deciding it was useless to try an escape with that many Germans around.  There appeared to be an entire company roving through the open valley. 

Looking around as he waited by the Kraut jeep, Saunders tried to assess the situation.  The best time to escape is supposed to be when you've just been captured, but that didn't appear to apply this time.  Obviously, these Germans were part of the force that had pushed the Allied troops back yesterday, cutting Hanley's command post off from the rest of the forces. 

Saunders' speculations were terminated by the appearance of an enemy captain.  After exchanging a few words with the sergeant who had captured the Americans, the captain climbed into his jeep and drove off down the valley. 

Saunders and Puling were marched to a camouflaged Kraut truck and forced into its back.  The Germans hastily tied them up with some rough rope, then closed up the truck.  The two prisoners could hear the engine turn over, and the truck floor beneath them began to quiver.  Then began a long and bumpy journey; in the back of the truck the Americans were tossed around like grains of salt in a salt shaker.  Although they tried to remain in relatively stable positions, the rough terrain they were covering made that impossible.

Finally the truck slowed, then stopped completely.  Saunders and Puling were hauled bodily out of the truck and dragged to an abandoned barn that had evidently been commandeered to be a temporary POW camp.  Three armed guards marched around the sturdy wooden barn, and others were stationed in the loft and at strategic points all around. 

The captives were shoved into a box stall inside the barn.  A soldier untied them while two others stood guard.  Then the stall door slammed shut and a heavy bar thunked across it on the outside.

Saunders rubbed his chaffed wrists absently as he restlessly paced their prison.  It was actually quite roomy, since it was designed to be comfortable for a horse.  Saunders pried at the walls, pushed against the thick glass window, and generally looked for any means of escape.  Nothing terribly promising presented itself, although some of the boards in one inside wall wiggled a bit.

Puling plopped onto the dirt floor, hugged his knees to his chest, and began humming to himself.

Finally the sergeant stopped his perusal of the cell.  The private's humming was beginning to get to him.  Saunders stood staring down at the skinny little figure emitting the offending noise.  Puling's eyes were closed, his concentration focused on the tune he was humming.

"Okay," Saunders said evenly after being ignored for over a minute, "we need to talk, Private."

The eyes stayed closed, but the humming stopped.

"We need to get out of here, and we need to get out soon.  Now, are you gonna work with me on this, or are you gonna just sit there?"

"What's wrong, Sergeant?" Puling replied blandly, eyes still shut.  "Don't you like Chopin?"

Saunders made a snuffing noise.

"You know, Sergeant, I'll bet you're the type who thinks 'Roll Me Over in the Clover' is a classic, and The Flying Tigers should win all the Oscars.  Am I right?"

Saunders was tired, worried, and just a tad scared, although he would never admit to being any of the three.  "Just what are you saying, Private?" he snapped, unconsciously assuming a menacing stance.  Arms crossed, feet planted far apart, he looked like a statue of challenged authority.

Puling glanced up lazily.  "Look, Sergeant, it's hard for me to respect anyone so uncultured as you obviously are, much less seriously consider taking orders from them.  So why don't you just busy yourself figuring a way out of here, hmm?"

"Private!  If you think you can just sit there in your own personal world humming your little tunes, you're wrong!  You can't block out the war and everyone around you forever, and the sooner you figure that out, the better!  Do you read me?"

"Sergeant, I resent all this pointless hollering.  I'm an important person, and you know it!  If I don't get to Captain Jampel and get to him soon, there won't be an American left breathing in this sector."

"Puling, I don't care if you're carrying Hitler's plans for the entire war in that little head of yours.  When I give you an order, you obey me whether you like it or not.  That's the way it works.  If you don't learn this pretty darn quick, I won't be the only one giving you trouble."

They carried out the entire exchange barely above a whisper.  Saunders knew that the less the Krauts knew, the better.  Their conversation was abruptly terminated by the sound of their cell door being unbarred.  Both men focused on the door as it slowly slid open.  Two armed Germans appeared in the space.  One pointed his rifle at Saunders and ordered, "Come now."

Saunders walked obediently out the door, which thudded shut behind him.  Alone in the stall, Puling closed his eyes and picked up his song once more.

