(2014) 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:  This story follows the events of The Better Part of Valor

 

"The Beaten Way of Friendship"

by White Queen

 

Sgt. Saunders hurried toward the edge of the village, his Thompson slung over one shoulder.  Sure, he was missing hot chow, but ever since Sgt. Johansson had casually mentioned they'd found a bathhouse with working showers, all Saunders could think about was clean water and plenty of it.  Not rain.  Not a river.  Not a quick wash out of your helmet, like Braddock had almost managed earlier.  A shower.  And with most of the camp's soldiers lining up for chow right now, Saunders might not even have to wait long in line at the bath house.

When Hanley got back with the others, Saunders would have to thank him for leaving him behind.  While the lieutenant was off rescuing that downed pilot, Saunders would be enjoying the shower, the hot chow, and catching up on all that sleep he never got whenever he was out on the line.

At least, that's what Saunders told himself.  Be glad for the rest.  Be glad Hanley walked off with most of your squad without a hint of why he'd left Saunders behind.  Don't question it.  And above all, don't imagine what Hanley, Caje, Braddock, and Fergus were up against.  Don't wonder how many of them will return. 

The bath house stood just outside town, built right up against a small hill.  Saunders was surprised to find no line of soldiers outside the windowless one-story building.  Johansson had said something about a spring that fed the showers, which explained why the back of the building was built directly against the rise of ground leading up into the low hills beyond. 

But although no soldiers stood waiting for a turn, Saunders knew even before he pushed the front door open that the showers were occupied.  Somewhere inside, a man was singing at the top of an enthusiastic set of lungs.  Saunders didn't recognize the song, but it made him smile involuntarily.  Was it because his brother Chris always used to drive them nuts with his caterwauling in the tub on Saturday nights?  Or from relief at being far enough behind the lines that no one worried about any stray sounds alerting the enemy to their presence?  Whatever the reason, Saunders walked inside the one-room building and settled down on a wooden bench to wait for the performance -- and the shower -- to end. 

Steam wafted from above the wide wooden door in the opposite wall, enticing him with the promise of watery bliss.  A towel, a pair of trousers, and a shirt were draped over the door, telling Saunders that its occupant was an American soldier like himself.  Those, and the B.A.R. resting against the wall next to the bench.

Saunders took off his helmet and leaned back against the wall.  He ran a hand through his blond hair and remembered yet again that he needed a haircut.  It'd been a long three weeks since the Normandy invasion, and he hadn't even had time to shave most days, much less keep his fast-growing hair at regulation length.  Maybe after his shower he could dig up a pair of scissors and someone to wield them.

The song ended, and the singer moved on to what sounded to Saunders like an Irish drinking song.  The water in the bath house's only stall kept running, and Saunders suddenly realized that its occupant was probably unaware someone was waiting outside. 

So Saunders said, "Hey, you gonna leave any hot water for the next guy?"

The drinking song ended mid-word.  "I'll try," the shower's occupant said.  The water stopped flowing, and the towel hanging over the door disappeared with a snap.  "Won't be a minute," the soldier added.  The clothes soon followed the towel.

At last, a stranger opened the shower door.  He was barefoot, a little taller than Saunders, thin and gawky.  He grinned as he emerged.  "Guess it's your lucky day."

"Must be."  Saunders was in no mood to trade banter -- he was enjoying his break from fielding remarks from Braddock or the new guy, Kirby.  He waited silently while the man sat down on the bench beside him and began pulling on his socks. 

The stranger said, "There's no soap.  Water is hot, though."

What was left of it.  "That'll be a nice change."

The man pulled his boots out from beneath the end of the bench and shoved his feet into them.  While tying them, he looked up and said, "Guess I should introduce myself, huh?  Private Grady Long."

"Saunders."  He eyed Long's boots -- that new style with laces instead of buckles -- and wished again he'd managed to talk Moseby Lovelace out of his.

"Glad to meet you."  Long picked up his helmet and settled it on his head.  "Just got here this morning.  Transferred from Item Company.  I'm waiting for a Lieutenant, uh…"  He snapped his fingers twice, searching for the name.  "Handy?"

"Hanley."

"That's him.  He's supposed to assign me to a squad.  But he's out right now, and just between us, I don't think the sergeant filling in wants to make the decision."

"Johansson."  Saunders smiled briefly.  Johansson had been promoted to Platoon Sergeant three days earlier and seemed unwilling to do much more than blink for fear of being demoted again.

"Yeah, Johansson."  Long picked up the B.A.R.  "Hey, you don't need a B.A.R. man in your squad, do you?  I don't eat much, I keep my rifle clean, and now that I've had this shower, I don't even smell too bad."

"Sorry, I've got one."

"Oh well.  Nice to meet you, Saunders."  Long opened the door.

"You too."  On a whim, he added, "Hey, are you any good at cutting hair?"  After all, the guy had as much as said he had nothing to do.

"Not as far as I know."

Saunders shrugged.  "Okay."

"But if you're not aiming to win any beauty contests, I'd be willing to give it a go."

"Yeah?"

"Why not?  We won't get to Paris for at least a week -- it'll grow out by then if I butcher it, right?"

"Good enough."

Long asked, "Got anything to cut it with?"

"No."

"I'll see what I can find."

"You know where I'll be for at least twenty minutes."

 

***

 

Saunders closed his eyes and concentrated on the hot water pelting his bare shoulders and back.  Whoever had built this bathhouse deserved a medal.  The water struck his skin so hard it almost hurt, and he could feel the tension easing from his ever-tired muscles.  He tipped his head back and let the water massage his scalp, washing a week's worth of grime from his hair and a lifetime's worth of stress from his mind.

He tilted his head back farther until the water ran down his face, hot rivers that cleansed him body and soul.  With the water pounding him like this, the noise of the shower drowned out every other noise.  Gone were the distant sounds of an Army going about its business.  Gone were the voices echoing inside his head, voices of the Germans he'd killed, of all his own men he'd lost.

Saunders couldn't remember the last time he'd actually been alone.  Probably in the brig on the troop ship over, under arrest for going AWOL in Italy.  When he landed, he'd gotten his stripes back, along with a brand new squad.  He'd kept up the joking, never-serious attitude he'd adopted in that hospital in Italy.  It made it easier to keep his distance from the men he led now, and from Lt. Hanley, who seemed perversely determined to be friends lately.  Saunders tried to let all that fade too, to concentrate on the quiet, the cleansing heat, the purifying water, the rare solitude.  So there was no soap -- so what?  He was content.

 

 

Like all good things, the shower eventually ended.  Saunders regretfully toweled off, dressed, and left the bath house.  He wasn't sure if he should expect that guy, Long, to actually come back.  But there he was, sprawled in a high-backed wooden chair outside the door.

