(2013) 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.
by White Queen
Sergeant Saunders had had it. No sleep for two days. Three patrols into enemy territory searching for a non-existent Command Post. Caje out sick with heaven knew what, and three boys to replace him. Three inexperienced boys with more spots on their faces than brains in their heads. One of those boys hadn't made it back from the first patrol; Doc was taking another to the aid station now. And the third dangled from Saunders' apron strings.
He was exhausted, he had a sore throat, and the next person who spoke to him was liable to get eaten whole. Saunders yawned more than once as he led his men through the rows of tents, shaking his head to clear his vision. The men got to go straight to their bedrolls, but not him. No, he had to report in, try to explain why they'd failed again to find the enemy CP. The only thing keeping him on his feet was the knowledge that as soon as he'd reported to Hanley, he could sleep for… well, not for long enough, but for as long as possible.
"Sarge," Littlejohn said, "you think I could--"
Nelson protested, "But, Sarge, we just want to--"
Littlejohn tried again. "It won't be any--"
"I said no! I don't want to hear it. I don't care what harebrained scheme you two are cooking up. Don't ask me, don't bother me, just shut up, you hear?"
Nelson cringed like he'd been slapped, and for a moment, Saunders regretted not hearing them out. Then a wave of weariness made him stumble, and he looked away from Nelson's disappointed face. Sleep, that's all he needed.
When they neared their tents, Kirby said, "So long, Sarge."
"So long," the recruit parroted. Saunders couldn't even remember his name.
"Won't be long enough," Saunders muttered, glaring after the four of them as they walked toward their tents. If he'd had to listen to them complain and scheme and question him for one more minute, he would've, well, he would've… he didn't like to think what he would've done.
Inside Hanley's CP tent, the corporal seated at a folding desk chirped, "You'll have to wait outside, Sergeant. The lieutenant is busy." Saunders glared at him until his face paled, freckles standing out everywhere like bullet pocks on a concrete wall.
Hanley stood by the big radio at the back of the tent, talking into the receiver out of the corner of his mouth. Saunders knew what that meant, and he found it strangely cheering to think that Hanley might be in a foul mood too.
Finally, Hanley finished his conversation and joined Saunders beside the big map spread on a table. "No luck again?"
"No." Saunders tapped on the map. "Nothing here, here, or here."
Hanley frowned. "We'll have to try again."
"Not us." He tacked on a growled, "Sir."
"No, not you. Your men have earned the rest."
Saunders moved toward the door, too tired to say more.
But Hanley said, "Before you go…"
"What?" He knew he'd snarled, knew his eyes had narrowed, knew that any other officer but Hanley would have reprimanded him at the very least. And yet, he couldn't summon the energy to care.
"Stop by the hospital on your way out."
Saunders turned back to him, awake with worry now. "Caje?"
"No." Hanley tilted his head to one side and studied Saunders for a moment. "It's Turk."
Sergeant Turk, royal pain in… in everything, really. Saunders had never met a more stubborn man this side of the Atlantic. "Oh?"
"He wants to see you."
"He's still there?"
"He's there again."
Saunders raised his eyebrows.
"He's been wounded again."
"He can wait." Everything could wait. At this point, Saunders would tell his own mother to wait until he'd slept.
"No, he can't." Hanley paused, then added, "Think of it as his last request."
Saunders took a deep breath, resigning himself to another hour or so of awakeness. For a guy he'd spent how long butting heads with? Who'd threatened to prefer charges against Kirby, gotten Saunders' men cut to ribbons, and never said so much as a "thank you" that they'd completed his demolition mission for him? The last time Saunders had seen him, Turk had done nothing but sneer and mock, calling him a "mother hen" for bothering to take care of the men entrusted to him.
But you didn't deny a dying man's request. Saunders just hoped he didn't fall asleep on his way there. "Fine." What'd Turk want, one last chance at a good argument? Well, Saunders was in the perfect mood to oblige.
Saunders followed an orderly into the farthest section of the hospital tent. Someone had set up an ancient phonograph, and scratchy music issued from its scalloped horn. It was slow, monotonous, meant to be soothing. The orderly pointed Saunders toward Turk, who lay on his back on the only bed in the canvas-walled room, swathed in bandages. Without a word, the orderly left the two sergeants to whatever conversation lay before them.
Turk opened one eye, stared at Saunders for a long moment, then rasped out, "Turn off that swill before I throw a boot at it." His voice was weak, holding but a remnant of its former fury.
Saunders obliged, glad himself to be rid of the dirge-like tune. "That all you wanted?" he asked, suddenly desperate to keep his tone light, to ignore the very obvious fact that Turk was dying, and knew he was.
"Yeah, nobody around here does what they're told." Turk tried to laugh, but it became a cough, then a coughing fit, his face turned to one side until he regained control of the wracking spasms.
Saunders wondered if he should go find a doctor, but then the coughing ended, and Turk beckoned him closer. Saunders moved to his side, trying not to look at the trail of blood running across Turk's cheek, the pillow, and down the side of the cot.
Turk's voice was a hoarse whisper now, and Saunders had to bend low to hear his words.
"Still got all your chicks, Mother Hen?"
"I do." Saunders wanted to add, "no thanks to guys like you," but he didn't.
Saunders straightened and looked at Turk, eyebrows raised, not at all sure what the caustic sergeant meant by that.
Turk nodded, eyes locked on Saunders. "Lucky you," he repeated. Then the coughing started again, and Saunders stepped to the fabric doorway to see if there were any medical personnel in sight. The same orderly who had brought him there came hurrying over, but when Saunders looked back at Turk, the coughing was over for good. Turk's head lay turned to one side on his pillow, eyes gazing at nothing.
Saunders stepped back, let the orderly take over. He'd seen death often enough to recognize it here. So he watched, helmet tucked under one arm, waiting until he felt he could leave. And pondering Turk's last words.
Lucky? Saunders? Because he still had all his men, those guys who drove him crazy with their quirks and questions and petty squabbles. The ones who never obeyed fast enough, listened close enough to satisfy him.
Turk thought he was lucky. There'd been no sarcasm in that voice, in those eyes. Turk had used his last words to tell Saunders this, and Saunders knew better than to discount anything Turk took that much trouble to do.
Saunders stumbled his way out of the hospital and off toward his billet. When he ducked into his tent, he saw a packet of letters and a fresh copy of the Stars and Stripes on his bedroll. Someone had gotten his mail for him, probably Nelson. Saunders sat down, stacked the mail on the ground next to his helmet and boots, and lay down. Pulling his blanket up around himself, he admitted to himself that Turk was right. He was lucky to have his squad, his make-shift family, even if they drove him crazier than his real brothers. Without them, he'd probably be as ornery as Turk had been.