 

***

 

Caje led Hanley and the squad to the hill where they had last seen Sgt. Saunders and Pvt. Puling.  As they lay on their bellies peering down at the Germans below, it wasn't hard for the men to figure out what had happened. 

Hanley was the first to whisper, "They must have seen the Krauts and decided to try to bypass them through that ditch off to the right.  All we can hope is that the Germans took them prisoner instead of simply shooting them on the spot."

Kirby demanded, "Now what, Lieutenant?"

"We'll wait until dark, then slip down and see what we can find."

The six Americans hid in the long grass and readied themselves for the wait.  Hanley tried to figure out what exactly was happening below.  Knowing Saunders as he did, Hanley felt fairly sure that -- assuming he was still alive -- the sergeant would make every effort to escape and complete his mission.  The young lieutenant sighed in frustration.  Of course Saunders would try everything in his power to protect the information Puling was carrying.  He knew how important it was.  Hanley just hoped Saunders wouldn't try anything really stupid and get himself killed.  Assuming he was still alive....

 

***

 

Back in the barn, Puling noticed it growing dark.  How long had that bossy sergeant been gone?  Somehow, Puling had managed to lose track of time.  Oh well, he was used to that.

The door opened once more, and the battered form of Sgt. Saunders was dumped onto the dirt floor inside the cell.  The door slammed shut again, and the footsteps of the guards softly echoed down the corridor.

Puling stared in disgusted horror at the body lying in front of the door.  At the sight of the blood-matted hair and lifeless position of the body, Puling felt sure he was going to be sick.  One hand protecting his mouth and nose, he cautiously approached the sprawled figure.  Was it alive?

A throaty moan announced that the sergeant was indeed alive, thought not in the greatest shape.  His eyelids quivered, then opened slowly.  Puling let out a sigh of relief.  "I was afraid you were dead, Sergeant.  And if you were dead, how would we get out of here?"

Through the pulsating pain behind his eyes, Saunders heard the sarcasm in Puling's words.  Would this kid never quit?  "Listen, give me some water, huh?"  Saunders pleaded hoarsely.

"Sorry to disappoint you, Sergeant, but we don't have any water.  Unless those German--"

Saunders stopped listening.  It was too much effort, and who cared what that sniveling little brat said, anyway?  Not Sergeant Saunders.  No sir.  All he wanted was some water, and maybe some sleep.  Sleep, yeah, that would be nice....

 

What'd you say, Mom?  No, I don't want another cookie.  Cleanin' out the bowl filled me up, and I've tested all the batches.  Really, I'm full!   Okay, okay, one more.  Say, can I have some milk too?

 

Hey, bartender, set 'em up again!  Listen, I don't want to see my buddies' glasses empty until all this money here is gone.  Got it?

 

Man, horses have all the luck.  Drinkin' out of the streams like that.  Sure wish our guide would let us drink outta the stream too.  That water looks so cold…

 

Saunders awoke to a completely darkened room.  It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.  To his relief, his headache was gone -- well, mostly gone, anyway.  As he blinked to clear the fuzziness from his eyes, he struggled to remember where he was.  Oh yeah, Private Puling... Krauts... a barn... a captain with questions....

"Are you awake, Sergeant?"

The voice brought part of the headache back, but it was bearable now.  "Yeah," Saunders replied, half wishing and half praying to be anywhere but within fifty miles of that guy.

"We've got water now.  Would you like some?"

Saunders didn't wait to wonder where the water came from, he just concentrated on raising himself to a sitting position.  There, that felt more human.  "Yeah.  Could you -- could you bring some here?"

"Why, sure."

Saunders heard some scuffling, a brief plashing sound, then more scuffling.  Soon a hand touched his arm. 

"Oh, there you are, Sergeant.  I can't see anything in here.  Give me your hand, and I'll give you the cup."

Saunders obeyed, and felt a moist porcelain cup placed carefully in his hand.  Eagerly, he felt the liquid fill his mouth, slide down his throat.  When the cup was empty, he handed it back to Puling, mutely pleading for more.  Instead, Puling applied a wet cloth to the sergeant's head, gently washing the abrasions inflicted by the German interrogators. 

"I looked you over while you were asleep, as well as I could since you were sorta lying on your face.  I don't think you're seriously injured, just scratched up a bit."  Puling stopped his swabbing and moved away in the darkness.

"I know.  How long was I out, huh?"