Saunders hooked the Thompson's strap over his shoulder.  "Found some scissors, I take it."  For a haircut, he'd willingly trade his solitude.  He'd even trade wisecracks if necessary.

Long held up a short-bladed pair.  "Still want to go through with it?"

Saunders ran a hand through his shaggy hair.  "Can't get much worse, can it?"

"Just keep telling yourself that," Long said solemnly.  He rose and flipped the chair a half turn so it was pointing toward town. 

"I'll try."  Saunders sat down in the chair.  He propped his Thompson against his leg, then pulled off his helmet and set it on the ground.  He leaned back against the wooden slats and closed his eyes.  The sunlight felt good, a welcome change from all the rain they'd had lately.

"Got a comb?" Long asked from behind him.

"Oh.  Uh, yeah."  Saunders unbuttoned his shirt pocket and pulled out the comb his sister had sent him back when he was convalescing in Italy and his gear took longer to find him than the mail.  "Take a little off the top and sides, Barber," he said as he handed the comb back.

"Right you are, sir."  Long combed through Saunders' hair briskly and snapped the scissors a few times, as if to practice before he began to cut in earnest.  "Say, what do you think of this weather?" he asked, adopting a barber's impersonal, somewhat bored tone of voice.

Saunders played along.  "I don't like it.  Too much sunshine, too much rain, never a happy medium around here."

"Did you hear the one about the rainmaker's wife?"

Saunders bit.  "What about her?"

"She walked around all day with her purse open 'cause her husband told her to expect some change in the weather."

Saunders groaned.  "You must be related to our barber back home."

"Why, were his jokes good too?"

"Not one."

Long snipped along for a bit.  "How long you been out here?"

"Here in the sunshine and fresh air, or here in Normandy?"

"Take your pick."

"Well, I've been out here in the fresh air long enough for me to realize I should've tried to dig up a real barber." 

"Hey!"

Saunders paused, then added, "I've been in France since Omaha Beach."

"I see."

"Why, how long have you been here?"

"Utah Beach."

"Ahh." 

Long snipped some more.  "Before that?"

Saunders hesitated.  He still disliked discussing his past; while his squad and Hanley all knew he'd been involved in a couple other areas pre-D-Day, they didn't know particulars.  He preferred to keep all that behind him, not a part of who he was now.  On the other hand, it'd be nice not to have to keep evading the question for once.  "Before that, Italy.  And North Africa." 

Long whistled long and low.  "Well, in all your years in this man's army, I'm betting this is the worst haircut you've gotten yet."

"How much?"

"How much would I bet?"  Long chuckled.  "No thanks, Saunders, I'd rather keep my money -- for all I know, you had your hair cut by a blind camel driver in Africa or something."

"Shepherd, not camel driver."

"See?  I knew I couldn't trust you."  Long fell silent, gave a few more snips with the pair of scissors, then said, "I'd tell you to look in the mirror and see what you think, but I wasn't able to dig up a mirror."

Saunders ran a hand over his head.  His hair was shorter, anyway, and seemed fairly even.  "Good enough.  Thanks." 

"Don't mention it."  Grady Long handed back the comb.  "And I really mean that.  I don't want anyone finding out who did this to you."

"I'll remember."  Saunders pocketed the comb, settled helmet and Thompson in their accustomed places, and returned the chair to its spot leaning against the bath house.

Long fell in beside him, B.A.R. strap over his shoulder where it belonged.  "Speaking of which, how'd you get the day off like this?  That sergeant in the CP tent told me pretty much everyone's out on the line."

"I was out on the line.  The lieutenant called us back.  Took my squad on a mission."

"And left you behind?"

"Yeah."  Saunders still hadn't figured out why.  The lieutenant had started handing more and more oddball replacements and tricky missions to Saunders and his squad.  He said it was because Saunders was the only one he could really trust not to get himself -- and everyone else -- killed.  Then why exclude him now?  If this Colonel Hobey Jabko was so important, why leave behind the man you trust the most?  He couldn't figure it.

Saunders realized Grady Long had said something else.  "What was that?"

"I said it must be nice having a C.O. look after you like that."

"Right."  Saunders cast around for a way to change the subject.  "Hey, they're serving hot chow today -- if we want some, we'd better get in line before the guys in the Motor Pool eat it all."

"Sounds fine by me."

Saunders and Long set off to gather their mess kits, agreeing to meet back at the chow line.  Saunders had surprised himself by offering to eat with Long.  With most his squad out on a mission with Hanley -- all but Kirby, who'd been at the aid station for two days after a bullet sliced open his left arm -- Saunders had planned to spend the day in solitude, or as much solitude as he could find in the middle of camp.  But something about Grady Long intrigued him. 

After losing his whole squad in Italy, Saunders had resolved to do whatever it took to keep himself from making any more friends in the army.  But that resolve had wavered lately -- some days, he was tempted to forget it, to take Hanley's ever-proffered hand of friendship.  And yet, he instinctively pulled away from those around him, reasoning that it protected them as much as himself.  If something happened to him, he didn't want any more people hurt by it than necessary.  But every day was more lonely than the last. 

As he ducked into his tent, Saunders realized he was tempted to make friends with Grady Long.  It would be easy, he knew that.  Long was as innately open and unreserved as Saunders was closed and aloof.  It would take very little to become buddies.  And Saunders missed having someone he could really talk to, confide in about his doubts or worries or even his successes

Mess kit in hand, Saunders walked toward the chow line.  Along the way, he decided to keep things light with Long anyway.  Joke about the bad chow, answer any questions about the platoon and various squads, strictly business.  No sense letting his guard down more than he had already. 

Long waved to Saunders from his spot in the chow line, and Saunders joined him with his mask of nonchalance firmly back in place.  Long said, "What'd you do, stash your mess kit on the beaches?  I was starting to think the food would all be gone before you got back."

"Why, they serving something edible for a change?"

"No, but that doesn't stop us from eating it, does it?"

Saunders grinned.  "Not usually."

They continued to banter while they shuffled slowly forward, inching their way toward the table where cooks' helpers ladled out whatever they'd managed to concoct under the usual primitive conditions.  They talked about Army food, about the French people's reactions to liberation -- nothing personal, nothing important.

Eventually, they sat down together in the lee of a crumbling rock wall.  Canteen mug of coffee balanced on one knee, mess tin full of franks-and-beans on the other, Grady Long asked, "So how long have you been a sergeant?"

"Long enough."

"Since Italy?"

"Why?"

Long shrugged.  "Wondering what my odds are -- the pay's better, right?  I mean, I've been in the Army a while too -- shouldn't be too much longer before the brass recognizes my sterling qualities."

Saunders took a drink of coffee and surreptitiously eyed Grady Long over the rim of his tin canteen mug.  Long seemed to be joking again, so he decided to play it that way too.  "Sure, give 'em another week or so and you'll be a second looey."

