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.
by White Queen
Saunders scrutinized the oak tree. Once a towering monument to the passage of time, only half its branches now remained, and those all on one side, as if some giant butcher had attacked it with a cleaver. The trunk stood steadfast, however, intact and immense, broad enough for a soldier to find good cover behind it.
Saunders shook his head ruefully at the way his brain automatically found a wartime use for everything -- even a half-destroyed tree. He sat down in the shade of the tree's remaining branches and leaned gratefully against its trunk. A fitful breeze ruffled the leaves now and then, letting scraps of sunlight fall briefly through them.
There wouldn't be many more days like this. Already the Normandy nights brought a touch of frost. This tree's leaves had started routinely turning to a dull rust color, almost the same as the dried blood that had too recently crusted the edges of a bandage around Saunders' left calf. As he settled himself under the tree, he scratched at the fresh bandage through his pant leg. His wound was nearly healed already -- he'd go back to the front lines in a day or so, even though he still limped. What pain still bothered him he kept to himself, figuring he'd get back to K Company quicker that way. If there was anything left of K Company, or Hanley's platoon, or Saunders' own squad. News filtered back from the front slowly at the moment, but he'd managed to learn that the 361st had been in heavy combat these last few days. But just where a particular platoon or squad had been involved seemed impossible to find out.
Saunders sighed, then reminded himself why he'd sought out this quiet spot away from the bustle of the evac hospital. Propping up his good leg, he leaned the tablet of writing paper against his knee and quickly wrote the date on the top of the page, then began:
I got three letters from you yesterday. Even back here away from the lines, the mail isn't real regular. Those letters were from back in July, so I hope you're still doing all right.
My leg is doing better. They tell me it's healing up real nice, even better than they expected. I guess I got lucky this time.
He stopped writing, leaned his head against the tree, and closed his eyes. He got lucky all right, lucky compared to so many guys. Lucky compared to that kid Summers. They'd all been walking back to report to Hanley, just trudging along some muddy French footpath, when Summers stepped on a mine. The area'd been marked as "cleared" on their maps, but obviously the Engineers had missed that one. Or maybe some Kraut had recently snuck over the lines and planted it. One minute Summers was just another young GI walking along the side of a road, and the next, he was splattered all over the footpath. Saunders caught some stray shrapnel in his leg and got sliced up real bad, but Summers's entire body was shredded.
Saunders opened his eyes. He still got a sick feeling when he remembered that footpath. He'd seen a lot of guys get killed in a lot of nasty ways, but never anything quite so instantly devastating. He hadn't even known Summers well -- the kid'd been with them only a week or two, or was it three? Not like Caje or Hanley, guys Saunders had been with since Omaha Beach. But even so, the kid had outlasted so many others that joined Saunders' squad only to die a day or two later.
He looked back at the letter. What could he possibly write next? He couldn't tell his Mom about all that, the way Summers had died.
It's still fairly warm here during the day, but we had frost these last few nights. The leaves on what trees are left are starting to turn colors.
He scratched at his leg again, knowing he shouldn't. He didn't want to reopen it and delay his return to the front lines.
I'll be going back up to the front again soon. Some of the guys here at the hospital think I'm nuts to want to go back. But we've got a war to win, and me taking it easy won't help us do that.
When he first got to the hospital, they'd said he probably wouldn't walk well enough ever to go back into combat. But as soon as they'd let him out of bed, he'd been up, working on getting his strength back, on being able to walk farther and faster every day. He'd shunned offers of help from the nurses and orderlies, demanding a cane, then discarding it soon after so he wouldn't get dependent on it. Now he only limped slightly, mostly when he was tired. He could hide it altogether most of the time.
Besides, the guys are counting on me to come back.
They'd told him so, as they helped load him into the dusty ambulance. "You get better quick," Kirby had mock-ordered. "We don't want some green sergeant comin' in and givin' us orders."
"Yeah," Caje agreed, "don't take it too easy."
Billy and Littlejohn stood off to the side, Billy looking worried and Littlejohn trying not to. Poor Billy -- he'd barely rejoined the squad after that go-round he had with pneumonia. Saunders lifted a hand and tried to wave, to let them know he'd be fine, but he was too weak from the blood loss, and the hand fell back to the stretcher. He was only barely conscious during the ride, but he knew Doc stayed by his side the whole way and helped unload him when they reached an aid station. Saunders couldn't remember Doc saying goodbye, but he found out later that the medic had headed right back to the front.
Saunders wondered who Hanley had assigned to lead his squad. Would he even get the same men when he returned, or would they give him a whole new squad?
Believe it or not, I want to go back. I don't miss the danger and the fighting, Mom, but I guess maybe I've made a friend or two up there.
He'd tried not to. After North Africa and Italy, he'd sworn he wouldn't get to know any more fellow soldiers. Wouldn't make any friends, only to have them die while he watched and could do nothing to stop it. Wouldn't allow himself to care about anyone, but just focus on survival.
And still somehow, after making it through those first few days in Normandy, he'd felt himself getting to know the other guys in his outfit. Guys like Lt. Hanley, who'd turned into a good officer, an officer Saunders trusted to make solid decisions and not send men out on pointless missions. And those four men in Saunders' own squad who were still alive -- he didn't buddy around with them much, telling himself he had to maintain his authority, but he cared whether they lived or died. He knew them, what they were capable of, how to get the best soldiering from them, what they looked forward to going home to when the war ended. Sure, he'd lost a few friends here too, friends like Grady Long. But he found he was incapable of completely sealing himself off from the people around him.
I might even miss some of them when this is all over. But I'll sure be glad to get back home to see you.
And like practically every other soldier, Saunders believed he would be one of those who'd make it home eventually.
I got a letter from Joey the other day. Sounds like he's okay. I haven't heard from Chris in a while though—probably the mail got snarled up again. Don't tell the Brat this, but I almost miss her. I could really go for some of her crazy gingerbread right about now.
He grinned at the thought of his sister rolling her eyes when their Mom read that part to her.
I love you, Mom. There's a lot more I want to say, but I guess I'll save it for another letter, and anyway, this sheet is about full. Take care of yourself, and keep praying we'll all be home again soon.
Saunders folded up the sheet of paper and tucked it into his shirt pocket. He'd find an envelope when he got back inside. After a few more minutes of resting against the tree, his thoughts wandering pleasantly back to Ohio, he slowly stood up, favoring the left leg a little. He patted the tree's sturdy trunk, grateful for the peace he'd had in its shade. Then he turned and started back toward the hospital, back to being just another limping sergeant in a world full of wounded soldiers.