"I'm not sure.  I lost track of time again.  Would you like some more water?"

"Yeah."  Maybe the kid wasn't all bad.  Maybe he'd had some sense knocked into him by seeing the reality of war, what could happen to him, how helpless they were in the hands of their captors.  "Listen, Puling, they'll probably come for you in the morning.  Don't give them any information."

"But what if they...frankly, Sergeant, I'm not very good with physical pain."

There was a big surprise.  Saunders accepted the second cup of water and drank it silently. 

"Have you figured out any way for us to get out of here yet?"

"Private!  I--" Saunders stopped.  What was the use?  Just when you feel you're getting somewhere with this kid, he dumps another load of his stupidity on you.  Or was it more than stupidity?  Maybe it was a lack of caring -- caring about what happened to the people around him.  Tough as Saunders was, he could never stop caring, although sometimes he berated himself for it. Even this kid -- Saunders couldn't help hoping he'd make it.  Puling might be a selfish brat, but he deserved a chance too, if only to make something better of himself.

 

***

 

Eyes adjusted to the gloom, Lieutenant Hanley and the squad slowly crept down toward the German camp.  Stealthily they clambered into the deep culvert off to the right, and began crawling through it on their bellies.  The lieutenant stayed in the lead, trusting no one else with the task.  Hanley admitted to himself that the possibility of finding two corpses in the ditch was very real.  If they did come upon the bodies of Saunders and Puling, he wanted to be the one to make the discovery.

The men kept silent as they crawled through the culvert.  The only sounds were the whispering of the wind in the tall grain overhead and the rustle of dead foliage under the soldiers.  Inside each man's head, however, a thousand ideas and fears chased each other in an effort to become the main thought.  

Abruptly, Hanley stopped crawling, and those behind him stopped as well.  Hanley had touched something that felt all-too-familiar.  A helmet covered with nylon. A helmet he'd last seen in the hand of a friend during an argument.  Now Hanley began to crawl forward again at a faster pace.  In no time, they reached the end of the culvert.  Hanley silently uttered a prayer of relief.  There had been no bodies in the ditch, only the camouflage helmet. 

The men grouped around Hanley at the edge of the culvert where it met a little dried-up stream bed. 

"Hey Lieutenant, what'd you find?"  Kirby whispered excitedly, seeing that Hanley held a dark object.

"It's Saunders' helmet.  I found it a little way back."

"Hey!" Billy chimed in, "That means the Sarge could still be alive!  I mean, we didn't find...anyway...." His voice trailed off as Littlejohn elbowed him sharply. 

Caje had been peering up over the edge of the ditch.  Now he rejoined the group and quietly announced, "I think this is some sort of command center.  Looks like a bunch of brass and their devotees."

"Think we could sneak in and extract a little information?" Hanley asked, eyes narrowed in thought.

Caje grinned.  "Easily.  They don't even have very many guards."

Hanley peered over the edge of the ditch at the tents and vehicles spread across the field.  Ducking back down, he told his men to follow him, then carefully began leading them through the empty stream bed.

 

***

 

Saunders was worried.  Less than an hour after dawn, two Kraut soldiers had taken Puling from the cell.  Based on his own experiences with the Germans only hours earlier, Saunders didn't have much hope of Puling holding out—not against what these Krauts were dishing up.  Not that they were Gestapo or SS or anything, just brutal.  And they had to have been gone for over an hour now.

A noise outside interrupted his speculations.  What had he heard?  Saunders groggily focused his attention on the sounds around him.  A rat in the rafters.  A guard marching outside.  An American rifle!  There was no mistaking the sound this time. 

Hanley and Caje led the attack, firing at random as they ran toward the barn.  Kirby, Littlejohn, and Billy supported them from the sides and rear, advancing more slowly and aiming more carefully.

The surprise was effective.  Evidently the Germans had figured they were far enough back in their own territory to cease worrying about attack.  The guards, focused on keeping prisoners in, weren't prepared to keep enemies out.  Their positions around the makeshift prison camp were carelessly exposed, and it wasn't hard for the Americans to pick them off.

Inside his cell, Saunders tried desperately to see out the window, but the grime and filth coated the outside of the glass so thickly he could only see moving shadows.  The firing outside sounded intense, and the suspense was driving him crazy.  Who was attacking?  More importantly, how was the attack going?  The sounds of gunfire, strangled cries, and more gunfire filled his head. 