Long chewed a mouthful of food, openly studying Saunders.  "You don't like to talk about the past, do you," he stated after swallowing.

Saunders hesitated.  Something about Long's open face, his easy smile… without consciously deciding to, he admitted, "No, I don't."

Long took another bite and waited.

"What about you?" 

"What about me?"

"How long've you been in the Army?"

"I was in Italy too."

Saunders paused mid-chew.  He looked Grady Long in the eye and for the first time saw a reflection of his own weary soul.  "That so."

"It is."

Saunders finished his bite of beans.  So that was why he felt so instinctively drawn to Long.  At last, someone else who knew what a long, dirty business they were engaged in.  Who knew they wouldn't really be in Paris next week.

"Salerno?" he asked at last.

"No, I missed that one.  Caught a shoulderful of shrapnel at Messina and was out of action for a while."  Long chewed another bite.  "I take it you were at Salerno."

"Yeah."

"Ouch."

Saunders didn't reply.

"How come you're not still in Italy?  You get wounded too?"

"I did."  Saunders raised his tin mug, took a long drink of coffee.  Then another.  Anything to hold in the words that suddenly wanted to tumble out.  He swallowed again and again until his mug was empty.

"So they patched you up and sent you here instead."  Long scooped up the last of his franks-and-beans, chewed them thoughtfully, and swallowed.  "Mind if I ask what this platoon is like?"

"Go ahead."

"This Lieutenant Hanley -- is he any good?"

"He is."

"Not another ninety-day wonder?"

"He got his commission a couple days after we hit the beaches."

"That'll be a nice change."  Long paused before adding, "I've got to admit, I'm wishing I'd get assigned to your squad.  Too bad you already have a BAR man."  He grinned.  "Maybe I should ask this Lieutenant Hanley if he could swap me for yours.  It'd be nice not to worry about whether my squad leader knows how to keep his men alive.  Back in Item --"  Long looked at Saunders and stopped mid-sentence.  "What?"

Saunders scrambled to his feet.  "Nothing.  I've … I need to… I have to go."  He slung his Thompson over his shoulder, clutched his mess kit and mug in the other hand as he retreated from Long as fast as he could.  He had to leave now, before Long said one more word, before Saunders had to tell him that when it came to keeping a squad alive, his record was not a good one. 

But Grady Long did not give up.  He was on his feet and at Saunders' side before the sergeant had gone half a dozen steps.  "Listen, Saunders, if I said anything--"

Saunders turned on him.  "Stop!" he commanded, keeping his voice quiet enough that the other soldiers around them wouldn't take notice.  "Just stop." 

"Stop what?"

"Don't wish you were in my squad.  Don't try to make friends with me."

"Why?"

"Because."  Saunders tried to choke back the rest of the words, but they streamed out before he could stop them.  "Because I lost my squad in Italy.  Every man.  I couldn't protect them, and I can't protect you.  So don't ask Hanley if you can be in my squad.  Just leave me alone, Grady Long.  Leave me alone."

 

***

 

Saunders hustled back to his tent, avoiding eye contact with everyone he met.  Long hadn't followed him -- he was grateful for that.  He needed to regain his balance, to push away the memories that Long had resurrected. 

He'd never told anyone here what had happened to his squad in Italy.  Not even Hanley, who was the closest thing to a friend Saunders would allow now.  Before the invasion, he had purposely antagonized Hanley to keep him at a distance, but they'd become amicable since Hanley's promotion.  Now that they had the officer/enlisted man gulf naturally separating them, they had settled into a comfortable rhythm of companionability, even trading the occasional joke or bit of advice. 

Now Saunders wondered if even that small measure of friendship was too much, if it had opened him up to being willing to talk to others, if it was the reason he'd let himself discuss Italy with Grady Long.

But no, as he reached his tent, Saunders realized this had nothing to do with Hanley.  He'd hoped that Long, being a survivor of Italy, would understand things, would be somehow safe to talk with.  Would know better than to want to talk about the past, or about the future.  Would know that enduring the present was all anyone could hope for. 

No friends, Saunders reminded himself.  If you don't have friends, you can't lose friends.  And then you will have no more reasons to end the day hiding from the rest of the Army, fighting a losing battle against tears for people you cannot forget no matter how hard you try.

 

***

 

Saunders spent the next day alone, like he'd originally planned. Finally, at dusk, he heard what he'd been expecting for hours:  a coughing truck engine that had probably been repaired with baling wire and chewing gum twice too often. He hurried toward the sound and arrived in time to see a ramshackle farm truck sway to a stop when challenged by the sentries. The driver hopped out of the truck, the same middle-aged Frenchman that had taken Saunders' squad and Hanley out. He spoke to the guard, pointed to the back of the truck, then led the sentry around to the tailgate.

Saunders came closer, and when he saw Hanley climb out of the truck, straw stuck to his trousers and a two-day shadow darkening his cheeks, something inside Saunders loosened, like a fist unclenching. He leaned against a massive tree and folded his arms. Braddock and Caje followed Hanley and stood in the background, brushing off straw and dirt while the lieutenant spoke to the sentry. Another man climbed out, presumably Colonel Jabko, the downed pilot. So the mission had been a success.  Jabko stayed in the background, letting Hanley do the talking.

Saunders held back, leaning against his tree, waiting for his B.A.R. man, Fergus, to climb out of the truck. Hanley thanked the driver before leading the others inside the camp. The Frenchman climbed back in his truck and drove away. No Fergus. Saunders realized briefly that he actually felt more relieved than sad -- only one of his men hadn't come back.  The rest were fine.

As the men approached, Saunders asked, "How'd it go?"  He pushed off from the tree and took a step or two toward them.

Hanley shook his head.  "Fergus got it at a road block before we were five miles away.  I'm sorry." He obviously knew what was foremost on Saunders' mind.

Saunders changed the subject.  "I see you found the colonel."

"Yes."  Hanley turned to introduce the colonel to Saunders, but Jabko was walking away, hands in pockets, looking at the ground.  Hanley turned back, and Saunders saw something unexpected in the lieutenant's eyes:  anger.  Why?

Braddock said, "You have a nice, relaxing couple of days, Saunders?"

"I'll tell you something, Braddock:  it's a lot quieter without you around."

Braddock smiled. "See?  I knew you'd miss me."

"We had hot chow a couple hours ago.  If you stop by the kitchen tent, they'll probably find you something," Saunders suggested.

Braddock looked at the silent soldier by his side.  "Whaddaya think, Caje? Should we risk it?"  He slung his rifle over one shoulder and said, "What've we got to lose, right?"  The two of them left.

Saunders turned to go as well, but Hanley said, "Just a minute."

He stopped, but didn't reply. 

Hanley pulled out a fresh pack of Luckys, shook one out, and offered the pack to Saunders. 

The sergeant shook his head.  "Did you want something, Lieutenant?" 

Hanley took a drag and eyed Saunders curiously, but only said, "Thought you might want to know what happened."

Saunders realized this wasn't going to be a quick minute.  He leaned against the tree again.

"Turns out some of the Resistance weren't so resistant after all."

"Collaborators?"

"Yeah."  Hanley took a long pull from his cigarette. He seemed wound up, but also deflated, like a kid who'd been looking forward to Christmas for weeks but found only socks under the tree. "There was a girl. Regular Florence Nightingale." 

"The traitor?" Saunders guessed.

"The traitor."

Hanley finished his cigarette and ground it out under his boot heel.  "How were things here?"

"Fine."

Hanley gave him that curious look again, but all he said was, "Good."  He turned to leave, then paused. "I am sorry about Fergus," he said, not looking at Saunders.

"Don't take it personally, Lieutenant."

Hanley made a noncommittal noise and walked away.

Saunders stayed there by the tree, savoring the moment of quiet before he had to rejoin his men. With a small sigh, he eventually headed for his squad's quarters, off to face the reality of another dead squad member.  Don't take it personally?  He was still figuring that one out himself.

 

***

 

Saunders reported to Hanley's CP tent bright and early the next morning.  He'd been surprised he hadn't been summoned the night before, but maybe Hanley had been awaiting orders himself before he could pass any down.  Saunders ducked through the open tent flap and removed his helmet as he stopped in front of Hanley's table desk.

The lieutenant looked up and smiled.  "Nice haircut," he remarked.

Saunders didn't answer.

"I think you can guess what your orders are."

"Back out on the line."

"Right.  You can reinforce Stevens and third squad -- they got hit pretty hard last night."

Back to the foxholes, that chaotic realm of dirt and death.  "When do we leave?"

"As soon as your men are ready."

"They're ready."  Kirby had even returned from the aid station, just in time for breakfast. 

"Report to Lieutenant Crowley as usual.  Oh, and before you go, I'm assigning you a new B.A.R. man."  Hanley looked down at the papers piled neatly on his desk.  "He just got here yesterday, but he's been in France since the invasion.  Private Long."

Saunders wanted to say, "No!  Not him.  I don't want to be responsible for taking him up to that deathtrap."  But he didn't say anything of the sort.  Instead he said, "Thanks."  He'd have to deal with Long the best he could.

"He and three replacements for third squad will meet you at the Motor Pool -- you can catch a ride to the front with a couple trucks taking supplies up."

"Got it."  Saunders turned and left. 

 

***

 

Saunders led Caje, Kirby, and Braddock to the Motor Pool.  He wasn't remotely happy about this turn of events, and not only because Fergus was dead.  After the things he'd confided in Long two days earlier, he wanted to be nowhere near the man.  He wanted Long near the rest of his squad even less.

When they arrived, Saunders stopped next to a truck with its engine idling.  "You the guys heading up to the line?"

The driver switched a toothpick from the right corner of his mouth to the left before answering, "Sure are.  You the squad we're taking with us?"

 "Yeah.  I'm supposed to pick up a few men here."

The toothpick migrated back to the right corner of the driver's mouth.  "Might be some of them fellers over there?"  He pointed a thumb at a knot of soldiers clustered around a jacked-up jeep that was missing two tires.  Leaning on the jeep's fender, arms crossed, was Grady Long.  He said something Saunders couldn't quite catch, and all the other men laughed.

Then Long looked up, across to where Saunders stood by the trucks.  He shoved away from the jeep and walked toward Saunders.  The other men parted for him, and he exchanged words with a couple of them on his way through.  Three obviously green soldiers followed him, looking lost and trying not to.

"That's the new guy, huh?" Kirby said. 

Braddock snorted.  Saunders knew what he meant -- it had only been a few days since Kirby was the 'new guy' himself.

"Sergeant," Long said quietly when they reached Saunders.

Saunders nodded in acknowledgement and turned to his squad.  "This is Grady Long, our new B.A.R. man.  These are Kirby, Braddock, and Caje."  He pointed to each man as he named them.  "Did the lieutenant tell you where we're headed?"

"Down the rabbit hole."

"That's right."

Long hitched the B.A.R. a little higher on his shoulder.  "At least we don't have to walk there this time, huh?"  He jerked a thumb at the three men behind him.  "These boys here say they're moving up too."

Saunders looked at them.  "Replacements for third squad?"

"Yeah."  Long pointed them off in turn.  "Addy, Montenegro, and Hodgins." 

"Right."  Saunders looked up at the driver.  "Ready any time you are."

"Hop in." 

The men walked around behind the truck and clambered aboard.  They found makeshift seats among the crates and boxes, Saunders staying near the back opening so he could keep an eye on the countryside.  Long settled on the floor near him.  With a grumble of gears and a jolt, they were off.

Over the roar of the motor, Long said, "Guess you could use me after all."

"Yeah."  Any minute now, Long would say something about North Africa or Italy, and that would be the end of the sergeant's hard work keeping his past out of his present.

Long continued, "Too bad my good luck was someone else's bad."  He looked around at the others.  "This isn't the first time I've been a replacement, fellas.  It's a rotten way to join a squad.  I hope you won't hold it against me."

Caje shrugged.  "Fergus wasn't with us all that long anyway."

Braddock gave Grady Long a friendly smile.  "You've been around a while, have you?"

Long launched into a merry account of his exploits since Utah Beach, and Saunders found himself wanting to smile at the funnier parts, though he kept a stern eye on the countryside unspooling behind them.  To the sergeant's great relief, Grady Long never once mentioned the things Saunders had told him.  He said nothing about his own time in Italy or anything at all that had happened prior to the Normandy invasion.  Maybe he liked to keep the past quiet sometimes after all.

Bumpy and noisy though the ride was, it ended too soon for anyone's taste.  They arrived at the same time as a bombardment, with shells bursting haphazardly around them.  The driver stopped the truck barely long enough for the men in back to hop down, then careened off down the line as fast as he could.

Saunders spotted Lt. Crowley standing in a foxhole shielded by a pile of sandbags stacked four feet high between two trees that stood about three yards apart.  Saunders and the other seven men ran, bent double, to the lieutenant's foxhole, where they all crouched around Crowley, trying to use as much of the sandbags for cover as they could.

Lt. Crowley bellowed into the radio mouthpiece, barely making himself heard over the din.  "Sector Bravo!  Bravo!  Not Alpha!" was all Saunders caught.  Crowley nodded once at Saunders to acknowledge his arrival while continuing to shout.  Saunders returned the nod.  He'd known Crowley since the troop build-up in Britain prior to the invasion of Normandy.  Crowley had been a second lieutenant then, leader of third platoon and Saunders' C.O.  King Company had taken so many casualties during the invasion that it had been almost entirely reorganized.  Crowley had made first lieutenant, while Hanley had been promoted to second lieutenant and given command of what became second platoon.