Somehow, above the din, he heard footsteps outside the stall.  Instinct propelled him to the wall beside the door.  As it scraped open, he grabbed the German that stepped inside.  Snatching the Kraut's knife, Saunders dispatched the surprised soldier with a quickly efficient stab in the back.  Pausing only to pick up the dead guard's rifle, Saunders bolted out into the hallway. 

It wasn't too hard to remember where he'd been taken the day before; odds were that was where Puling was.  If the Krauts hadn't killed him when the first shots were fired, that is.  With all the noise coming from outside, it was easy for Saunders to sneak along the hallway, ease the door to the interrogation room open, and kill the Germans inside without them even knowing he was coming. 

Puling sat on a chair in the middle of the room, hands tied behind him.  His head drooped, and he made no movement when his tormenters were executed. 

Sgt. Saunders approached the motionless figure, absently aware that the noise outside was decreasing.  He lowered the German rifle and touched Puling's shoulder. 

Puling's head moved a little, then he slowly looked up at Saunders.  "Sergeant?" he barely whispered.

"Yeah.  We're getting out of here.  You okay?"

"Took you long enough."  The head dropped again. 

Saunders weighed his options.  Should he put down his rifle and carry Puling out of here?  Or should he barricade himself in the room until the attackers came to his rescue? 

Littlejohn solved his squad leader's dilemma by bursting into the room.  "Sarge!  You're alive!"

"Littlejohn!"  Saunders let it go at that.  It was all he could say.  The surprise of realizing that his own men were the ones deep in enemy territory sapped the last of his strength.  The beatings of the day before, lack of food and sleep, combined with the shock of seeing one of his own men -- it was too much.  The rifle slipped from his hands, and Saunders felt the world start to twirl. 

 

***

 

"Well, Sergeant, it's good to know you're still alive."

That voice...the softened words of a slightly Southern dialect...he recognized that voice.  Saunders slowly opened his eyes.  "Doc?"

"Shh now, don't try talkin' too much.  Near as I can tell, you've got a concussion."  The medic smiled down at the figure stretched out on the ground.  "Had me worried for a while there, Sergeant."

"Me too."  Saunders closed his eyes again.

He could hear Doc talking again, raising his voice like he was calling someone.  "Hey, Lieutenant, he's awake.  But don't talk to him too much.  He's got a concussion.  We need to get him back to an aid station."  Doc's voice was firm, leaving no room for the lieutenant to negotiate.

"Hello, Saunders.  How're you feeling?" 

 "Where'd you come from?"  Saunders squinted at the dark, unshaven man squatting next to him.

"Just passing through, thought I'd stop in."

Saunders tried to grin.

"Listen, we're gonna get you to a hospital soon."

"Lieutenant, we're behind enemy lines."

"Not anymore.  We've retaken the area.  Long story, Sergeant, you can ask me later.  The jeep will be here soon to take you out.  Just rest until then."

"How's Puling?"

"Fine, I think.  He'll be going straight to Jampel."

"Where is he?" Puling okay?  He'd seemed half-dead back in that room.  Or had Saunders been half-dead?  Details were a little fuzzy.

"I'm right here, Sergeant."  Puling scowled.

"Oh.  Can you answer me one thing, Private?"  Saunders felt the hair on the back of his neck rise.  This guy was more annoying than--

"What?"

"How did you manage to survive the interrogation?  You told me you were...don't deal well with pain."

"Oh.  Well, you see, Sergeant, I just went into what you so nicely termed 'my own little world.'  I took my mind off what was happening to me and just sent it somewhere else."

Saunders' jaw tightened.

"Get going, Puling," Hanley ordered.

"Sure thing, Lieutenant."  Puling stood up and swaggered over to the jeep waiting to take him to Captain Jampel's headquarters. 

"I guess it takes all kinds, Saunders."  Hanley pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and gave it to his friend.  Then he stood up and went to talk to the driver of Puling's jeep.

"It takes all kinds?" Saunders murmured, taking a deep drag on the cigarette and staring up at the cloudy Normandy sky.  He watched as the smoke he exhaled spiraled up and blended into the grey clouds.  "Yeah, maybe it does.  Maybe."

 end

 

 

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