Crowley slammed the receiver into its cradle with a disgruntled epithet and turned to Saunders.  "Back so soon?"

"Yes, sir," Saunders shouted above the noise.  "Hanley sent us and three replacements for third squad.  Said they got hit hard."

"Stevens is down to two men," Crowley confirmed.  "He's down the line there still."  He pointed off to their right.  "Plenty of empty foxholes for you.  We're expecting the Krauts to try another push tonight, so get some rest if you can."

A shell landed nearby, and Saunders ducked and put a hand on his helmet to keep it in place.  "Rest.  Right."  He turned, beckoned for the others to follow him, and headed on down the line.  "The line" was actually a series of foxholes running along the edge of a meadow, facing what had once been a stretch of serene woods.  The meadow behind the foxholes was now more of a mud hole, with a makeshift road running toward the town in one direction and off to the horizon in the other.  Most of the trees in front of the foxholes had been hit by shells from one side or the other until only jagged trunks and naked ground remained.  It seemed like half the foxholes were empty, and Saunders knew it wasn't only third squad that had gotten hit hard.

When they finally reached Sgt. Stevens, the shelling had slacked off.  Saunders crouched beside Stevens' foxhole.

"Couldn't stay away, huh?"  Stevens was older than the platoon's other NCOs, in his forties, with graying hair and the beginnings of a paunch.  Saunders knew him to be a dependable squad leader, if somewhat unimaginative.

"My doctor said the air here's good for my health."

"I think you need a second opinion."

Saunders tilted his head toward the three new men he'd brought up.  "Hanley sent you a present."

"Tell him I said thanks."

"Tell him yourself.  My squad's here to reinforce you too."

"Kinda guessed that."

"Where do you want us?"

"Take the six between me and George Company down there."  Stevens pointed farther along the line.  "I've got men in two of them -- you can send them back here."

Saunders told his men, "We'll find foxholes on down there.  Braddock and Kirby, you take one; Caje and Long find another.  Save one for me closer to Third Squad here. Tell the others their sergeant wants them here."  While his men took off, he asked Stevens, "Anything I should know?"

"The room service stinks."

"Always has."  Saunders left Stevens to get acquainted with his replacements and made his way to the empty foxhole that awaited him.  Caje and Long were to his right, and Braddock and Kirby on beyond them.  Saunders slid down into the shallow hole, his boots making a soft splooshing sound when they hit the thick mud at the bottom.  Great.  A muddy foxhole so shallow he'd have to crouch, kneel, or sit to keep from exposing most of himself to the enemy.  He'd try to dig it deeper, but Saunders had a feeling that wouldn't fix the mud problem any, with as much rain as they'd had lately.

The barrage ended suddenly, leaving an eerie silence.  Saunders held his breath for a minute, wondering if it was just a lull, or if the Krauts were laying off for a while.  If the latter, most likely it meant they were moving troops up and didn't want to waste manpower by shelling their own men.  Crowley had said they expected another push that night, but maybe the Krauts had moved up their plans a bit.

Then Saunders heard an unexpected sound from the hole to his right:  Caje's laughter, hearty and musical.  Saunders peered up over the edge toward the sound.  He hadn't heard Caje laugh like that since before Theo Picard bought it on the beachhead.

What had Long said that could make the Cajun laugh again?  And in such a tense situation?  Saunders focused his attention back on the erstwhile woods before them.  What did he care what Long had said?  He'd learned his lesson -- let his guard down for a few minutes, and the past came flooding through.  No more of that.

And yet, his curiosity grew while he watched for any sign of an enemy advance.  He hadn't thought Long was particularly amusing -- most of his jokes were less-than-inspired, although he certainly had a flair for telling them.  Saunders realized he too had laughed heartily at things Long had said.  Maybe it was the man's own enthusiasm, his easy smile.  His lack of pretense.

That was it, Saunders realized.  Grady Long lacked all pretense -- he was who he was, and he accepted others as they were.  And that made Saunders feel unbalanced around him, because Saunders was not who he pretended to be.  His own charade of light-hearted carelessness felt more false than ever compared to Long's blatant honesty.

Before Saunders could consider this, he saw a twitch of movement beyond the trees.  He watched the area where he'd spotted the movement, waiting patiently for it to be repeated.  Nothing happened for so long that he was almost convinced he'd imagined what he'd seen, or that it had been a bird or animal.  But then he saw it again, a patch of grey moving against the blackened background.

Another followed, a little to the right.  Saunders turned toward the foxhole to his left that housed some of Third Squad.  He called, "Hey, you over there.  Third Squad."

"What?" came a deep voice that Saunders recognized as belonging to a guy named Littlejohn.  Good.  Littlejohn had been around; it wasn't just a couple of those green recruits.

Saunders said, "We've got company.  Looks like a couple scouts.  Pass the word to Lieutenant Crowley."

"Got it."

Saunders repeated the news to Caje and Long on his other side, telling them to alert George Company down the line.  All the while, he kept a close eye on the grey shadows creeping closer.  They were still out of range of anything but a sniper's rifle.  Was this the beginning of the advance?  Or were the Krauts merely sending out a few scouts to see how strong the Allied defenses were?

Intent as he was on the encroaching enemies, Saunders still noticed a soldier slip out of the foxhole to his right.  Grady Long slid across the ground, B.A.R. slung on his back.  In seconds, he swung down into the mud beside Saunders.

Saunders hissed, "What are you doing?"

"I've got a honey of an idea and I wanted to lay it on you."

"What is it?"  Saunders returned to watching the land in front of them.  So Long was one of those bright guys who got ideas.  He should've known, after Long had said he wanted to be a sergeant.  Maybe the guy was just a glory-hunter after all, and the nice guy thing was an act calculated to gain support from everyone possible.  Cynical as he could be, Saunders knew he didn't believe this, but he somehow wished it was true anyway.

"I only see two guys out there.  You?"

"So far."

"It's probably a couple scouts.  How about I slip down the line a ways, strike out, circle around behind 'em, see if I can bring one in?"

"Why you?"

"I'm quiet and I'm fast."

"So's Caje."

"So send us both."

"Forget it, Long."  He would wait for Crowley to decide what to do.

Long shrugged.  "You're the sergeant."  But instead of returning to his own foxhole, he said, "Hey, can I ask you one favor?"

"What?"

"Call me Grady."

Saunders frowned.  He didn't like being on a first-name basis with his men.  First, it blurred the borders of command.  Second, Long might ask what Saunders' first name was, and he wasn't about to tell him.  Third, he was determined to keep his distance from everyone, especially Long.  "Why?" he finally asked.

"Long story."

Saunders was about to ask for the short version when Grady added, "So long.  Long enough.  Long time no see."

Saunders had to smile.  "Ah."  He shrugged.  "Okay, Grady it is."

"Thanks."  Grady took a pinched-off, half-smoked cigarette from his breast pocket and lit up.  "So what's with Caje?"

"What about him?"

"He's too quiet."

"Yeah.  He is."  Saunders gazed out across the no-man's-land.  "Buddy of his got it on the beach.  Been taking him a while to work through it."  He paused.  "You made him laugh, though.  What'd you say?"

"I asked him how to say something in French."

"What?"

"Where's the bathroom?"

Saunders surprised himself by chuckling.  "And did he tell you?"

"He tried."

Saunders shook his head slowly.  "Funny, but I believe you."

"You should -- that is what I asked him."  Grady paused, then said much more quietly, "I'm sorry about the other day."

Saunders froze.  Not again.  Why couldn't Grady leave the past alone?  His voice abruptly turned hard.  "Forget it."

"I know how it is--" Grady began.

Saunders cut him off.  "Get back to your foxhole, Long."

"I've been there, Saunders.  If you let the past define who you are, that's all you are."

"That was an order, not a suggestion." 

Grady started to say something else, but didn't.  He hoisted himself and his B.A.R. up out of the foxhole and scooted off to rejoin Caje.

Alone again, Saunders concentrated on watching the ragged landscape.  He wondered for a moment what he could do to be rid of Grady Long for good, but pushed the problem away.  He'd deal with it later.

 

***

 

As evening settled around them, Lt. Hanley slid into Saunders' foxhole, grimacing as his boots sank a couple of inches into the mud.  "How long has it been this quiet?" he asked.

"Hours.  What're you doing up here?"

"I came up with Third Platoon.  Division says dig in with everything we've got -- they think the Krauts will make their move soon.  How're things up here?"

"So far, so good." 

"Crowley says they captured a scout earlier."

"And?"

"S2 is working on him."

"Well, let's hope they work faster than usual."

"Yeah."  Hanley pulled out a cigarette and lit up.  "How's the new guy working out?"

"Fine."

"Good."  Hanley offered the cigarettes to Saunders, who took one and wondered how the lieutenant managed to keep his packs so crisp and new-looking.  His own looked crushed and orphaned before he even opened them, most of the time.

Hanley added, "If Fergus--"

Saunders held up a hand to stop him.  "Forget it, Lieutenant.  Like I said, don't take it personally.  I don't.  It's too bad he got it, but we're here and he's not, and that's all there is to it."

Hanley took a long drag off his cigarette and exhaled slowly.  "Maybe you're right," he said at last. 

Neither of them spoke again until Hanley had finished smoking.  He handed Saunders the nearly full pack.  "Going to be a long night."  He pulled himself up over the edge of the foxhole and was gone.

 

***

 

Hanley must be a prophet, Saunders thought at one point.  The eerie silence continued all night, hour after lonely hour.  The complete lack of action was almost harder to bear than the fighting they'd been told to expect.  Why weren't they moving up?  Saunders didn't sleep.  His eyes and ears strained to detect the approach of anyone over the ghostly no-man's land.  He knew that, up and down the line, hundreds of men were doing the same.  The thought of all that company brought precious little comfort in the darkness.

As the sun peeked over the horizon, Grady Long slid down into the mud beside Saunders.

The sergeant frowned.  "Now what."

Grady said, "I could never do it.  What you do."

This caught Saunders off balance, but he tried not to show it.  "Do what?"

"Be a sergeant."

Saunders paused, wondering why Grady was really visiting.  Saunders realized he'd switched to thinking of the B.A.R. man by his first name, like he'd asked.  At last Saunders said, "I wasn't always a sergeant."

"I heard about that.  You hit England without any stripes or something."

"That was… I lost my stripes for a few weeks, that's all."  He'd almost been ready to tell Grady about before he was ever promoted, about North Africa and Sgt. Grimmauld and Dole and Mueller and the rest.  He was grateful to be diverted to more recent events.

"What happened?  Or is it a military secret?" 

"I went AWOL," Saunders admitted.  He hadn't even told Hanley this whole story, but for some reason he wanted to tell Grady.  As if sharing the tale would cleanse him somehow, like that blessed, unexpected shower a few days earlier.

"You're kidding."

"Nope."

"Why?  Don't tell me -- it was a woman."

"It was."

Grady laughed. "She must've been some woman."

"She was."

"And they busted you?"

"Right down to buck private."  Saunders grinned suddenly, remembering a similar conversation he'd had with Hanley back in England.  Hanley was too easy to infuriate, but he usually gave as good as he got too.  It was one of the things Saunders appreciated most about him.

"Got 'em back pretty quick."

"Only because of this invasion.  If they hadn't needed my experience, I'd still be peeling potatoes somewhere."

"Come on -- don't tell me you'd trade all this for a nice, safe kitchen tent?"

Saunders laughed, and was about to reply when the sound of footsteps behind them ended their conversation.  Saunders turned and saw Hanley himself heading their way again.  Think of the devil.

Hanley crouched beside the foxhole.  He looked at Grady for a second, then back to Saunders.  "What's so funny?"

"Nothing."

"Mind if I join you?"

"No, but there're drier foxholes down by Third Squad."

"I know -- I left Doc there."

"Suit yourself."  Saunders waited for Hanley to slide down into the mud before asking, "What's going on, Lieutenant?"

"S2 cracked that prisoner.  The Krauts are planning to push this way tonight.  They're sending up everyone they can find, say to keep our eyes open and our heads down."

"Great."

Grady said, "I hate to break up the party, but I think I'll go keep Caje company."

Saunders sensed some sort of almost-hidden animosity between Grady and Hanley, but he couldn't quite figure it.  Yet.  For now, he said, "Let him know what's going down."

"Right."

After Grady had left, Hanley said, "How's he working out?"

"Fine."  Why did Hanley keep asking that?  Was he hoping Grady wouldn't work out?  Saunders kept his eyes on the countryside beyond their foxhole.  Maybe if he knew Hanley better, he'd understand that crackle of animosity between him and Grady.  But that wouldn't happen as long as Saunders kept the lieutenant at arm's length.  That was how it had to be, he reminded himself.  Unless he wanted to repeat Italy's lessons.

Hanley shifted position until he was leaning back against the damp dirt wall.  He looked up at the grey clouds and said quietly, "You ever wish sometimes they would've let you stay a private?"

Saunders took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  Why was everyone obsessed with digging into his past?  He pulled the cigarettes Hanley had left him earlier.  Sure enough, after a few hours in Saunders' breast pocket, they looked like they'd been sat on by a horse.  He shook one out, offered the pack to Hanley.  The lieutenant accepted, lit up, and held out his still-burning lighter for Saunders.

While they both puffed a few times, Saunders looked out across the wasteland again, his mind's eye seeing not tree stumps and shell holes but endless sand and a column of Kraut tanks.  "Yes," he answered at last.  "Sometimes."

Hanley eyed him sideways.

"When I was in North Africa," Saunders said slowly, almost unwillingly, "I knew a sergeant.  A squad leader.  Best squad leader I've ever seen.  He could lead anyone into anything.  I used to wonder what made him so good at it.  So I asked him one day."

Saunders blinked several times.  He had never told Hanley about North Africa -- he knew Hanley had been asking about the stripes Saunders was missing when he'd landed in England.  But Hanley deserved to know at least as much about him as Grady did. 

"And?" Hanley prompted.

"He said, 'I never ask a man to do what I wouldn't.'"

Hanley grunted.

"I know.  That's what everyone says.  I told him so.  And he said, 'I can't win this war on my own.  I trust each man to do what needs doing, when I tell him to do it.  And they know it.'"  Saunders stopped.  When Hanley said nothing, he finally continued, "He died the next day."

Hanley said, "You haven't answered my question."

Saunders pushed away the memories with an almost physical effort.  "If he hadn't died, I wouldn't have been made acting squad leader, and then sergeant.  If my being a private meant Sergeant Grimmauld was still alive, yes, I wish I was still a private."

Hanley didn't reply.

 

***

 

Nothing happened all day.  Saunders and Hanley traded off trying to get some sleep, one huddled at the drier end of the foxhole while the other stood watch.  They ate cold C-rations and drank tepid water from their canteens.  No one talked much, not them or anyone in the other foxholes around them.  The waiting wore the men down, pushing them until even the steadiest nerves frazzled.

As the sun sank over the field before them, Hanley resumed the morning's conversation.  "I wasn't much good as a sergeant, was I?" 

Saunders was surprised.  "I've known worse."  He hesitated, then added, "I always wondered why you didn't go through officer training right off."  The well-educated Hanley, who obviously came from a higher social class than Saunders and the others, was a natural as an officer.  Saunders had never been able to figure out why he'd been a sergeant to begin with.

"I didn't because my family expected me to."  Hanley smiled briefly.  "If that makes any sense."

"I don't know which is harder -- living up to what someone expects of you or trying to keep them from expecting anything at all."  Saunders gestured toward the foxholes to their right.  "Kirby can't decide if he wants to prove he's a worthless show-off or if he wants someone else to prove he's not."

Hanley tipped his head to one side and studied Saunders.  "You'd rather no one expected much of you."

"They can expect me to do my job."

Hanley frowned.  "I'm not asking you to tell me your life history, Saunders, but I'd appreciate it if you trusted me enough to share a beer once in a while."

It occurred to Saunders that maybe the reason that Hanley kept trying to be friends might be because the lieutenant was lonely himself.  But he couldn't help saying, "And yet you didn't trust me to take my own men on that rescue mission."

"I thought you'd like a day off." 

"Right.  Thanks."  Fine.  Maybe Hanley had been ordered to leave Saunders behind.  Maybe he really had wanted to give him a break.  Maybe it didn't matter at all.  If S2 was right about the push coming up, Saunders would have bigger things to worry about anyway.  Time to let go of that particular question, he told himself.  Focus on surviving one more day.

 

***

 

A hellish darkness surrounded them, filled with screams, some human cries of anguish, some the shriek of incoming shells.  Kraut artillery had begun pounding the American position with fearsome accuracy, pulverizing whole platoons in some places.

The men of King Company's Second Platoon cowered in their foxholes as bombs fell like lethal hail, rocking the earth and stripping them of its shelter. 

One shell hit the line landed not far from the foxhole Caje and Grady Long occupied.  "Doc!" Grady hollered through the noise.

That one word sent Doc scrambling up and out of the foxhole next to Saunders and Hanley.  He ran, crouching low, using the light from bursting shells to keep himself from falling into the foxholes he passed.

Saunders watched Doc, admiring the man's courage.  It took a lot of guts to jump up out of the relative safety of a foxhole and run to help someone else.  Anyone who called the noncombatant medics shirkers or cowards should spend a few days doing their work.

Hanley echoed Saunders' thoughts.  "And I thought my job was lousy," he said between blasts.

"It is," Saunders shot back.

Hanley smiled grimly. 

A few minutes later, Doc passed them again, responding to a plea for help from up the line somewhere.  He paused long enough to whisper, "Caje and that new guy will be fine, Sarge," and was gone.

Saunders felt relieved at that news.  Doc hadn't said who'd been hit, but it couldn't be serious if he'd left them both in the foxhole instead of calling for a stretcher to get them to the aid station back at camp.

The shelling didn't last forever, no matter how it may have felt to the men in the foxholes.  Toward dawn, it began to taper off, the silences between shell bursts growing longer and longer.

Hanley said, "It looks like it's letting up." 

"Hope so," Saunders said.

Hanley pushed himself to his feet.  "I'd better go check on the other squads -- it sounded like Third Squad got hit badly.  Again."  He stood and scanned around before he made another move.  They all had that habit born of long days and nights on the front lines -- you never knew when the Krauts might have moved up under cover of their shells.  But it must have seemed clear, because Hanley heaved himself up out of the foxhole and ran toward Third Squad. 

He made it three whole steps before the explosion.  One final shell whistled overhead and burst behind the line, belching fire and hot metal fragments in every direction.  Hanley fell backward and slid down into the foxhole.

"Medic!" Saunders hollered.  "MEDIC!"  Hanley's eyes were open and rolled upward.  He was still breathing, but every breath was ragged and faltering.  Blood spurted from a gash above his left ear, and his jacket was quickly getting soaked from several other wounds Saunders didn't have time to identify.  He whipped out a bandage and pressed it to Hanley's head.  "MEDIC!" he roared again.

Doc slid into the foxhole and landed next to Saunders.  "Oh boy," he muttered as he ripped open Hanley's jacket and shirt.  He pulled half a dozen bandages out of his medic's bag and pressed one to a wound in Hanley's left shoulder.  "Can you hold this one too?"

Saunders shifted a little and placed his left hand over Doc's.  Doc slid his hand out and busied himself with the two worst of Hanley's other wounds.  "None of these seems real deep," he said reassuringly.  "Look, that one you've got's almost stopped bleeding already."

"His head hasn't."  Saunders' right hand was slick with Hanley's blood.  "I need another bandage."

Doc rose to his knees and stretched at an awkward angle to reach around Saunders' left arm.  "Okay."  As soon as Saunders lifted his hand, Doc pressed a fresh bandage over the one Saunders had applied.  "There, hold that," he instructed.  Once Saunders had his hand on it, Doc went back to the other wounds. 

"We need to get him back to the aid station," Doc said when he'd finished, more to himself than to Saunders.  "I can't do any more for him."  He stood up.  "I'm going for a stretcher.  Keep pressure on that head wound.  I'll leave you some extra bandages." 

"Hurry," Saunders said, knowing he didn't have to tell Doc that, but needing to say it.

"I will."  Doc hoisted himself out and was gone.

Saunders sat there next to Hanley, pressing the bloody bandages to his wound with desperate fervor.  "I should have made him wait," he said to the earthen walls of his foxhole.  Foxholes always seemed like enlarged graves, and now the idea wouldn't leave him, that he was sitting in Hanley's grave.

"You can't die," he told the lieutenant fiercely.  "Not yet.  Not here.  Not now."  He knew now that he wanted to be friends with Hanley, to have someone who knew more about him than that he was a good sergeant.  It was like Grady had said -- Saunders had let the past dictate everything he did, all the secrets he kept, the pretenses he made.  Why did he have to realize this now, with Hanley's life seeping out under Saunders' fingers?

Then Doc was back with a stretcher, and Caje beside him.  The three of them wrangled Hanley's limp body up out of the foxhole and onto the stretcher.  Doc and Caje picked him up and started off, Saunders adding the last bandage to the wad on Hanley's head mid-stride.

 

***

 

They left Hanley at the aid station back at camp in the capable hands of a weary doctor who assured them he'd do everything in his power to save the lieutenant.  Saunders started back with Caje, while Doc left to restock his depleted supplies. 

Saunders stumbled more than once -- the scattered minutes of sleep he'd snatched before the barrage seemed a lifetime ago.  He felt like he was drifting through a fog like the one that had swaddled London while he was there visiting Hanley's girl, Hazel. 

Saunders realized Caje had spoken.  He blinked and said, "Yeah?"

"You okay?"

He looked down at his uniform, the jacket and pants stiff with Hanley's drying blood.  He was out of clean clothes -- he'd have to stay in these.  "I'm fine."

"No, you're not."

Saunders looked at Caje, startled.  His scout never contradicted him.  Disagreed, yes, but contradicted?  Not directly.

Caje spoke quietly, but clearly.  "You need sleep."

"We all do."

"Grady and I traded naps all yesterday-- let one of us keep a lookout from your foxhole while you sleep."

Saunders noticed Caje had called Grady by his first name.  He blinked, tried to think of a coherent reason why he should say no, and failed.  "Fine," he grunted. 

When they reached his foxhole, Saunders took one look at the blood-soaked mud at the bottom of it and knew he couldn't stay in it.  "Third Squad's almost wiped out, we'll spread out a little and cover them," he told Caje, leading him to the dry foxhole where Doc had stayed earlier.  It wasn't as deep as he'd dug the other hole, but as Saunders slid down into it, he didn't care.  He was asleep seconds after Caje landed beside him.

 

***

 

The next thing Saunders knew, it was mid-afternoon.  He squinted in the slanting rays of sun, wondering a moment what had awakened him.  He decided it must've been the lack of noise, rather than a specific sound.  He sat up, rubbed a hand through his hair, scowled for no particular reason.

Beside him, Caje knelt in the dirt, watching the barren ground in front of them.

Saunders said, "Any word?"

"Doc's not back yet."

"And the Krauts?"

"Nothing so far."

"Probably waiting for dark again."

Caje didn't respond.  Saunders pushed himself up to kneel next to Caje.  He scanned the familiar ground before them, his eyes seeing everything, but his mind focusing elsewhere.  Just when he was about to suggest that Caje rejoin Grady, Caje spoke.

"What're we doing here, Sarge?"

Saunders didn't answer.  Somehow, he knew Caje didn't mean in that particular foxhole, on that particular line.

Sure enough, Caje continued, "Why're we fighting this war?"  He glared at Saunders.  "Don't tell me it's for home, for family -- they don't exist over here."  Caje turned back to the wasteland in front of them.  "I tell you what I think.  I think we only have the people around us.  That's who we fight for.  Kirby, Braddock, Grady, you, me, the lieutenant -- they're our home now.  They're our family."

Saunders said lightly, "I think you needed that nap more than I did."

Caje glared at him again, this time with a savagery Saunders had only glimpsed before.  Saunders raised his eyebrows, waiting for whatever invectives the scout would hurl at him.

But all Caje did was shake his head slowly before clambering out of the foxhole.

Saunders pushed away the image of Caje, dazed with grief over the death of Theo Picard on Omaha Beach.  He reminded himself he needed to focus on watching for the Krauts to push up like everyone had been expecting for days now, not think about what Caje had said.  Not remember how white and vacant Hanley's face had been when they left him at the hospital tent. 

 

***

 

Minutes later, Grady Long slid down into the foxhole, uninvited and most unwelcome.  Saunders glared at him sideways, eyes narrowed to snakelike slits.  "Go back to your own foxhole."

"No."  Grady looked at him steadily, calmly. 

Saunders briefly considered threatening to have Grady written up for insubordination, but felt so tired at the thought of all that paperwork that he couldn't bring himself to do it.  So he said nothing, but went back to staring out at the late afternoon shadows filling the wasteland.

Grady crouched down, leaning against the opposite dirt wall, and for a long time, neither of them said anything.  Finally, Grady said, "Hanley's a friend."

Saunders hesitated.  His first instinct was to deny this simple statement, to maintain the charade he'd been living for so long.  But Caje's words echoed in his memory:  "They're our home now.  They're our family."   He heard himself talking with Hanley only hours ago, repeating Sgt. Grimmauld's words:  "I can't win this war on my own."

Saunders took a deep breath.  "Yes, he is," he said at last.

Grady cocked his head to one side, studied Saunders a moment, then smiled.  "Good," he said.  "Glad you got that straightened out."

 

***

 

The hospital tent smelled of antiseptics and laundry soap.  A lot of laundry soap.  Saunders found the cleanliness a little intimidating -- he was still covered in Hanley's blood and three days' worth of mud.  But he hadn't wanted to waste time cleaning up -- as soon as Doc had arrived to say Hanley was awake, Saunders had hurried to get Lt. Crowley's permission to hitch a ride to the rear.

Now he followed an obviously disapproving nurse through the tent, his helmet tucked meekly under one arm.  The rows of beds reminded him of his own recuperation in Italy, and instead of pushing those memories away, he acknowledged them and then focused on the present. 

Finally, they reached Hanley's cot.  The lieutenant's eyes were closed, and the nurse looked relieved.  "He's sleeping again, Sergeant.  I'm afraid you'll have to come back later."

Hanley opened one eye, then the other.  "Saunders?"

"Yeah."

The nurse sniffed and walked off, though she lingered not far away, as if to discourage Saunders from touching anything.

"Why aren't you at the front?"

"Crowley sent me to check on you.  To see if you're gold-bricking or not."

"I'll do anything for a clean bed, is that it?"

"That's it."  Saunders shifted from one foot to the other.  Finally, he added, "Listen, I need to get back.  I just wanted to say... when you're back on your feet, maybe we could get a beer sometime."

Hanley raised his eyebrows.  He nodded once and smiled. "Any time you say, Saunders."

end

 

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